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What Standardized Tests Do and Don’t Tell You Part 3: How they Affect Teachers

This is the third article in a four-part series that will explore what standardized tests reveal about students, teachers, and schools. These articles will provide an insider’s view (from a teacher and researcher) about what is really going on with standardized tests and what they really reveal.

Tales from the Classroom

Let’s Start with the Positive

In looking back over our two previous articles of this series, it is hard not to look at the facts and see that the cons of standardized tests are far outweighing the pros. However, it is not our goal in this series or in any of our work to spout an opinion and beat it into the ground with the hopes of convincing you, the reader, that our position is right. As is our editorial focus, at the Tales from the Classroom blog, we want to refrain from a sort of punditry with the hopes of looking at the entire picture of the issues we examine in education. As such, we want to first explore the positive affects standardized tests can have for teachers.

One positive to consider is that standardized tests and standards in general (e.g. The Common Core) force the least organized and even unprepared to have focus. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s website, standardized tests do in fact help teachers focus on essential content and skills, thus reducing wasted time that do no produce learning gains. Particularly, new teachers who are often overwhelmed by the vast amount of content they can and/or should teach can rely on standards to help them focus on what they should teach. Many of them come to their first new job struggling to figure out not only what they should teach, but also in what order. Standards provide a guidepost for them and help then sift through what they should and should not cover and at times, in what order.

A second positive is that standardized tests have forced more targeted assessment of what students know. Teachers routinely track student progress of learning, which aligns with standards/standardized tests. Teachers can utilize student assessment data to drive their curricular and instructional choices while encouraging thoughtful self-reflection that can improve their teaching (Stronge & Grant, 2009). I am not saying that they cannot do that without a standardized test or standards, they can, but theses measures provide more external pressure to do so. There is data to support that at least some teachers appreciate this.

According to a Gates Foundation survey, a large majority of teachers reported that mandated standardized tests were at least somewhat important in measuring students’ academic abilities (we discussed this in our previous two articles). In special education particularly, standardization has created opportunities for students to illustrate their knowledge through multiple forms of assessment while increasing the focus on these students who were often forgotten prior to the standards movement (Nagle et al., 2006). As such, there clearly is value to be had for teachers and students when it comes to standardized tests and teacher accountability systems.

Before We Look at Cons, A Quick Word from Your Author

In qualitative educational research, we do something called bracketing, where the researcher tries to reveal to her/himself and his/her audience his/her own biases so as to try to be as objective as possible. Here’s my bracket. I taught in “low performing” Title I schools almost my entire K-12 teaching career. I can’t tell you how much I used to dread the first day back to work - not the first day of classes with kids, but the first day back with faculty and administrators. Almost without fail, the year opened with a PowerPoint presentation showing our standardized test data, illustrating how poorly our kids did or where we could or needed to get better. Image going on vacation after working as hard and passionately as you could for a nine-month stretch, only to return with your boss telling you how much you suck at your job. That’s what it felt like. This is to say that I have some bias about what tests do to teachers.

As a teacher, teacher educator/university professor, student teaching supervisor, and K-12 partner, I have heard countless tales from the classroom from teachers about how much they hate being measured by test scores, how unfair it is, and how their kids are learning but the test isn’t capturing the full picture. I believe it is ruining many teachers desire to continue in the profession but that’s my opinion. So I went to the research literature and here is what I found.

The Teacher Shortage Crisis

In short, standardized testing is leading to an emerging crisis in our country: a shortage of teachers. According to the vast majority of the research literature (I did an exhaustive search), standardized testing and accountability measures are leading to a critical shortage of teachers caused by the high teacher turnover rate. Of the nearly 3.4 million full-time teachers in the US, approximately 500,000 of them, or 15%, move or leave the profession each year (Alliance for Education, 2014). That number is 20% at high-poverty schools; most adversely affecting the highest needs students (Alliance for Education, 2014). High-needs schools lose roughly half of their teachers every two years (Simon & Johnson, 2013). Taken as a whole, 40-50% of teachers leave the profession within five years (Alliance for Education, 2014), causing the teacher shortage the nation is now facing. According to a recent US Department of Education study, the primary cause for teachers leaving their jobs was teacher accountability systems based on standardized test scores. Compounding the problem is that the number of future teachers is at an all-time low, with only 4.2% of college freshmen majoring in education in 2016. While there are many reasons for this, including low pay, the lower social standing of the profession in the US, and the high cost of college, standardized tests and accountability no doubt have made being a teacher less desirable.

