In the Classroom

High Stakes Testing of the American Education System

There is no denying that high-stakes testing is a large part of the education spectrum these days. Schools, parents, and even we as teachers question “What are standardized testing goals?”, which comes down to so many moving parts that unfortunately wrap themselves around test scores and test results.

With so many educators’ jobs riding on the scores of these tests, it seems natural to want to focus on content to make sure the students are doing the best they possibly can on these examinations. The powers that be think that these scores from individual students reflect student achievement. There are so many variables when it comes to a high-stakes assessment that have absolutely nothing to do with student learning, but it feels like no one wants to listen and purely wants to focus on test preparation.

I often hear, “I can’t do anything fancy in the classroom because we need to prepare for the test.” While that mentality is understandable, it might not actually be the most effective.

If you are looking to get the most student performance on these tests, it may be time to take a look at how they are being taught. You can teach the content without having to sacrifice creativity or enthusiasm for your subject area.

To start this process of answering, “What are standardized testing goals in my classroom”, I challenge teachers to look outside the box at some different types of assessments that are not high-stakes tests. Classroom assessment tools can be used to assess learning that has taken place in the classroom, whereas state assessments are typically given at the beginning and/or end of the year to measure what students have learned over time.

So how do you know if your assessments are effective? It is simple: they should elicit different levels of thinking from the students. It is the teacher’s job to elicit that thinking in order to get a full picture of what their students know and can do. How you manage this in your classroom is one of the most important decisions you can make when you are lesson planning because, let’s be honest, a single test does not showcase the academic achievement you see in the classroom every day.

While preparing the students for these long testing sessions is important, it is more important (in my opinion), to prepare them to think about how to solve the questions they are asked as opposed to how to physically sit for the test. Though they complement each other, one will take them farther in the end.

What does high-stakes testing actually prove?

When a student is being assessed on his or her ability to demonstrate understanding of a topic (especially when it comes to high stakes testing), what is it that we as educators should really be hoping for? Sure, we want them to pass; that is the most basic level of goals for all stakeholders involved in this scenario. However, what do we REALLY want them to be able to do?

Is it about grade promotion? School performance? High school graduation? Just doing well in general on the state test? This may be something that school districts focus on, but you also need to determine what is best for the test-takers in your classroom.

transaction taking place with paperwork being signed and keys being handed over with caption that reads, "the most effective learning opportunities recreate real life scenarios"

Say a class goes over a topic in depth. The students know all the pieces to the puzzle (no matter what the subject matter or the grade level). The test comes. What do we actually want from them? What are standardized testing goals that make sense? Do we want…

Regurgitation or Application?

Knowing Versus Knowledge

This is a huge consideration in asking, “What are standardized testing goals in my classroom”. In a different article, I used the scenario of riding a bike. A student can know everything there is to know about how to ride a bike from learning about it, but does that mean they can actually ride a bike? No, it doesn’t. We can give as much content as there is in the universe, and our students can take it all in, but do they actually understand it? Can they apply it? Or can they simply spit it back and then move on with their lives, ultimately forgetting how that concept works?

This is where student-centered learning shines the brightest and fully helps meet those questions set by you (not the policy makers of public education). By taking the content and making it hands-on, students have to think about the content on a deeper level and therefore understand it better.

I once had a math teacher come to me and mention that his students were really struggling with the concept of percentages. No matter what method he tried, they just didn’t understand it. Together, we sat down and took a different approach. We came up with the idea of turning her classroom into a used car lot. Each student entered the room and was given a specific amount of money. They then needed to figure out what car they wanted to buy. Then, they needed to calculate interest, payments, the life of the loan, etc. versus how much they actually had.

It took a lot of prep work, but in one class period, the students applied the concepts and finally understood how it worked without the use of tests that don’t necessarily reflect mastery of a concept. Instead, this process harnesses more accountability systems in terms of student responsibility for their learning and furthering their educational opportunities.

Finding Lessons to Make Connections

Trust me….Google your next lesson topic. Search Pinterest. Check out Teachers Pay Teachers. Add in “project-based” or “student-centered” to your search. There is SO MUCH on the internet to help you as you start out with this method. You will find something that you can tweak for your students and run with.

They will love this, especially if they are still used to a teacher-led environment.

It will help them with those soft skills that will, in turn, allow them to become better test-takers. They will learn how to think as opposed to learning how to regurgitate, and this alone will help them when they are put to more difficult tasks. They become problem solvers and, in great cases, go-getters who want to learn and won’t stop until they get the answer they are looking for.

what are standardized testing

It creates more confidence and will, in turn, allow them to increase their performance metrics with higher-level thinking applications. This helps narrow the achievement gap (especially with minority students) because they encourage student progress and engagement without focusing on processes that invoke test anxiety and test performance.

I have had students come back to me and give their stereotypical teenage snark of, “I don’t remember anything from this class other than always working on projects.”

I usually smile and start asking them content-based questions. 9 out of 10 times, they can ramble off the answers without batting an eye. I enjoy my favorite part of teaching at that moment, the “ah-ha!” moment.

We all know the “ah-ha!” moment. It’s when you see in the face of a student that they finally get it. It is at this moment they realize that my class wasn’t just “laid back” or “full of projects”, but that they were applying the content and actually learning it better than if I had had them sit and take notes and expect them to regurgitate the information back to me. This was across the board from those with special needs to student groups who were on a path to ivy league education.

It isn’t a matter of cramming knowledge into their heads in order to do well with high-stakes testing…it’s a matter of them understanding it and being able to apply it to any question they are given. If an individual teacher is able to strike this balance, the negative consequences of the use of high-stakes tests are nearly negated because the students learn more basic skills, problem solving, and other graduation requirements that are no longer innate soft skills that young people used to have.

