WHAT S AT STAKE IN HIGH-STAKES TESTING

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1 Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December 2000 WHAT S AT STAKE IN HIGH-STAKES TESTING TEACHERS AND PARENTS SPEAK OUT Mary Alice Barksdale-Ladd University of South Florida Karen F. Thomas Western Michigan University This article reports findings from interviews with 59 teachers and 20 parents in two large states. Both have standards, attendant benchmarks, and standardized tests to assess students on the standards. Interview protocols from teachers and parents rendered data informing us about (a) teacher and parent knowledge of state standards and testing; (b) teacher test administration and student preparation practices; (c) effects of tests on teachers, parents, and students; (d) how teachers make instructional decisions based on these tests; and (e) the value of such tests. Teachers and parents were unanimous about (a) the intense stress on all involved, (b) the undermining of meaningful instruction and learning, and (c) the high stakes involved. Differences existed between teachers and parents in the two states. Implications address the need for stakeholders in children s education to make known the deleterious effects of state testing to those in charge of state-mandated testing. The 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk (National Commission of Excellence in Education, 1983) is frequently identified as the impetus of the focused march toward accountability and high-stakes testing over the past 16 years. In no uncertain terms, this document sent out a challenge to America s schools: If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament. (p. 5) This report recommended strengthening graduation requirements, setting higher standards for both schools and colleges, increasing the amount of time students spend engaged in learning tasks, and improving teaching through higher standards. The drive for accountability was on. As states set higher standards, those responsible for setting the standards began considering how they would measure student progress to meet these standards. Assuming standards were clearly identified and students were taught the material allowing them to meet the standards, testing appeared to be the logical approach to identify students who did not meet expectations, as well as the teachers of these students. Thus, through developing higher standards and tests for measuring the degree to which students met those standards, there was a system in place for holding students, teachers, and schools accountable for assuring that all students met expected standards (Haertel, 1999). During the 1990s, educators in every state worked tirelessly to perfect descriptions of standards at every level and content area (McGill-Franzen, in press; McLaughlin, 1994). Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education 384

2 Established as state education policies, standards were placed in the hands of teachers while, simultaneously, hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on the development of specific tests designed to measure each standard. Although broad differences in tests exist among different states, including standardized, criterion-referenced, or performance assessments (Haertel, 1999; Sacks, 1997; Sheldon & Biddle, 1998), the nation s teachers are now fully aware that policy and testing have essentially become one and the same. There are numerous questions about the efficacy of the policies/standards/testing efforts to improve the quality of education. Neither researchers nor teachers appear to have been highly involved in the creation of their states standards policies. Although it seems obvious that research should inform policy, Teddlie and Stringfield (1993) report that research hardly ever informs policy making, and according to Lagemann (1996), research appears not to be highly regarded by those who shape policy. Although researchers are busily publishing articles critical of current standardized, criterionreferenced, and performance assessment measures (Czubaj, 1995; Haertel, 1999; Haladyna, Haas, & Allison, 1998; Mabry, 1999; Popham, 1999; Sacks, 1997; Sheldon & Biddle, 1998; Stake, 1999), there is little evidence that use of these testing measures is affected. Criticisms of current testing practices proliferate outside the academic community as well. With Time s magazine articles such as The Test of Their Lives: As State Grade School Exams Spread, Some Ask: Are the Stakes Too High? (1999) and Newsweek s voicing similar concerns in Cramming for the Test : Massachusetts Kids Scramble to Pass New State Exams (1999), questions about state testing programs are made available to the public. States create policies and design tests for teachers to assess these policies despite the fact that researchers and media throwing harsh criticisms. However, little is heard from the teachers who are responsible for students meeting the standards and passing the tests. Green and Dixon (1996) point out that teachers should be an important part of the decision making in setting policy. Yet, when states form committees to develop standards and related tests, teachers often view their participation on these committees as token representation. Their voices are not heard. Green and Dixon assert that there is a restrictive view of who should control policy. Because elected or appointed officials control the purse strings of education (p. 298), they view their perceptions as more valuable than those of teachers. There are, however, advocates who, in the interest of the best education for all our children, call for national testing that would involve both teachers and parents (M. S. Smith, Stevenson, & Li, 1998) to see that all children receive high-quality instruction in reading and mathematics. Conceived with the best of intentions, this voluntary testing would appear to hold parents accountable for assuring high student achievement in the two basic areas of reading and math. This proposed test offers the creative and cutting edge advantage of involving parents and teachers in both the design and the results made known to teachers and parents so that there would be immediate access to test results and elaborative information (p. 43). Given this information, parents and teachers can begin to help improve student performance. Clearly, assessment is needed to begin the process of addressing student needs. On the political front, almost all governors are calling for accountability on the part of teachers and teacher educators through standards and assessment based on those standards. Although thousands of teachers are not chosen as teacher representatives on policy committees, state education standards and their related tests are nonetheless mandates for all teachers to follow. There is evidence that this top-down policy is not helpful to teachers (McGill-Franzen, in press) and that pressure to assure high test scores has detrimental effects on teaching (Johnston, 1998). Furthermore, publishing test scores with schools rankings in localnewspapers, thereby pressuring teachers to produce high test scores, causes teachers anxiety, shame, loss of esteem, and alienation (M. L. Smith, 1991, p. 8; also reported by Johnston, 1998; Johnston, Afflerbach, & Weiss, 1993; Johnston, Guice, Baker, Malone, & Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December

