The Relative Equitability of High-Stakes Testing versus Teacher-Assigned Grades: An Analysis of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS)

Robert T. Brennan, Harvard University
Jimmy Kim, Harvard University
Melodie Wenz-Gross, University of Massachusetts Medical School
Gary N. Siperstein, University of Massachusetts Boston

At the time of publication, Melodie Wenz-Gross was not yet affiliated with the University of Massachusetts Medical School.


Which is more equitable, teacher-assigned grades or high-stakes tests? Nationwide, there is a growing trend toward the adoption of standardized tests as a means to determine promotion and graduation. "High-stakes testing" raises several concerns regarding the equity of such policies. In this article, the authors examine the question of whether high-stakes tests will mitigate or exacerbate inequities between racial and ethnic minority students and White students, and between female and male students. Specifically, by comparing student results on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) with teacher-assigned grades, the authors analyze the relative equitability of the two measures across three subject areas — math, English, and science. The authors demonstrate that the effects of high-stakes testing programs on outcomes, such as retention and graduation, are different from the results of using grades alone, and that some groups of students who are already faring poorly, such as African Americans and Latinos/Latinas, will do even worse if high-stakes testing programs are used as criteria for promotion and graduation.