No Child Left Behind and the Impact of Testing in the Classroom
Karin S. Thompson
Seattle Pacific University
No Child Left Behind and the Impact of Testing in the Classroom
For more than a decade, the establishment of No Child Left Behind Act has been impacting classrooms across the nation. What started as a plan to help raise achievement levels of disadvantaged students has now led to high-stakes testing—a practice that has led to student and teacher burn-out (which causes teachers to overlook the benefits of some testing methods), a decrease in performance in schools across the nation, and unintended consequences from the inappropriate use of testing. With this research, it is intended to not only highlight and discuss the impact that testing has had in the classroom, but to also bring about the importance of using testing for the right reasons.
No Child Left Behind Act
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which was launched in 2001, is the reauthorization of The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. NCLB supported a standards-based reform movement aimed to set high standards in schools across the nation in an effort to improve education. As each state began to develop their own basic standards and generate assessments to test basic skills of students, the federal government’s role in education increased with their focus on annual testing and academic progress, higher teacher qualifications, and, eventually, remarkable changes in funding. When the Act was first implemented, achievement was indeed seen in many schools. However, over time, the overuse and overreliance on standardized testing to judge students, teachers, and schools came under much criticism.
As No Child Left Behind quickly increased the role of standardized tests and the way schools are funded, teachers came under a lot of pressure to get their students to perform and reach the standard of Proficient on performance tests. Annual achievement tests in math and reading became required, and these assessments meant to measure student knowledge started altering the funds to which a school had access (Schoenfeld, 2015, p. 185). In order to qualify for federal funding under NCLB, states had to regulate standards for performance and assess students on a regular basis, and students had to reach a certain level of achievement. This regular assessing of students became known as “high stakes” because teachers’ salaries and jobs, administrators’ salaries and jobs, students’ promotions, and the very existence of schools and districts themselves became dependent on the test scores (Schoenfeld, 2015, p. 185). The high-stakes decisions—based on high-stakes test scores—made by the Department of Education include continued testing but also whether to fail students, remove teachers, or close schools (Kumashiro, 2015). If schools did not perform well—if student test scores failed to meet scoring requirements of the standardized tests—and schools were shown to not have met qualifications for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the districts to which they belonged could become dismantled entirely. Schools would be put on plans for improvement, and teachers and administrators could all be without a job as new teachers and administrators were brought in to help improve the school. The result of this pressure of schools to perform well has, not surprisingly, brought about a new trend—teachers doing whatever was needed to meet the testing requirements (Schoenfeld, 2015, p. 185).
Many educators and critics see the standardized testing as a way to limit creativity and reduce opportunities for students to learn non-test items and skills. Even the United States Department of Education and the Obama Administration, which released in an action plan for testing, acknowledged in the October 2015 document that testing has taken away the creativity of learning and has sucked up vital opportunities for teaching and learning. The standardized achievement tests give students a narrow learning experience because teachers have had to shift their focus to that of test preparation. Teachers began to “teach to the test,” which meant that they were putting aside good teaching strategies and impactful lessons in order to get their students to memorize content that they would see on the end-of-the-year exams. The implementation of the 2009 Race to the Top Initiative further spurred anxiety and “teaching to the test” trends as teachers now became the ones accountable for testing—instead of the schools—in this competitive program meant to get schools and teachers to satisfy certain educational policies to earn grant money for their state (Roach, 2014).
Consequences of Testing: Positive and Negative
While testing students is not a new practice and was around before No Child Left Behind, the amount of tests that students are required to complete in their schooling days has drastically increased since the implementation of NCLB. Students had formerly been tested in both reading and math, but were only given each of these subject-area tests once in elementary school, middle school, and high school, for a total of just six tests through one’s school experience. Now, however, students are testing sixteen times in grades three through eight (DeNisco, 2015). This increase is a clear indication of the testing overload that is currently experienced by teachers and students. Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was reported as saying that the frequent testing was criticized for failing to measure students’ abilities to analyze and apply knowledge, creating too many incentives to cheat or teach to the test, and narrowing the curriculum (Roach, 2014).
Though the attitude towards high-stakes achievement tests has been declining, it is important for teachers and students to understand that, according to many psychologists and researchers, not all testing is bad. Nancy Waymack, managing director of district policy at National Council on Teacher Quality, believes there is “Value in knowing how well students are doing” and testing should be used to “inform instruction, inform parents, and compare the performance of students to others in the district, state, or nation” (DeNisco, 2015). According to Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, in their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, we should think of testing as practicing retrieval of learning—a practice that has been shown to strengthen memory and interrupt the process of forgetting (Brown, et. al, p. 19-20).