3 Michelson, 1995; M. L. Smith, Edelsky, Draper, Rottenberg, & Cherland, 1991). For teachers, understanding a policy and the test that will be administered to assess that policy does not easily translate into instructional plans and moment-to-moment teaching decisions during the school day (McGill-Franzen, in press). Evidence also exists demonstrating that the higher the stakes on a given test, the greater the level of teacher focus on test preparation and the greater the chance of teachers teaching to the test to the detriment of other aspects of teaching/learning (Herman & Golan, 1991; Johnston, 1998; M. L. Smith, 1991). Today, stakes are higher than ever before for many of our nation s teachers. School-by-school, district-bydistrict, and state-by-state comparisons published in local newspapers coupled with tremendous pressure to produce high test scores from administrators, school boards, and state legislators make testing the focus of teacher thinking about instruction. Few data are available on how teachers are dealing with current policies, standards, and testing requirements. Thus, this study asks the question, What perceptions do teachers hold about mandated standards and related tests, and how do teachers make instructional decisions given these mandates? In addition, this study addresses parents perceptions. As with teachers, there are few reports of parent perceptions and responses to new standards mandated for their children. The Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll (Rose & Gallup, 1999) repeatedly indicates that the closer people are to the public schools, the better they like them (p. 42). Although we know that closeness to schools has an impact on perceptions about them, the current climate in education is somewhat different from what it has been in the past. Certainly, newspaper headlines describing and decrying failing test scores must lead parents to question their children s schools. On one hand, there is a call for accountability and wise use of taxpayers dollars, and most parents see this as evidenced through standardized testing assuring high standards. However, on the other hand, there are parents who know their children s learning cannot be reduced to a test score. Routman (1996) provides examples of the need to include parents: Partnerships with parents are an absolute necessity for successful [school] reform efforts. We are naive if we think we can make changes in our teaching without support of the parents (p. 64). In Smart Schools, Smart Kids, Fiske (1992) alerts us to the power of parental choice in schools, recounting the power that grassroots movements by parents bring to the schools. Parents are an important part of this testing culture. Therefore, we address the following questions: (a) What do parents think about current mandates and testing programs? and (b) What perceptions do they hold of their children s schools in a climate of school grading and comparison? DESIGN We interviewed a total of 59 teachers (35 teachers in a large southern state [SS] and 24 teachers in a large central/northern state [NS]). The majority (51) of the teachers were students in master s- and doctoral-level literacy programs, so they may be considered exceptional in that they were seeking knowledge of literacy teaching and learning above the undergraduate level. Given their desire to keep abreast of current theory and practices through graduate education, these teachers represent those in the profession who are aware of current standards, assessments, and tests. This may represent a more informed sample of teachers. All teachers were teachers of reading, writing, and the related language arts in Grades 1 through 8. Although this sample may present a limitation of the study, the participants ranged in experience from teachers in their 3rd year to veteran teachers of 20 years. We conducted interviews with three focus groups composed of 6 teachers in each group, two in the SS and one in the NS, accounting for 18 teachers. We interviewed the remaining 41 teachers individually. Two thirds were master s degree students (30), and the remaining 29 were doctoral students. Using both focus group interviews and individual interviews allowed us two perspectives. In focus groups, we had the opportunity to record and note teachers freely 386 Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December 2000

4 expressing themselves among their peers in an atmosphere in which we, as researchers, were almost nonexistent. However, in individual interviews, we could probe in depth and get information that teachers might not say in the presence of their colleagues. Probes sought examples of general statements, broad generalizations, and heavily laden value judgments. Using both methods provided us richer data. Teacher interviews lasted between 45 minutes and 2 hours. Questions addressed (a) how teachers learned about policies, standards, and related tests; (b) how teachers were prepared for administering the tests; (c) how teacher decisions about classroom instruction are influenced by testing policies; and (d) teachers perceptions about the value of each of the testing policies. Twenty parents, 10 in each state, were interviewed individually. In both states, we chose to interview parents of children attending school/ university partnership schools. We suspected that there was a greater likelihood that professional development school parents would be knowledgeable about testing policies. As professional development schools, these schools had a continual influx of university personnel and student teaching interns, so parents may have been more aware of educational practices and innovations. Therefore, the parental sample may also present a limitation of this study. The interviews addressed the same concepts as the teacher interviews, taking a parent perspective. Parent interviews focused on (a) parent knowledge of state standards, policies, and tests; (b) parent knowledge of how teachers prepare students for tests; (c) parent approaches to preparing their children for taking these tests; (d) parent perceptions about the value of the mandated tests; and (e) parent perceptions about their children s schools, in light of school grading comparisons. Parent interviews lasted from 20 minutes to 1 hour. ANALYSIS Viewing teacher and parent perceptions of testing policy as a phenomenon, we took a phenomenological approach to the analysis of interview data, as described by Hycner (1985). By casting findings in a phenomenological light, interview data represent the way this testing experience appeared to those stakeholders involved (i.e., teachers and parents) through their conscious and concentrated thoughts about testing. Both interview groups, focus group and individual, were analyzed and the data collapsed. We transcribed audiotaped interviews given in response to the five focus areas, and we read them individually. Each researcher then identified categories that emerged and were repeated across interviews. Within these categories, interviews were segmented into units of meaning and placed in categories. Units of meaning were double or triple coded to maintain context when needed. As a representative member check, we shared a draft of the article with 10 teachers who participated in focus group interviews. These teachers were asked to read the article to ensure that categories made sense and were accurate and to consider whether representative quotes included for each category were in fact representative of their understandings of the interview experience. Quotes chosen were selected as representative comments of at least one half of the teachers and in some cases represented all teachers. Asked to recommend needed changes, the 10 teachers offered none, finding the results in keeping with their understandings. Two similar member checks were made for the parental perception section of the results, and the parents found the reported data to be accurate and understandable. RESULTS Because both states required criterion-referenced and state writing tests given at specific grade levels as well as standardized achievement tests given at all grade levels, we had data reported for test types. Results are organized with teacher data presented first by the eight categories that emerged as commonalities across both states: (a) how teachers learned of standards and tests, (b) teacher perceptions of the rationale for the standards and tests, (c) teachers and students preparation for the tests, Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December

