Standardized testing has become a major factor in the evaluation of our nation's schools, in turn impacting the funding of school districts, the psyche of the students tested, and the jobs of teachers expected to prepare students for these tests. A pair of Eastern Illinois University education students has grown skeptical of this system, however, and they recently presented their research on the matter at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) event in Ithaca, N.Y.
Candice Ivie and Jordan Palmgren surveyed third- through fifth-grade students and teachers on the impact of the Illinois Standardized Achievement Test and the effects it has on the classroom environment, gathering data on the correlation between preparation time and students' test anxieties, ISAT's impact on classroom curriculum and time spent on subjects not stressed at specific grade levels, and its overall influence on the education process.
Their findings seem to support the idea that teachers and students alike tend to experience undue stress as a result of testing, which in turn affects performance and calls into question the testing's effectiveness.
"It has been both insightful and heartbreaking," says Ivie. "To hear that some students are nervous about this test and feel pressured or stressed based on their performance is not the necessarily a thrilling find, but hopefully one that can help us to look at alternatives to assessing students.
"Within the last few years, education has been changing in several ways — everything from teaching methods to standards — but the way we assess our students has consistently stayed the same. For years, we have been assessing students through standardized tests, which don't necessarily give all students a fair chance or assess on all skills."
Palmgren says a discussion of the Race to the Top program in her Block I class touched a nerve and sparked her desire to conduct this research.
"This particular topic got me fired up and bothered that some schools are not receiving funding they not only deserve, but need as well," says Palmgren. "Teachers are being fired based on students scores alone, some schools are being shut down permanently because of their students' performance, and everyone wants to blame the teachers.
"After our discussion in class a few of us were curious how other teachers and students felt about this particular topic and thought it would be interesting if we could ask the teachers and students we will have in practicum. Dr. (Daniel) Carter informed us that this is more of a research project and that we should consider pursuing this opportunity."
As future teachers and parents, the subject obviously hits home with both students.
"I worry about my curriculum being limited, which could then have a negative effect on my lessons and the overall education of the students I teach," says Palmgren. "I feel education is more important than just a test on which one needs to perform well. Education is a way to better oneself.
"I'm concerned that the purpose of education is becoming lost. I know I am not going to college to learn how to teach to a test! If that's the case, anyone can be a teacher but teaching is much more than that."
One thing is certain: neither student feels their work is done. They have been chosen to present their work at National Louis University's Research Forum in Chicago. They're looking forward to presenting this research to an Illinois-based crowd that is familiar with the subject matter.
"We're hoping to get the attention of the Illinois crowd and hopefully spark some interest," says Ivie. "Our research is to really help find a way to better the plan we currently have in place. If we can simply inspire a couple of teachers to find other ways to go about looking at the ISAT test and how they prepare for it, then we're moving in the right direction. But in the long run, we hope we can assist in improving the assessment plan that is currently becoming a stressor for many elementary students."
"At this point I do not feel that our research is complete," says Palmgren. "We collected a lot of data, but I do not feel that it is enough to support an accurate conclusion about how central Illinois teachers and students feel about the impact ISAT has on a classroom. I can only state the reflection and feelings of X amount of schools. I want the research to have more meaning."