Survey Shows State Testing Alters Instructional Practices

By Lynn Olson — April 24, 2002 5 min read
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Teachers are changing what and how they teach in response to state testing programs, preliminary results from a multistate survey have found. Those changes are greatest in states where more consequences are attached to test results, according to the two-year study by researchers at Boston College’s National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy.

Joseph Pedulla, an associate professor of education at the college and a member of the study team, said the nationally representative survey of 12,000 teachers was “the broadest survey of teachers of this scope on this topic that has been done.”

Tentative results from the study were issued here this month at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. The full report is scheduled to be released in September.

The sample was designed to reflect the views of teachers in states with low, moderate, and high stakes attached to their test results for students, and for teachers, schools, and districts. States with low stakes have no observable consequences attached to test scores, while those with high stakes may award diplomas to students and accreditation to schools based largely on test results. And those with moderate stakes might, for example, report test scores and school rankings in the media. Among the study’s initial findings:

A higher percent of teachers in high-stakes states reported that instruction in tested areas had increased. Forty-three percent of teachers in such states said that instruction in the tested areas had risen “a great deal,” compared with 17 percent in states with moderate stakes for schools and low stakes for students.· A higher percent of teachers in high- stakes states reported that instruction in tested areas had increased. Forty- three percent of teachers in such states said that instruction in the tested areas had risen “a great deal,” compared with 17 percent in states with moderate stakes for schools and low stakes for students.

•Teachers from high- stakes states also were more likely to say that instruction had decreased in areas not covered by the state test. One-fourth of teachers in states with high stakes for students and schools reported cutting back on instruction “a great deal” in untested areas, compared with 9 percent of teachers in states with moderate or low stakes.

•Teachers in high-stakes states also said more often that they used test-preparation strategies than teachers working in moderate- or low-stakes states did. Such strategies include teaching test-taking skills; teaching the standards or frameworks known to be on the test; and providing students with items similar to those on the test, test-specific preparation materials, and publicly released items from state-mandated tests.

The survey was conducted between February and March 2001. Approximately 4,200 teachers responded to it, for a response rate of 35 percent. The study was underwritten by the Atlantic Philanthropies, which also subsidizes Education Week‘s coverage of international education.

Mr. Pedulla said the results were weighted, “so we’re pretty confident that we have a reasonable sample to generalize to the national sample of teachers.”

While teachers from high-, moderate-, and low-stakes states were responding in similar ways to state testing programs, “it was the intensity that seems to vary,” said Lisa Abrams, a doctoral student and a researcher on the team.

No Stakes for Teachers

Teachers in high-stakes-testing environments were more likely than their colleagues in other states to say that it was appropriate to use test results to hold schools and students accountable.

For example, 34 percent of teachers in high-stakes states said it was “very” or “moderately” appropriate to use test results for school accreditation, compared with 22 percent of teachers in states with lower stakes. Fifty-seven percent of teachers in high-stakes states, compared with 37 percent of those in lower- stakes states, supported using test results for high school graduation.

But the vast majority of teachers did not approve of using test results to hold individual teachers accountable for their performance. Fifty-six percent of teachers in high-stakes states and 64 percent of teachers in states with lower stakes deemed such policies “very inappropriate.”

“We all have a human tendency to feel it’s OK for everybody else to be held accountable,” said Mr. Pedulla. “The personal accountability, I guess, is just more frightening. I don’t have any data to substantiate that.”

Although teachers in all states reported feeling pressure from their principals to raise test scores, teachers in high-stakes environments were far more likely to note feeling such pressure and to feel it more intensely.

“In the public debate, in the public conversation, the voices of those who are implementing testing and accountability policies are either underheard or not heard much at all,” said Arnold Shore, the executive director of the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy and a professor of education at Boston College.

“We believe that teacher opinions and the views of others who are involved in the school setting are key to reasonable testing and accountability policies—a point that has not yet entered the public conversation,” he argued.

Implementation Concerns

In addition to the large-scale survey, the researchers conducted more in-depth field studies in three states: Kansas, Massachusetts, and Michigan. Although all three rate schools based, in part, on test results, their consequences for individual students vary. Within each state, the researchers conducted interviews with administrators and teachers in four districts—one large urban, one small urban, one suburban, and one rural—and in up to six schools in each district: two elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools.

The researchers conducted more than 360 taped interviews and collected samples of classroom teaching and testing materials. The interviews are being coded to look for overall themes and patterns.

“What we would like the public to hear is what we’re beginning to hear,” Mr. Shore said. “Teachers are not against standards and frameworks. They welcome, or at least accept, accountability.” But they have a long list of concerns about how such accountability policies are being implemented, he said.

“In the main,” Mr. Shore said, “we are finding that teachers are optimistic and adaptive. They are trying to make things work.”

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as Survey Shows State Testing Alters Instructional Practices


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