5 (d) pressures exerted on teachers for students to perform well, (e) instruction/curriculum changes due to test performance, (f) teachers accounts of children s responses to the tests, (g) teacher perception of the value of the tests, and (h) teacher perception of the effects of the tests. The category results are followed with a discussion of differences between the two states. Results from the parent interviews are reported next in the following categories: (a) how parents learned of standards, tests, and policies; (b) parental perceptions of the rationale for standards and tests; (c) parental pressure to ensure children perform well; (d) parental preparation of their children for tests; (e) parental perception of children s responses to tests; and (f) parental perceptions of value and effect of tests. We found more differences in the parents comments across the two states than in the teachers, so differences are included within discussions of categories where they apply. Teacher Interviews How teachers learned about policies, standards, and related tests. In both states, it was common for teachers to get the first inkling about policies, standards, and related tests via the teacher grapevine. For instance, one teacher said, It starts as a rumor. Sometimes I have the idea that some people know it s coming before other people know it s coming. All of a sudden, everybody s talking about this new test, and you ask, What s that? and they say, Don t worry, you ll find out. Sometimes we re just told, It s coming. Get prepared. It s coming. After hearing uncertain bits of information via the grapevine, more solid and reliable data soon followed. An SS teacher recounted, A few years ago, I heard the teachers talking about this new writing test, and, like, the next day, I read about it in the paper. Then, in the next faculty meeting, the principal gave us some information, and soon there was another faculty meeting with the language arts supervisor who started telling us the details. Now we ve had it for about 5 years, and I have probably 10 inches of files on [the state writing test]. Teachers were less specific in their responses about policies and standards. They knew that policies existed, and they thought they probably had been given the standards before they learned about the test. As one teacher said, You know, we get dozens of printed flyers about various topics every day from all over, from the principal, from committees, from the district, from the state, from the supervisors, and I just can t remember when any one of those showed up.... But finding out about these big tests, that s different.... You stop and pay attention because every new test means that your life is going to change. However, a difference surfaced in the NS because the standards and benchmarks have been in print since With a 30-year history, much more is known and made known to teachers in the NS. The NS testing has been brought directly in line with the standards, and the governor tied money to test results. Therefore, more teachers are involved in creating the standards as well as the test items. A teacher offered, You know, the [NS] governor threatened to withhold funds from schools performing poorly and reward high-scoring schools. Publishing the state test score results in all the state newspapers also serves to keep testing issues and policies in the public limelight. Therefore, more school districts now keep NS teachers informed about standards and testing policies because as one teacher commented, The stakes are becoming too high to ignore. Teacher perceptions about the rationale behind the standards and tests. Although teachers did not remember specifically when they learned about standards, they were not cavalier about their importance. They knew the given names of the standards, were able to discuss the meanings of the standards, and understood a rationale behind the standards. In discussing literacy standards in his state, a teacher stated, There are several standards for reading, language arts, and writing. To me, the main idea behind the standards is that all of the kids have to come up to the same level in everything. They have to be able to read, write, spell, and use language at what the state considers fourth-grade level, and no child can fall behind because if the kid doesn t show that he is on fourth-grade level when he takes the benchmarks test, he will be retained. I know why this has been enacted; it s because too many of our kids have been 388 Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December 2000

