Richard Phelps

Founder, Nonpartisan Education Group



It’s a myth: high-stakes causes teaching to the test; teaching to the test causes score inflation

The myth is popular among education insiders who oppose high-stakes or externally mandated tests, but based on just two studies conducted without controls and employing an obscure definition of “high stakes”. Both studies actually used low-stakes tests that were administered without security protocols. Meanwhile, many controlled studies of the hypothesis have come to the opposite conclusion.

The talk will:

compare the methods and results of these studies;

describe the historical origin of the concepts in the 1980s Debra P v Turlington case in US federal courts and the “Lake Wobegon Effect” scandal; and

summarize the harms caused by belief in the myth, which include:

diverting attention from a widespread problem (at least in the US) of lax security in standardized test administration;

encouraging ineffective and detrimental test preparation procedures (e.g., excessive drilling on format, practice tests);

spawning numerous research studies using a low-stakes test score trend to “audit” a high-stakes test score trend; and

justifying the use of value-added measures, calculated from student low-stakes test score trends, to judge teacher performance.

An abundance of research reveals low-stakes test scores and trends to be unreliable. Student effort varies systematically by a number of background factors, and is easily manipulated.


Richard P. Phelps is founder of the Nonpartisan Education Group, editor of the Nonpartisan Education Review, a Fulbright Scholar, and fellow of the Psychophysics Laboratory. He has authored and edited four books on assessment policy—Correcting Fallacies about Educational and Psychological Testing (APA); Standardized Testing Primer (Peter Lang); Defending Standardized Testing (Psychology Press); and Kill the Messenger (Transaction)—and several statistical compendia. Phelps has held positions with several education assessment organizations: ACT, AIR, ETS, the OECD, Pearson, and Westat. He holds degrees from Washington, Indiana, and Harvard Universities, and a PhD from U. Penn’s Wharton School.