A Weak Link Between High Test Scores and Student Happiness?

test scores happy studentsTeaching is an enormously complex and challenging profession, but the excessive reliance on standardized tests set in motion by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) condensed teaching and learning – and therefore accountability systems  – down to test scores.

NCLB is history, replaced in 2016 by the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), which gives states the flexibility to design more expansive and effective accountability plans. ESSA does require, however, that states consider at least one “nonacademic” or “noncognitive” factor in the development of these new policies.

Broadening the definition of what it means to be a successful student and a successful teacher is good policy and long overdue, says David Blazar, an assistant professor of education policy and economics at the University of Maryland. Blazar is one of a growing number of researchers who are building a body of evidence that demonstrates the critical role teachers play in developing student skills beyond test scores.

“We’ve focused so long on these scores because that was the data available to us, but of course anyone who has been in a classroom, including myself, know that teachers do so much more than improve test scores,” Blazar explains. “We should be paying more attention to the skills and practices that teachers engage in and see teaching as a multidimensional profession.”

In a recently released study, Blazar analyzed data from fourth and fifth grade teachers in three states and from surveys administered to their students to look at the different ways teachers are effective at fostering student engagement, behavior and a sense of belonging.

Anyone who has been in a classroom, including myself, know that teachers do so much more than improve test scores. We should be paying more attention to the skills and practices that teachers engage in and see teaching as a multidimensional profession.” – David Blazar, University of Maryland

Blazar found that teachers have a significant impact on students’ self-reported behavior in class, self-efficacy in math, and happiness or engagement in class. In short, effective teachers can and do create happy students.

Blazar also found, however, that teachers who were successful at raising math test scores may be doing so in a way that made their students less engaged and happy. A decade-plus of test-based accountability in effect has undercut teachers’ efforts to create engaging learning environments for their students.

Does this suggest that test scores and student happiness are incompatible? No, says Blazar, but schools should redirect resources and attention to help teachers develop both skills. “This is not a fixed reality,” he says.

Blazar believes students’ social and emotional development should be a central goal of teachers’ work. As he wrote in the study, “accountability systems that focus predominately or exclusively on student achievement send a message that the skills captured on these tests are the ones that policymakers want students to have when they leave school.”

Policymakers in full panic mode over the nation’s “failing” public schools, however, may scoff at the importance of student happiness. This is a mistake, according to Blazar.

“By ‘happiness,’ we’re talking about enjoyment or engagement in class conversations. It’s an important measure. Students who are happy and engaged in school do well in life,” he says.

How these new measures of teacher effectiveness are used, on the other hand, is another issue. While many school leaders and educators support incorporating student outcomes beyond test scores, and teachers’ ability to improve them, in policy conversations, they should not be focused on high stakes decisions, Blazar says. Instead, a more appropriate use would be to identify areas for professional growth and connect teachers with targeted, more effective professional development.

confidence in public schoolsHappy Students and School Climate
A positive school climate depends on school safety, but also how connected or engaged a student feels in school, the strength of relationships with school staff, and the state of parental involvement. Creating and sustaining that environment is an essential and very complex task, say experts.

How ESSA Helps Advance Social and Emotional Learning
As the Every Student Succeeds Act affords states the flexibility to decide how to measure student achievement, more attention is being paid to how schools play a key role in developing students’ so-called “soft skills.”

Moving forward, Blazar hopes that administrative datasets will be expanded to include a wider range of student outcomes, which in turn will provide new tools to “examine what works in education.”

Blazar is in the process of tracking some of the students he surveyed using district data that over time may reveal how their happiness in fourth and fifth grade impacts their academic career.

“I would hypothesize, as I’m sure others would as well, that having a teacher who creates an enjoyable, engaging classroom experience will get you excited about school and that will carry over into middle and high school. I think we’ll continue to see those trends and that will provide more impetus for measuring these sorts of skills and teachers’ ability to improve them.”