What teachers think about standards and assessments

A new study by RAND examines teachers’ support of their state standards and tests. It’s a nationally representative sample of K–12 teachers, and though educators from all subjects were surveyed, the report focuses only on the responses of math and English language arts (ELA) teachers. It also compares responses from educators who were surveyed in 2015 and 2016 on a subset of repeated questions and looks into how certain teacher and school characteristics are related to teacher support or lack thereof. The survey has a response rate of 45 percent.

There are key five findings. First, nearly 90 percent of both ELA and math teachers support the use of state standards for instruction. Slightly higher percentages believe that math and ELA standards provide a foundation for postsecondary preparation for students and that they support alignment of the curriculum from grade to grade. However, among those same teachers, only about a third say they support the use of current statewide tests to measure mastery of the state standards in their respective subject area.

Second, though standards enjoy wide support from teachers overall, teachers in schools with more lower-income students are even more likely to support the use of state standards in both math and ELA and the use of tests to measure mastery of ELA standards.

Third, a couple subgroup differences are worth mentioning, namely that educators who reported teaching in Common Core states were less likely to support their state tests in math and ELA than those who reported not being in CCSS states. Also, teachers who taught higher numbers of students with special needs were less likely to support the use of tests to measure mastery in math.

Fourth, in looking into the black box, analysts found that those who did not support the standards were less likely than supporters to think that the standards had a manageable number of topics to teach in a year. Non-supporters also felt that the state tests were too difficult for their students and that they would not provide accurate data for students with special needs. Surprisingly, low percentages of supporters and non-supporters (less than a quarter) voiced concerns that the test was not aligned to their standards or that their school lacked the technological capacity to administer the state test.

Fifth and finally, there were no significant changes in teachers’ overall concerns about standards and tests from 2015 to 2016, except for a couple, including that teachers in states that administered the PARCC ELA test in both 2015 and 2016 showed a measurable decrease in various concerns about that test (meaning they were less likely to say that the test would be too difficult for their students, take time away from other important classwork, or not provide accurate scores).

So, at the risk of oversimplification: Most teachers like state standards (though there’s still aversion to Common Core in some cases) and dislike state tests—but also believe that standards alignment and the technology for administering assessments have both improved. And, despite the initial outcry about Common Core tests like PARCC, once you get used to them, they’re not so bad after all. Which seems like something the testing critics (educators and non-educators alike) should keep in mind.

SOURCE: Kaufman, Julia H., Elaine Lin Wang, Laura S. Hamilton, Lindsey E. Thompson and Gerald Hunter, “U.S. Teachers' Support of Their State Standards and Assessments: Findings from the American Teacher Panel,” RAND Corporation (2017).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.