Over a period of 5 years, from 2000 to 2005, the US slipped from being ranked 18th in the world in math to being 40th and from 15th to 24th in reading. While many reasons have been proposed for this decline in education, like increasing diversity and rising poverty levels, one factor that has gained increasing attention is standardized testing.
Standardized testing by itself is a useful tool to see how schools are performing. However, when standardized testing becomes an accountability tool — where schools, teachers or students are rewarded or penalized based on test outcomes — tests become high-stakes and carry the potential for damage. Standardized testing had been in use in the US for many decades but starting with the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, testing became much more high stakes which then changed teaching patterns in classrooms.
Reduction of Intrinsic Motivation
The main problem with high stakes testing is that it incentivizes all players — schools, teachers and students — in ways that don’t help in deeper learning. Instead of tapping teachers’ and students’ intrinsic motivation, it imposes strong extrinsic motivators on them.
With school funding tied to test scores on limited subjects, time spent on teaching other subjects declined. An analysis on schools and districts found that 70% of school districts reported a focus on reading and mathematics that reduced instructional time for other subjects.
The motivation effect extends to students as well. Teachers inadvertently pass on extrinsic motivators in the forms of excessive focus on scores or grades to students, instead of having more discussions in the classroom. As more instruction time is spent on preparing for tests, students have less time to be curious and connect their learning to the real world. As a result, students start losing interest in learning itself and no longer find schooling meaningful.
This is especially harmful for student creativity, which relies on a well-rounded education. Creativity comes from having knowledge in several areas and being able to find connections between domains. When instruction and exploration time in other subjects like science, social studies, arts and music, are cut down the overall creativity of a child reduces. This is one reason that creativity scores of students have declined significantly over the last few decades.
Strategies to increase motivation and learning outcomes
When high stakes testing is part of the educational culture, are there some ways to limit the harmful aspects and still achieve good learning outcomes?
In one study conducted at Chicago Public Schools (CPS), researchers tracked low-achieving students from five elementary schools in a high stakes environment. CPS implemented a policy to end social promotion where students would be held back in the current grade if they failed to achieve a minimum score on standardized tests in reading and mathematics. The researchers found that there was a significant difference in outcomes between schools with the top performing school having 4x lower retention rate than the worst performing school.
The top performing school employed strategies that better supported students in achieving their goals.
- Positive, goal-focused environment: Teachers created a more positive and supportive environment for students, where students felt that the teachers personally cared for their success. The teachers frequently brought up the student goals, determined ways for them to achieve them and praised the effort students were making. All of these strategies created an environment where students’ social connection motivated them to exert more effort. As one student expressed, “She says we better try. She plays around saying she doesn’t want to see us again next year, that it’s time for us to leave… she’s usually clowning around but she’s telling the truth…She cares about all the children… She shows us by teaching us more stuff and giving us examples of the test.”
- Shared expectations: Teachers in the high performing school created a sense of responsibility for the whole group. They nurtured an environment where not just the teacher-student relationship mattered but also the peer interactions. When students perceive that their peers are on their side and want them to succeed, their motivation increases.
- Support outside of regular school hours: The CPS effort also provided other avenues of support including after-school programs and summer school. These extra avenues gave students a significant boost in academic support. A majority of the students who increased their effort levels participated in after-school programs or tutoring that extended the in-class instruction. They were able to get more work done by themselves and did more homework than students who only attended regular school.
These factors helped increase social and intrinsic motivation among students, providing a counterbalance to high-stakes extrinsic motivation. As the researchers note, “Thus, the social context of learning—how teachers, parents, and peers interact with students in relation to the policy—may be the most important factor in determining how students respond to the incentive.”
The standardized testing environment that is now an integral part of the US educational system will not change overnight. While there are advantages to measuring student performance, tying those results to incentives for schools or teachers creates harmful effects that lower intrinsic motivation and learning outcomes. Despite that, there are strategies schools and educators can use to build a more caring and supportive environment in their classrooms to help students achieve their learning goals.
This article first appeared on edCircuit.