Teaching

State Tests Influence Instruction, Research Says

By Lynn Olson — March 12, 2003 4 min read
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Teachers are shifting their instruction to focus on what is tested, conclude companion reports released last week by the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy at Boston College.

The reports, which summarize the findings of a two-year study, found that the changes were greatest in elementary schools and in states where more consequences are attached to test results, such as high school graduation or school accreditation.

For example, 40 percent of teachers in states with high stakes for schools and students reported that their schools’ results influenced their teaching on a daily basis, compared with 10 percent of teachers in low-stakes states. Teachers in states with high stakes also used test results more than any other group to plan instruction (60 percent) and to select instructional materials (50 percent). More teachers in those states also said their own tests reflected the format of state exams.

The study, underwritten by the Atlantic Philanthropies, was based on a survey of a nationally representative sample of 12,000 teachers conducted in early 2001. About 4,200 teachers responded. In addition, the researchers conducted interviews with 360 teachers and administrators in Kansas, Massachusetts, and Michigan in 2000 and 2001.

In high-stakes states, nearly eight in 10 teachers reported increasing the time spent on tested subjects; six in 10 reported decreasing the time spent on areas that were not tested. Even in states with only modest stakes, a majority of teachers reported shifting the content of what they taught to reflect state exams.

“Each state, each group of policymakers, is going to have to evaluate these findings for themselves to see if, in fact, these are desirable outcomes,” said Joseph J. Pedulla, an associate professor of education at Boston College and a member of the study team.

“Some policymakers are saying math and reading are important, and this [shift in instruction] is exactly what we want to happen,” he said. “I just don’t know whether they fully appreciate that there are trade-offs here, and that means the time has got to come from somewhere else.”

Teachers also reported that testing has influenced the time spent using a variety of instructional methods, such as whole-group instruction, individual seat work, cooperative learning, and use of problems similar to those on the test. More than six in 10 teachers in low-stakes states, and more than seven in 10 in high-stakes states, agreed that “the state-mandated testing program leads some teachers in my school to teach in ways that contradict their own ideas of good educational practice.”

It’s Elementary

State-mandated testing appeared to influence elementary teachers’ instruction the most. For example, elementary teachers in high-stakes states reported spending more time on test preparation than did their high school counterparts. They also were more likely to report engaging in test preparation throughout the school year.

More elementary and middle than high school teachers also reported their students were anxious and under intense pressure because of state exams.

Mr. Pedulla speculated that elementary teachers are most affected by state tests because they teach a variety of subjects that are given more focus by state testing programs. Under the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, states must test every student in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school.

“I think No Child Left Behind is going to really narrow the focus of the elementary curriculum to those areas tested,” said Marguerite Clarke, an assistant research professor at Boston College and another member of the study team.

About three-quarters of the teachers surveyed said they had found that the benefits of the state-mandated testing program were not worth the time and money involved. Four in 10 reported that teachers in their schools could raise test scores without improving learning.

The researchers selected Kansas, Michigan, and Massachusetts to conduct a more in-depth analysis because their consequences for students differ dramatically. State test results in Kansas have no official stakes for students, while Massachusetts’ high school students must pass state tests to graduate. The study found that, as the level of the stakes increases, “the test seemed to become the medium through which the [curriculum] standards were interpreted.”

While more than two-thirds of those interviewed in Massachusetts mentioned using the state test as the target for their teaching efforts, for instance, that was true for only one-fifth of those interviewed in Kansas.

Among the positive effects cited, teachers said state standards and tests had led to the removal of unneeded content, a renewed emphasis on important topics, and a greater focus on such skills as writing and critical thinking. Perceived negative effects included reduced instructional creativity, increased test preparation, and a focus on breadth rather than depth of coverage.

In all three states, educators reported more negative than positive test-related effects on students, such as test-related stress, an overload of testing, and unfairness to special education and limited- English-proficient students.

A majority of those surveyed nationally, however, did not agree that state tests were causing many students to drop out of high school or to repeat grades.

Follow-Up: “Perceived Effects of State- Mandated Testing Programs on Teaching and Learning” is available online at www.bc.edu/nbetpp.

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