6 sent on up grade after grade, and they end up either dropping out of high school or struggling along and getting a degree that really doesn t mean anything because they didn t deserve it and didn t have the skills. I agree that we need some standards in order to prevent this sort of thing in the future....standards aren t just for the teachers; they are for the kids and the parents, too. Teachers are scared...butthe kids are scared too, because they know there s no more fooling around. Somewhat, I think that s good because my kids didn t use to be scared at all; they knew that if they d already been failed in a grade before they got to me, I couldn t fail them....iguess something just had to be done. Teachers rationales supportive of the standards were in keeping with the national impetus for improving the quality of education. Although teachers agreed for the most part with the need for higher standards, dissension was evident about the value of standards. Many of the teachers found that standards conflicted with their understandings of child development. For instance, one teacher said, I know why they want standards, but what ever happened to developmentally appropriate education? Did they just decide to forget that we know that every child learns at a different rate? Another teacher stated, All these years, I believed we were supposed to teach the child at the child s level, at the zone of proximal development. I took courses and studied...but now the state tells me that I was wasting my time because their standards are the name of the game, not the children. There were other statements questioning the appropriateness of the standards for children. For example, I would like to find out who wrote those standards and I d like to force them to come to my school and sit in with my kids every day for a month. They d change those standards, and they d see that I m a great teacher and my kids work hard...but they [kids] just aren t all ready for these standards. Some teachers believed that high-stakes testing had been developed due to public knowledge about ineffective teachers; however, our participants did not see these tests as having the effect of improving teaching. One teacher explained, I think they [the tests] were designed because everyone thinks there are so many bad teachers, and this would make the bad teachers improve. But it isn t; in fact, it is giving bad teachers an excuse to continue doing what they ve always done lots of skill and drill. It s a license for bad teaching. Finally, some teachers understood the rationale for high-stakes testing as a means by which states could demonstrate their hard work to improve education through large expenditures. For example, It s big money. Companies bid for making these tests, and they re expensive to make and expensive to grade. I ve heard it costs about $8.00 to grade each [state criterion-referenced achievement test]. [The state] can show it s spending a lot on education without actually building new buildings or hiring more teachers. Across participants, all were able to articulate a logical rationale for the development of standards and high-stakes testing in their own states. No teachers mentioned national education initiatives within their rationales (although some teachers made reference to issues receiving a great deal of national press attention). Rather, these teachers tended to focus on their own states, seeing standards and testing as state initiatives developed primarily as a result of state concerns about the quality of education its children received. Preparing teachers to administer and children to take tests. In both states, teachers prepared for administering standards-related tests through (a) in-service training in their schools and districts, (b) materials and booklets provided by states and school districts, (c) formal and informal discussions with other teachers, and (d) teacher-purchased books and related materials. In some cases, there was practically no preparation. In discussing her first administration of a state criterion-referenced test, one SS teacher said, Our training came in the form of a little booklet that was attached to the test the day we gave it. In most cases, there was much preparation and gathering of materials. I went to a meeting, and I got folders of [a] kajillion things for you to do.... Even if you re a sec- Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December

7 ond-grade teacher, you have to be preparing children to take this fourth-grade test. You can buy things [at] all the teacher stores. There are books with materials to get kids ready for the tests. It is a booming business, and they re at all the conferences hocking these things. In another case, a teacher said, You wouldn t believe it. There were in-service meetings with the supervisor from the central office, about three of them, and then we met in grade-level teams once a week for months. Everybody gathered materials and made materials, and we shared them with each other, and we created all of these big three-ring binders full of things things to do early in the year, things to do at holiday time. We created tons of practice tests because we wanted the kids using this type of test format all year long. I ll bet we spent 50 hours that first year. Preparing for that test took over our lives at first; then we got to see what the test was really like, and we spent more time next year. It is endless. All teachers in both states provided extensive descriptions of how they prepared children to take state writing, state criterion-referenced achievement, and standardized achievement tests. These descriptions could be divided into four general categories: (a) teaching information directly related to expected test content with questions targeting specific skills, (b) providing classroom practice using the precise test format, (c) teaching test taking skills, and (d) making test preparation a daily part of instruction. It is interesting that invariably, teachers reported that the methods they had selected were in response to the direct and indirect pressure felt from administrators to do so. Comments included the following: Our teachers were told to do something once a week for 30 minutes specifically to get children ready for the [state criterion-referenced achievement test] ; My principal said, When you make each lesson plan, ask yourself if what you are planning is going to help students on one of these tests. If it isn t going to help on the tests, don t do it ; and We are encouraged to teach to the tests. I know I do. I would say that out of the entire school year, I spend anywhere from 2 to 3 months a year on teaching to the test. The NS has a complete statewide test preparation program with a test-coach booklet and skillpads in which the students work. For 1 or 2 months before the state test, the staff development person (in this case, usually the Reading Recovery teacher) conducts testing preparation classes. He or she is charged with teaching the strategies for the skill identified from last year s state test as the target skill to be mastered. Weeks are spent on not only the target skills but test taking skills as well. In addition, preservice interns (education majors) from the university are recruited for $10.00 an hour to help in the coaching of these state tests as well as help substitute teachers who are hired to teach while regular classroom teachers learn about administering and coaching for these tests. Principals display banners during test week stating Beat the [state s test name]. Pressure put on teachers to ensure that children do well. Teachers discussed the pressure they felt to ensure high scores on their state test as well as its source. Descriptions indicated that pressure and stress are constant. Direct sources of pressure included (a) statements made and memos sent to teachers by administrators, (b) conversations and meetings with other teachers where testing was a topic, and (c) the media. One teacher explained, The pressure is on. I feel pressure, partly from the constant memos. I internalize the pressure, and it is always with me. Another said, It s awful. I just cringe every time I walk in the teacher s room because these tests are the only topic of conversation in there, and it raises your anxiety just to hear how scared everybody is. A few years ago, I really loved teaching, but this pressure is just so intense.... I m not sure how long I can take it. In addition, many teachers had concerns related to consequences of the tests for the children. For instance, They have rules, like if a child fails [the fourth-grade state writing test], they have to go to summer school. Then, if they fail it again in fifth grade, they are automatically retained, no matter what. So part of the pressure on teachers is coming from what s gonna happen to the children. In the NS, If a child fails the third-grade reading, they go to summer school. Teachers knew 390 Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December 2000

