Jane L. David
High-Stakes Testing Narrows the Curriculum
Are science, social studies, the arts, and physical education really disappearing from elementary schools? Are critical
thinking and deep reading of literature fading
from the high school curriculum?
What’s the Idea?
The current rationale for standards-based
reform goes like this: If standards are
demanding and tests accurately measure
achievement of those standards,
then curriculum and instruction
will become richer and more rig-
orous. By attaching serious con-
sequences to schools that fail to
increase test scores, U.S. policy-
makers believe that educators will
be motivated to pay attention to
what is on the tests.
What’s the Reality?
Educators do pay attention to
what is on the tests—but the
consequences are not necessarily
the intended ones. Even the most carefully
designed standards are only as effective as
the tests that assess how well students have
achieved them. And standardized tests can
only assess a small portion of the curriculum.
State accountability tests leave out some sub-
jects altogether, and they only cover a limited
sample of the many subtopics covered in
others. In addition, for practical reasons, state
tests tend to rely on easy-to-score questions
that measure basic skills and recall instead
of higher-order thinking. Worse yet, when
stakes are high, it’s more likely that what’s
missing from the tests will disappear from the
curriculum, especially in schools with low-
The need to make test performance the first
priority has forced many teachers to push
topics and activities that do not appear on the
test to the end of the school year, after testing
is finished. Others try to compensate for lost
curriculum areas by integrating subject matter
from science and social studies into language
arts and math, the most tested domains.
What’s the Research?
Research in the last few decades documents that
state testing can significantly affect curriculum
In the 1990s—when a number of states
introduced performance-based assessments
that included open-ended questions, written
explanations of problem solving, and even
experiments—researchers found clear evidence
that these assessments influenced instruction.
Teachers began to include more writing
and extended math problems in classroom
When stakes are high, it’s
likely that what’s missing
from the tests will disappear
from the curriculum.
instruction and classroom tests (Koretz, Mitchell,
Barron, & Keith, 1996). In states that tested
different subjects in different years, teachers
adjusted their curriculum to emphasize the
subjects to be tested that year (Stecher &
During that era, when stakes attached to
testing were lower, the average amount of time
that U.S. teachers devoted to different subjects
at the national level was steady. From 1987 to
2003, time allocation across subjects in all public
elementary schools in the United States stayed
roughly the same: about two hours a day in language arts, one hour in math, and one-half hour
each in social studies and science (Morton &
Dalton, 2007; Perie, Baker, & Bobbitt, 1997).
In contrast, since the advent of No Child Left
Behind (NCLB), with its high stakes for schools,