The Political and Psychological Essence of High Stakes Testing

Two upcoming events I’ll be participating in highlight the need to re-think the fundamentals of how we govern our schools and how we think about motivating the students and educators who work in them. The first event: the “Southtowns Education Summit” in East Aurora this coming Thursday. At that event, I’ll focus on the political nature and history of high stakes testing. The second event is a workshop I’ve organized along with my colleague to present an alternative way to think about student motivation. It will run on Tuesday, January 28. Both events are premised on the need to carefully think about the nature of high-stakes testing and to take up concrete work to propose alternatives.

What is High Stakes Testing?

At one level, everyone knows what high-stakes testing is—yet, the significance of the principles upon which this policy is based are not regularly discussed or evaluated as central to the debate about education reform. And while high-stakes testing is certainly an education policy, it is important to consider if high-stakes testing, as such, is really about education per se.

To begin, consider this: what are “high stakes”? Some definitions: “if you have high stakes in something such as a venture or decision, you have a major interest in its outcome”; “to play for high stakes, to gamble on something very important”; ”used to describe a situation that has a lot of risk and in which someone is likely to either get or lose an advantage, a lot of money, etc.”

What strikes me here is the connection the concept “high stakes” has with gambling, venture philanthropy, and zero-sum gaming scenarios. I highlight these because we tend to underestimate the power of metaphor in influencing not only how we think about something, but also what appears as possible alternatives when discontent emerges. On its face, gambling, extreme risk and zero-sum games seem inappropriate metaphors to guide us in educating the young.

According to the Glossary of Education Reform, A high-stakes test,

is any test used to make important decisions about students, educators, schools, or districts, most commonly for the purpose of accountability—i.e., the attempt by federal, state, or local government agencies and school administrators to ensure that students are enrolled in effective schools and being taught by effective teachers. In general, “high stakes” means that test scores are used to determine punishments (such as sanctions, penalties, funding reductions, negative publicity), accolades (awards, public celebration, positive publicity), advancement (grade promotion or graduation for students), or compensation (salary increases or bonuses for administrators and teachers).

Let’s consider what this definition reveals about high-stakes testing, and how it should be classified.

The Political and Psychological Essence of High Stakes Testing

Two things stand out. First, high-stakes testing should be classified as political in nature, related to a method of governing: its purpose is to control people. High-stakes testing itself is not about education, but rather about controlling education institutions and those who work in them (teaching and learning are both forms of work). On its face, such a mode of governing does not appear to be in sync with ideas of self-government or democratic participation. Those few who control the tests and attach high stakes to them—federal and state executives, private corporations and foundations—gain control over elected school boards, schools and those who work in them. They direct schools to serve their interests.

The second thing is this: high-stakes testing aims to control people using a punishment and reward system. It assumes and imposes on educators, students, and their families a very specific understanding of human motivation (“extrinsic motivation”), one that is premised on the logic of venture capital (risk), narrow self-interest (win rewards, avoid punishments, even if others suffer) and against the idea of a general public good, one that does not diminish if accessed by more and more people (zero-sum games).[1]

This motivational premise is both behaviorist in nature—think of unenlightened forms of dog training—and privatized, narrowly competitive. From this vantage point, the name of the Obama administration’s signature education policy—“Race to the Top”—carries great significance. Thus, under the tutelage of Washington and the army of private foundations and corporations driving “reform,” educators and students are being compelled to adopt a reactive psychological disposition (reacting to the stimuli of rewards and punishments) and an ethic of “Me for myself and all against all.” This reactionary psychology and ethic can be seen in Governor Cuomo’s call to “incentivize” teachers to teach to the test with $20,000 bonuses for student test score gains.

The devastating effects of this policy on the quality of teaching and learning are already well-known and can be explained, in part, by their denial of the basic psychological needs that lead to intrinsic forms of motivation and active, conscious participation in school.[2]

Elaborate an Alternative

Public forums continue to be held where the public can come together to form opinions about current education policy. But these forums are also spaces to present and deliberate on alternative visions. These forums can help us develop new metaphors to guide our thinking.

One crucial aspect of this work is to seriously consider our inherited cultural understandings of human motivation, and how these theories of motivation inform our theories of governance, and how these, in turn, inform our vision of what kind of society we want for our children, and what kind of society young people desire as well.

For, if we are to accept being governed by chance reward and generous punishment, we are also accepting the dictate of those few who now control the high-stakes machinery of the punishment-as-accountability regime that is destroying public education. But people do not accept tyranny.

In the end, the political and psychological essence of high-stakes testing reveals that it is the architects and their boosters–not teachers and parents–who have low expectations for students and the future of our society. Their vision is a dystopia. High-stakes testing is zero-tolearnce for real learning, zero-tolerance for democratic living, and zero-tolerance for human flourishing.

But a growing number expect far more than a “boost in scores”, “a job” and a Facebook account. We reject having no say. We can, must and will do much, much better.


  1. Note that the standard economic notion of public good is in conflict with the zero-sum assumption of current education policy, whether one considers lottery methods for accessing education or the increasing use of competitive grants to fund education initiatives. This is imposed scarcity as a means of control.
  2. See Ryan, Richard M., and Netta Weinstein. “Undermining Quality Teaching and Learning: A Self-Determination Theory Perspective on High-Stakes Testing.” Theory and Research in Education 7, no. 2 (2009): 224–233.

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