U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently conceded that too much standardized testing was “sucking the oxygen out of the room” and causing “undue stress.” Although some of the nation’s educators may have been encouraged by Duncan’s words, most policymakers have spent the past decade ignoring calls from teachers to curb high-stakes testing.
But what is it about standardized testing specifically that makes it toxic to so many educators? To help answer this question, researchers at the National Education Association collected and analyzed phone survey data from 1500 PreK-12 teachers. Four specific factors emerged that, taken together, reveal a teaching force frustrated with the impact high stakes testing has had on students and on morale.
Too Much Pressure
According to the NEA survey, a majority of teachers reported feeling considerable pressure to improve test scores. 72 percent replied that they felt “moderate” or “extreme” pressure from both school and district administrators.
From fellow teachers and parents, however, a large majority of respondents said they felt very little or no pressure. The fact that increasing numbers of parents nationwide no longer want their children to be exposed to a one-size-fits-all education approach may help explain the disparity between them and school and district officials.
Negative Impact on the Classroom
Forty-two percent of the surveyed teachers reported that the emphasis on improving standardized test scores had a “negative impact” on their classroom, while only 15 percent said the impact was “positive.” Over the past decade, the high stakes testing regime has squeezed out much of the curriculum that can make schools an engaging and enriching experience for students, and teachers have been forced to dilute their creativity to teach to the test.
“I would much rather help students learn how to conduct research and how to discuss and how to explore controversies and how to complete multi-task projects than teach them how to recall this or that fact for an exam,” explains teacher Connie Fawcett.
The sheer volume of tests that teachers are tasked with administering and preparing students for is enormously time-consuming. Fifty-two percent of teachers surveyed said they spend too much time on testing and test prep. The average teacher now reports spending about 30 percent of their work time on testing-related tasks, including preparing students, proctoring, and reviewing results of standardized tests. Teresa Smith Johnson, a 5th grade teacher in Georgia, says her school spends a minimum of 8 weeks testing during the school year. “That doesn’t include preparing for testing, talking about testing, and examining data from testing,” she adds. “Imagine what we could do with that time. There must be a better plan.”
‘Test and Punish’
Education “reformers” are obsessed with rooting out “bad” teachers, and they have persuaded lawmakers across the nation that the only quick ‘n’ easy way to do that is to tie teacher evaluation to test scores. Over 40 percent of surveyed members reported that their school placed “moderate” to “extreme” emphasis on students’ test scores to evaluate their performance. But using scores this way is losing support among the general public. According to the recent PDK poll on the public’s attitude towards public education, only 38 percent of the public – and only 31 percent of parents – support using students’ standardized test scores to evaluate teachers.
“Educators know that real accountability in public schools requires all stakeholders to place student needs at the center of all efforts,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Real accountability in public schools requires that everyone—lawmakers, teachers, principals, parents and students—partner in accepting responsibility for improving student learning.”
Testing and Teacher Morale
While it’s clear from the survey that over-testing has taken its toll on classrooms across the country, what’s the cumulative effect on teachers? Teachers love their work, and the NEA survey found that 75 percent of teachers are satisfied with their jobs. However, the data also indicate that toxic testing environments contribute to lower job satisfaction and thoughts of leaving the profession. Despite the high level of overall satisfaction, nearly half (45 percent) of surveyed member teachers have considered quitting because of standardized testing. Teachers are dedicated individuals and many succeed in focusing on the positive, but the fact that testing has prompted such a high percentage of educators to contemplate such a move underscores its corrosive effect on the profession.
TAKE THE SURVEY
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