Preparing for Effective Lessons

While preparing for this type of lesson can be time-consuming on the back end, not only will you see much better results in the classroom, but once you create an activity, you only need to tweak it to amend to your students for years to come.

Your subsequent high-stakes testing results will most likely shine as well with adequate yearly progress. Students will remember what they have learned because they are active in the activities. They will have fewer instances of information being on the tip of their tongue because they will remember what it was they did with that information as opposed to just remembering the monotonous information that was given to them. School systems (or even individual teachers) that have figured out this balance are doing the education system of their school year proud.

students sitting with teacher, many raising their hands, with the caption, "Critical thinkingallows students to excel in high stakes testing"

They have a vested interest and this in and of itself allows the students to excel to a level of learning and education that they may have never reached before. It instills a love of learning and a natural knack for problem-solving. They will naturally absorb more information than if they obtained it in any other way. At the end of the day, isn’t this what we want our students to achieve from the information we teach them?

After many years of experimenting with this technique, I can honestly say that it works and delivers great results.

I have seen students be able to write their own passages with minimal errors. I have also seen students who normally struggled to answer difficult questions successfully, raise their hands and confidently state the correct answer without a moment’s hesitation. The data doesn’t lie: their scores also began to go up as they learned the concepts of both content and how they can perform at their own personal peak (hint: brain breaks are a big part of this).

If you are not using this technique in your classroom yet, especially when navigating your own answer to the “What are standardized testing goals” question, I highly recommend that you take these steps into consideration when planning for next year.

You will be amazed at how well your students respond and you will truly see a change in your classroom (and even in your teacher evaluations)! What are standardized test goals in your classroom? What major decisions can you make about such tests that will prepare your students for them without the negative effects of a traditional teaching model? K-12 education will never be the same once this balance is struck (and in recent years, it’s starting to stick).

In all, always consider the following Chinese proverb and how much truth comes from it in the classroom:

“You give a poor man a fish and you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish and you give him an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime.”

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After moving from a teacher-dominated classroom to a truly student-centered one, Jenn found herself helping colleagues who wanted to follow her lead.  In 2018 she decided to expand outside of her school walls and help those out there who were also trying to figure out this fantastic method of instruction to ignite intrinsic motivation in their students.  Read more about her journey with Student-Centered World at


  • Tara

    Thank you for sharing this post. I think you have brought up some excellent points about how an SCL environment can make learning more meaningful for students while also promoting more retention of knowledge.

    I find that SCL and high-stakes testing are innately conflicting areas of education. High-stakes testing most often occurs in the classic disciplines of Mathematics, Sciences, English Language Arts, and Social Studies and isolating these distinct areas of study points to a subject-centered curriculum design. As a very popular and widely used curriculum design, in subject-centered classrooms the “curriculum is organized according to how essential knowledge has developed in various subject areas” (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2013, p. 161). Teachers often use standardized materials, textbooks, and resources to drive teaching in a single subject area (Sowell, 2005, p. 55). As students are preparing for a standardized exam, one might argue that it would be best to study the standardized resources that have been provided by the governing educational body to ensure that students are “taught to the test” and can score highly on these exams.

    But does this teach students how to problem-solve, think critically and creatively, inquire and seek answers, and apply knowledge to new contexts? Or rather, does it promote memorization of facts to regurgitate in similar questions in the future?

    A change in the traditional teaching model brought student-centered learning, where “the emphasis on the child displaced the emphasis on subject matter” (Ornstein & Hunkins, p. 9). Student-centered learning advocates argue that this approach to teaching and learning means learning should not be separated from students’ lives, which starkly differs from the subject-centered design (Ornstein & Hunkins, p. 9). In a student-centered classroom, teachers and students work together to plan the progression of learning, with students gaining empowerment through these negotiations (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2013). Alternatively, in a subject-centered classroom the teacher holds the agency over learning, and “takes an active role in lecturing, direct instruction, recitation, and large group discussion” (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2013, p. 160).

    So herein lies the paradox…

    We have a subject-centered classroom preparing students for high-stakes exams, yet we want a student-centered approach to teaching and learning so that we can help students internalize and retain information better.

    So, what is the solution to this problem? Is there a “grey area” between subject-centered and student-centered that we should try to find? Can we blend these two approaches? Is it even possible for them to coexist?

    I look forward to your responses,


    Ornstein, A. C., & Hunkins, F. P. (2013). Curriculum: Foundations, principles, and issues (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson. Read Chapter 6, pp. 149-173.

    Sowell, E. J. (2005). Curriculum: An integrative introduction (3rd ed., pp. 52-54, 55-61, 81-85,103-106). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

    • Jenn

      Hi Tara! Thanks for your comment. I think you’re on the right track. If student-centered learning is done properly, there are no gaps in content knowledge. Rather, the students have the opportunity to discover and unearth an even deeper level of learning than teacher-centered instruction allows for. For instance, I had a class of students come to me at the end of a very rigorous semester of honors history and tell me that for the first time in their lives, they weren’t nervous about exams at all because when they looked at the review sheet, they were already confident that they understood the information. This is the beauty of student-centered learning and it is the same response in any subject area. It is 100% up to the teacher to make sure that the outlines they create for their students in terms of class expectations and activities cover the basics of content, but then those activities lend themselves for students to ask questions and indulge in the subject manner even deeper. We have another article that discusses the role of the student-centered teacher here:

      • Tara

        Thank you so much for your response and for sharing another article. I will be sharing this site with my colleagues as they attempt to make the transition on the continuum from TCL to SCL!

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