Beyond the Headlines: What Teachers Think of Standards & Assessments

Recent coverage of a RAND Corporation report has emphasized teachers’ support for academic standards, while also leaning into their opposition to assessments. However, when it comes to assessments, the report provides important context that can easily be overlooked—at times even burying the lead.

According to the report, which draws on survey data from the 2015 and 2016 Teacher Panel, nearly all teachers (88 percent of mathematics teachers, 89 percent of English language arts teachers) supported the use of state standards for instruction. It’s notable that support is highest among teachers in high-needs schools, particularly those with high concentrations of low-income and/or English language learners—with rates above 90 percent. Importantly, a majority of teachers believe that the standards are well-aligned from grade to grade—with a connected and logical sequence— and that they help to prepare students for success after high school.

 “Despite some public outcry and resistance to state standards reported by the media, our data suggest that the vast majorities of U.S. mathematics and ELA teachers support use of state standards in instruction, regardless of who they teach and the state context in which they teach.”  – RAND Corporation, 2017

Where the report coverage gets a bit muddled however, is in the discussion of assessments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, support for the assessments aligned to these standards is considerably lower—hovering around 30 percent. While the report suggests that the use of assessments as part of teacher evaluations could be part of the driver, it unfortunately does not provide data on this point. It does however, show that for teachers who believe that tests can measure how well students are mastering the standards, less than one quarter express challenges with assessments.

Ironically, when looking at responses to both the 2015 and 2016 surveys the most noteworthy aspect is that teacher perceptions have remained fairly stable. And what has changed is actually positive—a significant decrease in concern by a number of teachers.

Don’t take it from us; take it directly from the RAND report:

“Teachers’ average ratings across all the concerns we asked about in the survey (on a scale from “not at all” to “major” concern) changed very little from 2015 to 2016, whereas average ratings of concerns  about the current statewide ELA tests decreased significantly for teachers in states that had adopted Common Core or similar state standards and—in particular—for teachers in states that administered the PARCC assessment in both 2015 and 2016, as well as for teachers in schools serving fewer low-income  students and fewer ELLs. Over a longer period of time, as teachers gain familiarity with tests and their content, teachers’ concerns could potentially decrease more.”

What the report doesn’t say is just as important. It’s true that teachers who are familiar with the assessments they’re administering will find more reason to support them – but it’s vital that those assessments are also an accurate measure of what students are learning. Assessments that aren’t providing teachers with the information they need to support students run the risk of increasing concerns about testing – and alienating teachers.

Now there’s something worthy of a headline.

Adam Ezring is the Director of Policy at the Collaborative for Student Success