Turning back to current teachers, according to a 2014 National Education Association poll, nearly half of the teaching force is considering leaving the teaching profession because of standardized tests. Among the many other reasons teacher turnover is a problem, schools are far less able to implement reform efforts designed to improve schools, as successful reform requires consistency of the teaching force implementing the reforms (Voke, 2003). Still, current teacher accountability measures, including value added metrics (we’ll unpack those in a future post), use student standardized test outcomes to determine how effective educators are. These measures not only allow external audiences to evaluate how well their teachers prepare students to succeed on tests, but they also can reveal how well students are learning the items deemed important for testing. However, a study by the Economic Policy Institute found that, “There is broad agreement among statisticians, psychometricians, and economists that student test scores alone are not sufficiently reliable and valid indicators of teacher effectiveness to be used in high-stakes personnel decisions, even when the most sophisticated statistical applications such as value-added modeling are employed” (2010, p. 2).

A Few Other Cons to Consider

There are a multitude of detrimental effects standardized testing has on teachers, but in the name of brevity, I’ll only highlight the biggies. We’ll write more in the future on others and go deeper into some highlighted here (on the blog and in our book). Beyond forcing teachers out of the profession, standardized tests diminish the power of curriculum for teachers. What I mean by that is that teachers have far less autonomy to choose what they will study in school than they had pre-standardization. While this can certainly be a good thing at times (We don’t want people spending a week teaching about flamingos just because they think they’re pretty), it disempowers teachers to make decisions based on student interest and de-professionalizes being a teacher. Further, as we discussed in our last post, this narrows the curriculum and pushes out many items that are worth learning. For example, I saw firsthand how poetry got pushed out of the English Language Arts curriculum across US high schools once the Common Core came out. Because the focus on those standards was on nonfiction, schools began teaching exorbitant amounts of nonfiction and severely limited or stopped teaching poetry. If it’s not on the standards, and it’s not tested, it’s not taught is the thinking there. We have seen this with the slow death of arts and music in education where school districts in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles have slashed or eliminated music and art in schools.

One last major problem standardized testing has on teachers is that it is being used to determine who is or is not a good teacher. As we wrote in the first article in this series, that is not only a limited but also an inaccurate measure of quality teaching. Quality teaching is about inspiring students, teaching them how to collaborate, to ask thoughtful questions, to dream, to explore, to evaluate, to critically analyze, and so much more. Any of you who have been in school can attest to the difference between a teacher who delivered the curriculum and one who truly inspired. When tests force teachers to use more skill-and-drill, rote memorization of fact types of approaches (while also hurrying to cover as much content that will be on the test as they can) there is much less space for inspiration. Not only are tests taking the life out of teaching for educators, they’re killing inspiration for kids.

Closing on a Positive Note

The good news is that the pendulum is starting to shift. Recently, states like Texas have begun passing legislation limiting the power of standardized test scores by lessening their impact on measuring teacher effectiveness. State legislators are beginning to realize that the test scores produced tell us only a small piece of who is doing a good job in the classroom. States are beginning to bring items such as student surveys, observations, and portfolios into the teacher evaluation system. While I see the allure of wanting to quantify good teaching, it simply is not possible; it’s too complex. We must look at multiple forms of assessment to evaluate a teacher and most importantly, we have to be in their classrooms to see what kinds of experiences they are creating for kids.

Along with lessening the impact of standardized tests on teacher evaluation, states are beginning to roll back the number of hours of testing. As we discussed last week, kids are spending an absorbent amount of time not only taking, but also preparing for standardized tests. This trend is beginning to shift. Moreover, school districts like that in Tacoma, Washington are taking this trend a step further by focusing not only on academic outcomes as measured by standardized tests, but on teaching the whole child (social, emotional, etc.).

As I began the article, the research overwhelmingly points out that there are far more adverse effects of standardized tests on teachers than there are positive ones. Though there are some positives, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that a school system driven by these tests is not in the best interests of students or teachers. In our final post of this series, we’ll take a look at how they are affecting administrators (e.g. principals) and offer some “so what?” thoughts.

Alliance for Education. (2014). On the path to equity: Improving the effectiveness of beginning teachers. Washington, D.C.

Economic Policy Institute. (2010). Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers. Washington, D.C.

Nagle, K., Yunker, C., & Malmgren, K. W. (2006). Students with disabilities and accountability reform. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 17(1), 28–39.

Simon, N. S. & Johnson, S. M. (2015). Teacher turnover in high-poverty schools: What we know and can do. Teacher’s College Record, 117(3), 1-36.

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