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An HGSE News Press Release

October 11, 2001
Robert Brennan, 617-628-0981
Margaret Haas, 617-496-1884

High-Stakes Tests May Worsen Educational Outcomes for Minorities and Girls, According to New Research from the Harvard Educational Review

Harvard Graduate School of Education

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As states across the U.S. move to adopt standardized tests as a means to determine grade promotion and school graduation, new research presented in the Harvard Educational Review shows that sole reliance on high-stakes tests as a graduation requirement may increase inequities among students by both race and gender.

In their article, “The Relative Equitability of High-Stakes Testing versus Teacher-Assigned Grades: An Analysis of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS),” Harvard Graduate School of Education researchers Robert T. Brennan and James S. Kim, and UMass Boston researchers Melodie Wenz-Gross and Gary N. Siperstein compared 736 student results on the MCAS with teacher-assigned grades in order to analyze the relative equitability of the two measures across three subject areas—math, English, and science.

According to the authors, minority students, with the exception of Asian students, fare worse on the eighth-grade MCAS than their white counterparts. While these differences are apparent across the board, only some of the results are “statistically significant.” African Americans would lose ground if MCAS scores were used in lieu of grades in mathematics; a similar disadvantage exists for Latino/Latina students, but the evidence is not statistically conclusive. While girls do as well as or better than boys when teachers assign grades in all three subjects, they score significantly lower on both the math and

The effects of high-stakes testing programs on outcomes such as retention, graduation, and admission into academic programs are different from the results of using grades alone. High-stakes tests generally have consequences for schools as well as for the students themselves—for example, monetary support may be withdrawn from schools that fail to raise scores. Schools with large minority populations would be affected disproportionately if future tests lead to similar performance gaps. The publication of scores may have far-reaching implications, as families tend to favor living in districts with higher MCAS scores. Assuming that racial/ethnic minorities have fewer economic resources than white families, de facto segregation as already exists may become even worse.

The authors conclude that the MCAS and other standardized tests should not be the sole criteria for making critical academic decisions, but rather only one of multiple factors used to assess student performance.

The Harvard Educational Review is a leading journal on educational research. The Review has published many groundbreaking articles in the field of education and is known for its insightful, well-balanced approach to educational research.

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