8 that they transferred their anxiety to their students. We do show our stress to the kids, and a kind of anxiety takes over...idon t think we have a voice in this testing stuff. If the administration didn t make such a big fuss over the [state criterion-referenced test], maybe we wouldn t pass this anxiety to the kids. Many of the teachers felt pressure related to job security. They [the tests] really impact me as a teacher because it s getting to where if our kids don t pass, we don t get paid for it, and we could get booted out of teaching that grade level if our children don t pass the test. Although we did not find evidence that teachers were currently actually losing money, teachers frequently had fears of having salary cuts, losing a job, or being forced out of teaching as a result of low test scores. Finally, NS teachers related the stigma associated with a school district whose state tests scores are low. Every year, all state newspapers report the test scores, comparatively printed, so that everyone knows where a particular school district falls in this sorting and labeling process. I don t agree with publishing these results, although many people use these to compare school districts. Another added, People buy houses based on high [state test] scores in the district. Changes in instruction due to the importance of high test scores. Although we did not ask any direct questions about how teachers had changed their instructional practices due to testing, about 75% of the teachers offered this information. For the most part, they provided examples of kinds of activities that had been discontinued in favor of test preparation. These activities can be generalized as instructional activities that (a) are pleasant for the teacher and the children; (b) provide reinforcement of skills and promote in-depth understandings of content; (c) involve collaboration, independence, and higher order thinking skills; and (d) have goals that are not measured by tests (such as the development of attitudes). Some of the instructional practices and activities that teachers had discontinued or that were now used infrequently included (a) silent reading; (b) buddy reading and shared reading; (c) book talks; (d) collaborative writing and writing process; (e) science experiments; (f) picnics; (g) field trips; (h) classroom cooking; (i) classroom drama, choral reading, and skits; (j) thematic, integrated instructional units; (k) creative activities (particularly creative, imaginative writing experiences); (l) games (math and reading); (m) manipulative mathematics experiences; and (n) breaks and recess. Children s responses to the tests. Based on our interviews with these teachers, we find no evidence that the teachers believe that test preparation and test taking have any positive effects on children. Primarily, teachers described how test-related stress affected the children. Representative statements included the following: The kids feel the stress. The kids know the teachers feel the stress. They worry. They say, I m scared. I don t want to take this. Some of them don t sleep because they re so worried, and they cry. Straight-A students are scared that they re gonna fail. The pressure is on the kids. I had a learning disabled child who took [the state writing test] last year and got a 2.5. This child was hysterical when she found out. She didn t come back to school the next day. It knocked all of the self-confidence we d built up right out of her. Many teachers expressed dismay that children s test scores were not accurate reflections of children s actual knowledge and skills. They hate the assessments. Their best writing...has not been with those assessments. They always do so well with in-class stories; that s when I know what their best writing skills are like. More often than not, I m disappointed in the assessments. Teacher perceptions of the value of the tests. Across the 59 interviews, most teachers were not able to identify ways in which the tests they were giving were of value. Some teachers stated that the tests served the purpose of preparing children for many more years of test taking. For example, one teacher said, I think it s valuable in the sense that it prepares them for what s to come for them. They re gonna have to get used to it. There were no other ways in which teachers found the tests valuable. One teacher stated that the real shame was in the value not placed Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December

9 on [learning and teaching], which is needed by children, but on those things needed to pass the test. Teacher perceptions about effects of the tests. When asked about the effects of the tests, other than anxiety and stress, teachers offered the following as negative effects on (a) teaching and the teaching profession, (b) student learning, (c) student achievement, and (d) student self-esteem. Teachers found that they spent too much time preparing children for tests and administering tests. Our fourth-grade teachers looked at it, and if you count it up, there is a test that they have to do about once every 12 days. It doesn t happen that way, but it would equate to that. Just think what you could do if you took all that time spent on testing and preparing for testing and used it to teach. There s way too much testing. Furthermore, the teachers found that their teaching was worse instead of better as a result of preparing children for testing. I m not the teacher I used to be. I used to be great, and I couldn t wait to get to school every day because I loved being great at what I do. All of the most powerful teaching tools I used to use every day are no good to me now because they don t help children get ready for the test, and it makes me like a robot instead of a teacher. I didn t need a college degree and a master s degree to do what I do now. They don t need real teachers to prepare children for tests and, in fact, I think they could just develop computer programs to do this. Similarly, another teacher discussed the probability that testing would send teachers away from teaching and toward other fields. These tests frustrate high-energy teachers. They will deplete the talent base in teaching by causing talented teachers to leave. Other teachers addressed the effects on teaching as a profession. For example, I just think it is deprofessionalizing the whole teaching profession. I get really irked when government says, You will give this test and your children will do well, and they haven t even been in the classroom and worked with kids, and they don t come down to see how all this affects the teachers and the kids. Another offered, These tests, and all of this pressure to make kids do well on the tests...it s an insult. It s saying that we aren t a profession and we can t be trusted to do our jobs, so high-pressure tactics are necessary to make us behave. They re treating us like stupid children, they re turning us into bad teachers, taking away every bit of pride. The teachers also discussed negative effects of high-stakes testing on student learning, student achievement, and student self-esteem. One teacher summed it up for many teachers: I know this is disrespectful, but these tests are making my kids stupid. The kids I ve had the last few years have gotten higher scores because I ve worked so hard at getting them ready for the tests, but this is a facade because they just don t have it together like my former students. They don t read as well because they re only reading for main ideas and supporting details and resolutions and characterizations which compared to my students a few years ago is a sin. Those students read for getting the whole picture and for fun. They loved reading. But these students, they just think reading is something you do for a test. Learning for the tests isn t meaningful; it s a chore, and so I think the tests have really made achievement go down... the scores are up, but the kids [today] know less, and they are less as people....ithink it s a crime; it s educational malpractice. Differences between SS and NS teachers. In most areas, interview responses of SS and NS teachers were so similar that we could see no differences. There was one difference noted. The NS teachers discussed parental rights, whereas the SS teachers did not. A major issue seemed to be that NS parents could choose for their children not to take the test, and many parents took this option. However, NS teachers reported that many administrators discouraged teachers from informing parents about the option of not having their children take the tests, whereas other administrators encouraged teachers to not include certain children in the test taking because it would lower our school average. This latter option is somewhat legitimate as the NS test guidelines do exempt special education students from having to take the state test. One NS teacher said, Our parents know that they can refuse to have their kids take the test and do! 392 Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December 2000

