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Nancy Bailey’s Education Website: 6 Ways High-Stakes Standardized Testing Destroys Student Voice

The National Council of the Teachers of English is Helping Students Find Their Voices in Challenging Times. This title stood out as well worth exploring, but it’s also a reminder that since public education became focused on high-stakes standardized testing, public schools’ emphasis has been on scores, not students’ voices.

Student’s thoughts and ideas should be valued and also challenged in school but heard. Public schooling has not been about that for years, if ever. When the focus is on testing, it’s about results, not students.

The focus has been on how students perform, what they prove on a test with narrow questions that have driven what teachers teach, and how they teach it.

Students rotate through grades in packed classes. If they’re lucky, they connect with a teacher who is permitted to add personalized (not online) instruction by finding a way to care how a student thinks or behaves. Journal writing comes to mind.

Public schools were depersonalized by testing, and now computers are doing it more. There’s nothing personal about sitting in front of a screen unless there’s a teacher on the other end that a student knows in person and who will be around for face-to-face instruction with other students in school once schools are safe.

When the focus is solely on getting students to perform their best on a test, whether it be the SAT, ACT, AP, or state tests, there isn’t any interest in what a student thinks or believes.

It might seem like schools are changing and are focused on students’ voices, but look closely. It becomes apparent that the changes occurring in schools have little to do with listening to students.

  1. Testing Alignment. Micromanaging everything a student learns and matching everything a student must know to the test might align classrooms, but it does little to engage students. Everything surrounds the test. There’s no creativity.
  2. Data Collection. While schools might be moving away from high-stakes standardized testing, online learning captures nonstop data revealing more about students than parents and students might know. This data isn’t just for parents but outside stakeholders who will profit from the information.
  3. Common Core. Common Core involved a change of the high-stakes standards, but it still left students void of self-expression. Common Core’s English language arts objectives were led by David Coleman, Executive Director of the College Board, which determines what students should know on the SAT and ACT. Coleman once said People don’t really give a sh*t about what you feel or what you think. So much for self-expression.
  4. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Testing. Instead of valuing differences and helping students with an Individual Educational Plan, students must conform to fixed standards to be successful. Instead of providing students more opportunities to succeed, their options are reduced to passing the same test everyone else must pass. Where’s the self-expression in that?
  5. Social-Emotional Learning. SEL is trendy but is not about giving students a voice. It’s about getting students to behave, scrutinizing how they act, and collecting data. It’s also about getting students to do better on high-stakes standardized tests! Assessments try to measure student character. Take mindfulness, often cited as a positive with SEL. It might calm a student, but it’s all about conforming, not self-expression.
  6. The Loss of the Arts. The arts, more than any subject, involve self-expression. It isn’t easy to standardize the arts, although there have been attempts. The travesty is that impoverished schools have removed the arts from the curriculum. There’s no escape from rigorous standards.


Listening to students is an easy thing to do. Schools that give children opportunities to work together bring children together and employ conflict resolution to help students resolve their differences. Students need opportunities to understand each other better.

Public schools should provide forums for students to be heard, and tests, while necessary, are only a tool for teachers to understand their students better. Testing should never define who students are and what they know.

Let’s hope that after Covid-19, public education will back off the high-stakes testing and listen carefully to the words of their students and teachers to make public schools places where freedom and democracy thrive.

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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has au...