The Department of Education’s action plan for testing recognizes that an essential part of education is ensuring that students are learning. One way to measure this is through the use of assessments, but they need to be done the right way—they need to be done well, and they need to be thoughtful. Assessments should provide the necessary information to educators, families, and students to help measure a child’s progress and improve the outcomes for learners: “Testing should be a learning tool, rather than a dipstick to measure learning,” (Brown, et. al., p. 19). Essentially, this means that teachers and schools should be using assessments as a tool to show students their current progress and help guide them towards exploring areas of improvement. One type of testing for gaining instant insight into a child’s current progress is a formative assessment (standardized tests are considered summative assessments, because they evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit or grade level and is compared against a standard or benchmark) which can be defined as an exam or performance opportunity in which the primary purpose is to provide students and teachers immediate feedback about a student’s current state, while there are still opportunities for improvement (Schoenfeld, 2015, p. 184). One type of formative testing, according to psychologist Robert Sternberg, is called Dynamic Testing (Brown, et. al., 2014, p. 42). This testing assists learners with focusing on areas of needed improvement and to gauge a learner’s potential. Formative and dynamic testing gives learners the chance to discover their weaknesses and improve them by asking questions to themselves such as, “What do I need to learn in order to improve?” Low-stakes testing, such as this and other frequent formative testing in the classroom, helps reduce test anxiety and enables instructors to identify gaps in students’ understanding in order to adapt instruction to fill the gaps (Brown, et. al., p. 43). It also reiterates the work that has been done by psychologists to prove that assessments should be used as a tool for learning—not judging—so that students can quickly and efficiently expand their learning and success within the classroom.
Impact on Performance and an Action Plan
In their document discussing an action plan for testing, the U.S. Department of Education acknowledged that federal policies intended to help underprivileged students has created unintended, and negative, consequences seen in schools and communities across the nation. A 2012 Gallop poll discovered that twenty-nine percent of Americans believe that No Child Left Behind actually worsened education (Roach, 2014) compared to the sixteen percent of Americans who feel that NCLB improved education (thirty-eight percent said it had not made a difference and seventeen percent of people polled had no opinion on the issue). Recent test scores released in 2015 show that this may actually be true; declining reading and math scores indicate that high-stakes testing is not helping public education, further demonstrating and highlighting the negative outcomes that have come from testing, including the previously mentioned production of a narrow and less effective curriculum (Kumashiro, 2015). Standardized testing emphasizes memorization and massed practice, but doesn’t allow for a larger grasp on context or creative ability (Brown, et. al., p. 19). Psychologist Robert Sternberg believes that “standardized tests can’t accurately rate our potential because what they reveal is limited to a static report of where we are on the learning continuum at the time the test is given” (Brown, et. al., p. 151).
Unfortunately, the increasingly frequent assessments has contributed not only to testing overload with students, but has ultimately been turned into a tool used to measure teacher success and performance as well. With the Race to the Top Initiative as major factor contributing to this trend, the scores of students on high-stakes tests are now being used to judge whether or not a classroom teacher is fulfilling her educator duties correctly. Testing that was supposed to measure how schools and students are achieving is now being used to interpret competency and effectiveness of classroom teachers. The American Statistical Association recognizes that effects—both positive and negative—attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other unmeasured factors (DeNisco, 2015). The education advocacy group ASCD is calling for a massive move to cut back on testing and limit the use of testing on an accountability measure, since they do not accurately and adequately reflect a teacher’s classroom performance. “Students should never be tested for the sole purpose of evaluating teachers,” states Nancy Waymack from the National Council on Teacher Quality.
It was recognized in the Department of Education’s action plan that support of implementing testing and its use has been inadequate, and the Obama Administration explained their intent to correct these inadequacies to help “unwind” the practices that have burdened classroom time, students, and educators. Some principles that have been addressed regarding assessments, and how they should be changed, are that they need to be: worth-taking, of high-quality, time-limited, fair in equity in educational opportunity, fully transparent to students and parents, just one of multiple measures, and lastly, tied to improved learning. The last two principles seem of high importance as they discuss the recognition that “no single assessment should ever be the sole factor in making an educational decision about a student, an educator, or a school” and that a student’s academic performance should also be based on school assignments, projects, and portfolios. The broad majority of assessments should be tools for improving learning and teaching, according to the Department of Education and the Obama Administration. Additionally, the Department of Education has begun to reduce the reliance on student test scores for educator evaluation requirements. The Department has adjusted policies to ensure that states and districts utilize other measurements of teacher evaluations, such as observation systems and student and parent surveys.
When used correctly and thoughtfully, testing in the classroom can have positive effects on the learning and achievement of students and teachers. Formative assessments should be used frequently to help a student and her teacher know individual areas for improvement. The overuse of summative testing to measure success of everyone inside a school building has caused overload and burn-out, a decrease in overall performance, and a decline in the creativity and passion that an educator attempts to deliver to her students during their educational journey. Hopefully, a change in the Department of Education’s expectations surrounding standardized testing will help point America’s schools in the direction of utilizing testing in the classroom for their intended purposes—to measure current learning progress and help students improve.
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United States Department of Education. (October 2015). “Fact Sheet: Testing Action Plan.”