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FRONT LINE REPORT

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Survey looks at what teachers say about state-mandated tests

In debates over state-required educational testing, politicians and the business community have been clearly heard, as have teachers' union leaders, the occasional clutch of student protesters, and parents of children in special education. What we've not gotten thus far is a thorough read of views from the group best positioned to describe the impact of testing in the classroom—teachers. In March, the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy, based in BC's Lynch School of Education, released the results of a nationwide survey aimed at filling that gap.

In all, the responses of 4,195 teachers were analyzed by a team of researchers led by professors Joseph Pedulla and George Madaus and research associate Lisa Abrams. The teachers came from high-, medium-, and low-stakes testing environments, and from elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. They were asked to report the impact of testing on what they taught and how they taught it, to assess the benefits gained from mandatory testing, and to represent the effect of testing, as they observed it, on their students and colleagues.

By 2008, some 70 percent of U.S. students, in 24 states, will feel the impact of high-stakes testing in the form of a graduation requirement. As the researchers note, "the most severe sanctions" for a failing test score—which can also include retention in grade—are usually reserved for older students. With some surprise, then, the authors report survey results that they characterize as "counterintuitive": More elementary teachers (82 percent) than high school teachers (69 percent) described "extreme" anxiety among their students about state testing. What's more, elementary teachers were far more likely to report that teachers in their schools wanted to switch out of the specific grades targeted for testing in their state (43 percent, versus 24 percent at the high school level).

If the impact of testing is more keenly felt in elementary schools, say the authors, it may be because elementary teachers "have to deal with several tested subjects per grade"—language arts and math, for example—rather than a single content area. More than 50 percent of elementary school teachers (twice as many as their high school counterparts) in high-stakes states reported that they spend in excess of 30 class hours per year on test preparation.

Though the impact appears greatest at the elementary level, the researchers describe signs of a "narrowing of the curriculum" generally in the schools of high-stakes states. Teachers reported declines in the time devoted to instruction in fine arts (35 percent of teachers noted this), foreign languages (22 percent), and industrial/vocational education (31 percent). They also reported less time for field trips (38 percent) and class enrichment activities such as guest speakers (34 percent).

However, in two respects, teachers from high-stakes states were more likely than teachers from states with the lowest stakes to find value in the testing mandates. Forty-three percent (versus 31 percent) said that testing had "brought much-needed attention to education issues in [their] district." And 9 percent (versus 4 percent) said the tests inspired "previously unmotivated students to learn." Still, the researchers emphasize, in both instances these were minority views. Asked whether the gains from testing outweighed the costs in time and money, nearly three-quarters of teachers at every level of stakes said no. Nearly 40 percent maintained that test scores could be raised without actually improving learning.

The researchers devote a section of their report to what they term the "unintended consequences" of state testing. Among their findings: Twenty-eight percent of high school teachers in high-stakes states said that testing has caused "many students in [their districts] to drop out." In another vein, one-third of all teachers in high-stakes states said that teachers in their schools have opted not to use computers when teaching writing, because the state-mandated writing test calls for "handwritten responses."

Teachers had varying opinions when it came to deciding who should be held accountable for low test scores. Overall, say the researchers, they were "neutral" about applying repercussions to students directly. They viewed holding schools accountable as being "moderately inappropriate," while holding individual teachers accountable was deemed "moderately to very inappropriate." The reason for this gradation, the researchers suggest, can be found in the response to another survey question: More than 80 percent of teachers at all levels agreed that "score differences from year to year . . . reflect changes in the characteristics of students rather than changes in school effectiveness." In other words, teachers have little control over which students will walk through their classroom door in September or what these students' needs and capabilities will be.

Thus far, say the researchers, the involvement of teachers in the development of state testing programs has been spotty. In some states, teachers have not been included in the process; in others, the number of teachers involved has been "small." "Only by listening to what teachers tell us is happening," say the authors, "can we be confident that [the programs] are having the intended effect."

Anna Marie Murphy


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