10 Another responded, Although we don t make it known, all you need is one student s parents to refuse, and the word spreads. Our understanding was that SS parents did not have the right to refuse to have their children tested, or if they had this right, it was not known. Parent Interviews How parents learned about policies, standards, and related tests. The parents in both states knew little about state policies or standards. However, they knew a great deal about the tests their children took. Parents knew the names of the major tests by their acronyms and discussed the tests using these acronyms. Most parents had learned about the tests from their children s teachers, but some had read about the tests in the newspaper before getting information from the school. Each year, parents were kept well informed about the tests from school flyers and newsletters as well as the media. In addition, the children kept parents informed about upcoming tests. There were actual guidelines for the parents, directing them to make sure their children got a good night s sleep and a nourishing breakfast. Parent perceptions about the reasoning behind the standards and tests. The parents in this study were all aware of media reports about the crisis in education, and they were able to speak about many relevant issues. For years, there have been reports on TV about problems with schools, with most of these reports indicating that children aren t learning all that they should be learning and saying that the test scores go down every year. You would think with all of this talk about the test scores going down every year that our children don t know anything at all, but I think these new tests are harder than the old tests, and that is one reason that test scores are lower, but you know, there [are] all these different worries about the taxpayers spending their taxes on education and expecting a good return on their investment, so this new pressure to do well on these tests is just a way of making sure that a good return comes in. Commonly, parents held the understanding that improved test scores were necessary for schools to prove to the public that the educational system was working. Several parents addressed the issue of social promotion and state testing. One SS mother explained, My [child] wasn t ready for first grade, but his kindergarten teacher sent him on anyway, and it happened again. He wasn t ready for second grade. He had to pass this [state criterion-referenced achievement test] if he was going to pass second grade, and he failed it flat, so the second-grade teacher had no choice but to hold him back. I m glad for the tests for that reason because I was scared for him, and he s doing better this year. Although the parents brought up issues similar to those raised by the teachers when asked about the rationale behind the tests, they did not discuss concerns about the tests, nor were any sarcastic remarks or hostilities seen in their responses. These came at later points in the interview. Parent pressure to ensure that children do well. There were differences noted between NS and SS parents with regard to pressure to ensure that children produce high test scores. The SS parents did not feel a great deal of pressure, and they saw encouraging this type of pressure as being a part of the job of the teacher. One representative SS parent said, I didn t really do too much, just made sure she got a good night s sleep and gave her a good breakfast. I wouldn t really have known what to do to help her and figure that s what the teacher is doing anyway cause [my child] talks about it all the time, [so] I know that s all they were doing in school. I knew the teacher was worried about it all the time. An interesting phenomenon has recently occurred in this NS with regard to high school students and the pressure to do well on the state criterion-referenced tests. Several parents in the focus group reported that they knew of large numbers of parents of high school students (11th grade) who kept their children home in case a low score would become part of their child s record and prevent college acceptance. Because this became widespread practice, the governor has now offered $2,500 in scholarships Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December

11 to students who perform well on the state tests. Some parents now recount that the pressure is there for high school students to perform well on the state test to receive the scholarship funding. As one parent stated, Money will turn you around every time! Parental methods of preparing children. Again, there were differences between SS parents and NS parents. The SS parents discussed helping their children with homework throughout the school year, but they did not engage in any particular academic activities with their children to prepare them for test taking. The SS parents did not take an active role in preparing their children specifically for the test. However, because there are professionally prepared materials that mirror the NS test, there were NS parents who coached their children to do well on the state tests. The NS parents were split on this issue; on one hand, there are those who realized the stress put on our kids and did little or kept their children home. On the other hand, there were those who exerted pressure on their kids to do well and cracked down on them to do their homework and practice in their skillpads (the professionally prepared materials with testcoaching skill booklets to accompany testcoaching workbooks). Children s responses to the tests. There were no differences between the responses of SS and NS parents in discussions of children s responses to the tests. In both populations, parents discussed high levels of anxiety and nervousness in their children related to taking the tests and disappointment with test results even when higher scores were achieved. The parents also discussed their own connected responses. One parent said, I just hated it for her and while it was tearing her apart, it was tearing me apart, too. She just got so worried and was so sure she was going to fail, even though she is a good student and has been all along. It s that they start talking about and preparing kids for this [state writing test] when they re in first grade, even though they don t take it until fourth grade, and if they don t do well, they look like dooffusses, and the teachers and the schools look bad. That s too much pressure for a 10-year-old, don t you think? Another parent focused her comments on the day that her child received his test scores. Powerfully and with much emotion in her voice, she said, He came in the door, and he just looked horrible; I thought he was sick and put my hand on his head, but he didn t pay any attention and reached in his bag and pulled out these folded papers. I thought he was in big trouble, and I was ready to read those papers and then read him the riot act, and it just stopped me in my tracks when I opened that paper up. It was all these numbers, and [my child] started crying while I was looking at it; he was just so pitiful. And I didn t care what those numbers said; they weren t so important as taking care of him because he was crushed. It ruined something in him; it took something away from him. He was the one who couldn t wait to get [to school], but that s gone because now he thinks something is wrong with him. These people that make up these tests don t even think about children, and they should be ashamed of what they do to these little things. Parent perceptions of the value and effects of the tests. Parents differed in their perceptions of the value of high-stakes testing, but not by state. One saw this as a method of ensuring that weaker students would be retained and given additional help in the future. In the long run, it is probably good because if they get retained, they ll have a year to catch up, and that year just might make a huge difference in their lives. Most of the parents criticized the tests and saw little value in them, citing tests as an unnecessary burden on their children that was not balanced by increased learning. One parent stated emphatically, If I thought that getting ready for the test was going to make them [children] a whole lot smarter, I might be able to support it, but it just doesn t. They get all worried and nervous and upset about this test. They get beat up for nothing.... They don t learn anything that s going to help them in life. They re just children. It s crazy. DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS Who policy makers are, what policies are set, and who puts these policies into effect with regard to literacy instruction are crucial matters in educating our children. These data reflect a great deal of teacher frustration toward policies 394 Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December 2000

