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Standardized tests play a fourth policy role in program evaluations. Because many educational interventions are intended to produce improved achievement, the results of standardized tests, administered to participants before and after the intervention, constitute a critical indicator of program effectiveness. The most widespread use of standardized testing in program evaluation is in the federal Title I program, first enacted as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. For over 20 years, the law has required that local districts test Title I students yearly and report the results. Local districts are expected to use these data in making their programs more effective, and trend data aggregated across states and districts inform congressional deliberations each time the program is reauthorized. The evaluation requirements in Title I and other federal and state programs are a major factor in explaining the growth of local testing systems.
A fifth function of assessment is to hold schools, as public institutions, and educators accountable for student performance. Standardized tests are an integral part of this process. Providing information to the public about school performance is one aspect of accountability. But 23 states now attach consequences at the school level to assessment results, such as funding gains and losses, warnings, assistance from outside experts, loss of accreditation, and, in a few places, the eventual state takeover of schools (Bond et al., 1996).
These five purposes offer examples of low- and high-stakes tests that represent two fundamentally different ways of using testing in the service of policy goals. A low-stakes test has no significant, tangible, or direct consequences attached to the results, with information alone assumed to be a sufficient incentive for people to act. The theory behind this policy is that a standardized test can reliably and validly measure student achievement; that politicians, educators, parents, and the public will then act on the information generated by the test; and that actions based on test results will improve educational quality and student achievement. In contrast, high-stakes policies assume that information alone is insufficient to motivate educators to teach well and students to perform to high standards. Hence, it is assumed, the promise of rewards or the threat of sanctions is needed to ensure change. Rewards in the form of financial
students are ones used to certify that students have attained particular levels of mastery and that have personal consequences attached. We discuss this type of testing as a final policy purpose of assessment.