School & District Management

Study of Art Draws Conclusions On Tests

By Lynn Olson — December 13, 2000 3 min read
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A study of students’ drawings of themselves taking a state test in Massachusetts suggests that, far from motivating all students to do better, high-stakes testing may actually diminish how hard some youngsters try, the study’s authors say.

The study is based on the drawings of 411 students in grades 4, 8, and 10, who were asked by their teachers to “Draw a picture of yourself taking the MCAS"— the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. Beginning with the class of 2003, students will be required to pass the mathematics and English portions of the exams to receive a high school diploma.

For More Information

The study, “Student Self- Portraits as Test-Takers,” is available from TCrecord.org, an online journal of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Policymakers often argue that such high-stakes tests will ensure students graduate with the necessary skills and knowledge and motivate them to work harder. But the study, by researchers at the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy at Boston College, found that students’ responses to the exams ranged from confidence to anger, negative responses generally outweighed positive ones.

“Roughly speaking, about 20 percent of the drawings were positive, 40 percent were neutral, and about 40 percent included a negative feature,” said Walter Haney, a co-author of the study and a professor of education at Boston College.

The responses do not reflect a statistically representative sample of all students in the grades tested. In the spring of 1999, the researchers recruited teachers willing to participate via e-mail. Fifteen educators from 15 schools in eight districts wound up participating; six of those teachers had responded to an invitation disseminated through a group that has criticized the MCAS.

Paul Reville, the chairman of the Massachusetts Education Reform Review Commission, the body charged with overseeing implementation of the 1993 law that led to the high-stakes tests, described the study as “a deliberately provocative attempt to arouse further public antagonism toward MCAS.”

He suggested, however, that it was not particularly alarming that some students might be anxious or angry about the exam.

“If the idea is that we’re going to live in an ideal world, where there’s no pressure of any kind associated with demonstrating competency, then we’re preparing children for a world that doesn’t exist,” he said

Of the 411 drawings, 37 percent depicted students’ taking the tests without any commentary or emotional reaction. In the remaining 63 percent, students commented on the test itself or depicted personal responses to their experiences as test-takers.

Coding System Complex

The researchers coded the drawings based on such features as student postures, the subjects being tested, and any discernible personal reactions. The categories were not mutually exclusive, and single drawings could be coded for multiple characteristics.

Of those drawings that depicted a personal response, about 18 percent were deemed to portray diligence; 5 percent illustrated confidence; and 7 percent showed students as “thinking or problem-solving.”

But a larger total proportion of drawings portrayed a negative emotion, the researchers found. About 13 percent of all drawings conveyed anxiety or fears of failing, for example; 10 percent communicated anger; 5 percent portrayed students as daydreaming or sleeping; and about the same percentage depicted boredom. In about 3 percent of the drawings, students portrayed themselves as sad or disappointed with their performance, and in about 4 percent of the drawings, students communicated relief that the test was over.

The study builds on earlier research efforts by the Boston College testing center to use student drawings to offer insight into how children perceive various aspects of their schooling. (“School Portraits,” April 26, 1995.)

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A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as Study of Art Draws Conclusions On Tests

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