12 coming in the form of assessing our children. Teachers view tests as hurting their performance as good teachers and hurting children by forcing teach-to-the-test instruction inflicting unnecessary stress and anxiety. Yet, these teachers feel powerless to do anything except prepare children for the tests. As one teacher said, I went to the higher-ups and complained that the informal test was poorly constructed, that it wasn t scored accurately, and that the data were being misinterpreted. Basically, I was told, If you don t like it, you can go somewhere else and teach, because there were plenty of teachers who would come in and do what they want them to do. Some teachers perceive these tests as disempowering teachers. Although the teachers ranged in experience from 3 to 20 years, there was an equal amount of frustration given the testing culture. We noted one difference between veteran and novice teachers: The more experienced teachers were more vocal with regard to negative comments issued to the administration. In the call for accountability, teacher decision making about what is best for children and notions of developmentally appropriate instruction appears to have been dismissed. Teachers are being asked to behave as received knowers rather than constructed knowers, and in turn the expectation is that children will be received rather than constructed knowers (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986; Johnston, 1998). Although teacher education programs have worked hard to create programs that prepare constructivist teachers (Brindley, 1996), public schools apparently have turned away from this understanding of teaching and learning. What are the implications of our findings for the futures of both public schools and teacher education programs? Because standardized tests have the effect of driving curriculum and instruction, all public schools may begin to look alike, and diversity in teaching may disappear. However, no teacher argued for a lack of standards or for dismissing assessment. In fact, teachers did not want to lose what they considered best practices in assessment: assessment that (a) provides feedback to help students improve their learning; (b) is part of a student s work, which can go into a working portfolio; (c) provides flexibility and does not dominate the curriculum; (d) informs instruction to help teachers improve their teaching, thereby ensuring student learning; (e) over time is classroom based; and (f) uses more than one measuring stick for assessing students learning. These best practices are what most of our graduate literacy courses espouse, so there is a huge disconnect between what teachers are learning in graduate courses with regard to assessment and what they are asked to administer in state and standardized tests. Teacher educators are inextricably bound to the public agenda as the educators of preservice and in-service teachers and researchers working with the schools, its teachers, and students. Will teacher education programs, in turn, begin to incorporate content standards and benchmarks into their programs? This is an especially important question in states whose institutes of higher learning have budgets directly connected to state legislators whose thrust is accountability through these state standardized tests. There needs to be an inclusive call for state legislators to become involved with their communities schools, their teachers, and their states teacher education programs to witness the dynamic learning theory of humans as constructed, critical, social, diverse, and unique to every human. Most literacy teacher educators present this view of learning to preservice and in-service teachers only to see classroom teachers becoming frustrated in trying to negotiate a curriculum reflecting those attributes but meeting with test results that are used in punitive ways in their states. Teacher educators need to collaborate with classroom teachers, parents, and community groups to educate and inform policy makers about the true value of assessment to inform instruction, not to label, sort, and judge students. Pearson (1996) provides an eloquent case for policy makers (traditionally elected and appointed officials) becoming more involved in the lives of our children and the daily realities of teaching and learning literacy in our schools. Pearson offers six simply stated literacy policy issues, through which he invites policy makers Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December

