High-stakes testing will always backfire.

Measuring student growth is central to any effective teacher’s practice. However, when the measurements are high-stakes tests developed by corporations for millions of taxpayer dollars in the name of educational “accountability,” they not only don’t work–they backfire. The higher the stakes of standardized assessments, the more likely it is that they will not reliably measure what they set out to. Moreover, the actual aims of education–such as engaging students so that they can use knowledge independently and creatively–are often perverted in schools’ pursuit of high scores. 

The key reason high-stakes testing backfires is common to fields as diverse as business, medicine, and commercial transportation. It’s so common, in fact, that social scientists refer to it as Campbell’s Law. Forty years ago the sociologist Donald T. Campbell stated: 

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor. 
— Donald T. Campbell, “Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change.” In Social Research and Public Policies: The Dartmouth/OECD Conference, ed. G. M. Lyons (Hanover, NH: Public Affairs Center, Dartmouth College, 1975), 35.

In other words, if standardized tests are used to determine things like school closings, the tests’ integrity is likely to be compromised–through cheating, teaching to the test, or some other manipulation. Pressure to succeed will distort and corrupt the educational processes the tests are supposed to measure. 

In her discussion of high-stakes testing in U.S. education, historian Diane Ravitch acknowledges the value of testing for informational and diagnostic purposes. However, our current climate of “accountability” places merit pay or job security on the line. Schools can be stigmatized or shut down. Educators feel pressure to boost scores by means that have nothing to do with learning: by teaching to the test, by limiting non-tested curriculum, by manipulating demographics of tested populations to skew toward better test-takers, by lowering state proficiency standards, by outright cheating. (Lest educators feel singled out for bad behavior, Ravitch provides examples of doctors and other professionals who have also obeyed Campbell’s Law when faced with similar score-keeping pressures.)

The desire for accountability is understandable. Education is expensive, and taxpayers have a right to understand how the schools in their town are doing as compared to others in the state, country, and other nations. However, using high-stakes tests as the principal basis for major decisions invites distortion and corruption. And according to Campbell’s Law, it always will.


Ravitch, D. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. (Basic Books, 2010)


[Image from cloakinginequity.com. Article copyright 2015 by Peter Horn, Ed.D. All rights reserved.]

Peter Horn