13 to examine these six with care, thoughtfulness, and a sense of urgency about improving the lives of our children (p. 308). Response to this invitation does not appear to be forthcoming, and the influence of policy in the form of state testing is playing an increasingly significant and troublesome role in schools according to the representative set of teachers and parents in this study. Because America s literacy and math scores are frequently compared internationally and Japan s elementary schools high-achieving young students have been much touted, it is interesting to note that Lewis (1995) reports that Japanese teachers, through their union, simply refused to administer standardized tests because of their destructive educational effects on young learners. Until students get to high school, there are no such tests in Japanese schools. It appears that the teachers in this study, along with teacher educators, know of the deleterious effects state testing can have on young learners, and those in the business of state testing need to be aware of these effects. It is patently clear from the teachers in this study that the opposition to standardized testing is not motivated by fear of being held accountable; rather it is motivated by the principled notion that good teaching is not being delivered because teachers and children are being held accountable for what these teachers perceive as bad practices (i.e., teaching to the test through isolated skill and drill) to render high test scores. One of the stakeholders in children s education in this study posed the possibility of publishing in the state newspapers the reading and math scores of the state people (i.e., governor, legislators, elected board of education people, etc.) whose thrust it is to mandate state testing. In this way, taxpayers would know in which district to buy a house based on the academic achievement of an enlightened elected state official. These are cynical educational times, and the cynicism appears to be based on the imposed, top-down, test-driven version of school reform that this sample of teachers feels is lowering quality education in many states. Teachers and parents are speaking up and out against such educational policies. Asensible balance may lie in the point of view put forth by Christensen (1999) who asserts that the question for anyone who cares about kids is how do we retain our critical stance on assessments while preparing students for them? Can we teach the tests without compromising what we know to be true about teaching and learning? (p. 14) Testing and assessment are not going away anytime soon. What is a viable way for teachers, teacher educators, parents, and children to best negotiate this testing culture and learn from these tests as well as learn for these tests? REFERENCES Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women s ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books. Brindley, R. (1996). The extent to which student teachers develop a constructivist epistemology and use it to guide their classroom practice. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Georgia. Christensen, L. (1999). High stakes harm. Rethinking Schools, 13, Cramming for the test : Massachusetts kids scramble to pass new state exams. (1999, May 17). Newsweek, 133, Czubaj, C. A. (1995). Standardized assessments used in American public schools are invalid and unreliable. Education, 116, Fiske, E. B. (1992). Smart school, smart kids. New York: Simon & Schuster. Green, J., & Dixon, C. (1996). Language of literacy dialogues: Facing the future or reproducing the past. Journal of Literacy Research, 28, Haertel, E. H. (1999). Performance assessment and education reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, Haladyna, T. H., Haas, N. M., & Allison, J. (1998). Continuing tensions in standardized testing. Childhood Education, 74, Herman, J., & Golan, S. (1991). Effects of standardized testing on teachers and learning Another look (CSE Tech. Rep. No. 334). Los Angeles: Center for the Study of Evaluation, University of California at Los Angeles. Hycner, R. H. (1985). Some guidelines for the phenomenological analysis of interview data. Human Studies, 8, Johnston, P. (1998). The consequences and the use of standardized tests. In S. Murphy (Ed.), Fragile evidence. A critique of reading assessment (pp ). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Johnston, P., Afflerbach, P., & Weiss, P. (1993). Teachers evaluation of the teaching and learning of literacy and literature. Educational Assessment, 1, Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December 2000

14 Johnston, P., Guice, S., Baker, K., Malone, J., & Michelson, N. (1995). Assessment of teaching and learning in literature based classrooms. Teaching and Teacher Education, 11, Lagemann, E. C. (1996). Contested terrain: A history of education research in the United States, Chicago: Spencer Foundation. Lewis, C. C. (1995). Educating hearts and minds: Reflections on Japanese preschool and elementary education. New York: Cambridge University Press. Mabry, L. (1999). Writing to the rubric: Lingering effects of traditional standardized testing on direct writing assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, McGill-Franzen, A. (in press). Policy and instruction: What is the relationship? Handbook of reading research (Vol. 3). McLaughlin, M. W. (1994). Educational policy, impact on practice. In M. Aiken (Ed.), American Educational Research Association encyclopedia of educational research (pp ). New York: Macmillan. National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Pearson, P. D. (1996). Six ideas in search of a champion: What policy makers should know about the teaching and learning of literacy in our schools. Journal of Literacy Research, 28, Popham, W. J. (1999). Why standardized tests don t measure educational quality. Educational Leadership, 56, Rose, L. C., & Gallup, A. M. (1999). The 31st annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of the public s attitudes toward the public schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 81, Routman, R. (1996). Literacy at the crossroads. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Sacks, P. (1997). Standardized testing: Meritocracy s crooked yardstick. Change, 29(2), Sheldon, K. M., & Biddle, B. J. (1998). Standards, accountability, and school reform: Perils and pitfalls. Teachers College Record, 100, Smith, M. L. (1991). Put to the test: The effects of external testing on teachers. Educational Researcher, 20, Smith, M. L., Edelsky, C., Draper, K., Rottenberg, C., & Cherland, M. (1991). The role of testing in elementary schools (CSE Tech. Rep. No. 321). Los Angeles: Center for the Study of Evaluation, University of California at Los Angeles. Smith, M. S., Stevenson, D. L., & Li, C. P. (1998). Voluntary national tests would improve education. Educational Leadership, 55, Stake, R. E. (1999). The goods on American education. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, Teddlie, C., & Stringfield, S. (1993). Schools make a difference: Lessons learned from a 10-year study of school effects. New York: Teachers College Press. The test of their lives: As state grade school exams spread, some ask: Are the stakes too high? (1999, February 15). Time, 153, Mary Alice Barksdale-Ladd is a professor of childhood/language arts/reading at the University of South Florida, where she teaches reading, language arts, and qualitative research courses. Her primary research focus is on teacher education in literacy. In 1995, she completed a Fulbright fellowship on teacher education reform in the United States in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the Hertzen Pedagogical University. Karen F. Thomas is an associate professor of literacy education at Western Michigan University, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in language and literacy education in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership and serves as unit head for the reading unit of the Dorothy J. McGinnis Reading Center and Clinic. Her research focus is children s literacy learning and teacher education in literacy instruction. Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 51, No. 5, November/December

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