A new University of Maryland College of Education study examined the relationship between test preparation and quality of teacher instruction, in response to the contentious debate over the effect of standardized testing on education. Led by University of Maryland College of Education Assistant Professor David Blazar, the researchers found that test preparation activities predicted lower quality and less ambitious mathematics instruction in upper elementary classrooms, but the magnitude of this effect was not large relative to that of other teaching interventions.
Additionally, through comparison of teaching in school districts with standardized tests of varying difficulty, the study did not find that a rigorous test led teachers to engage in more high-quality teaching via test preparation activities.
“Despite heated criticism of ‘teaching to the test,’ there has been little empirical research on how test preparation activities influence teachers’ delivery of instruction, which motivated our investigation,” Dr. Blazar said. “Conversely, some proponents of testing assert that rigorous tests can elevate teaching through high-quality test preparation activities, but our study did not support that assertion.”
In the study, published in Educational Researcher in October 2017, researchers used data from 328 fourth and fifth-grade teachers in five East Coast school districts. Three hundred and eight teachers from four districts completed a survey about their engagement in test-preparation activities, such as teaching test-taking strategies. Additionally, a total of 60 teachers from all five districts participated in two types of videotaped lessons, one focused on explicit preparation for state tests and one in which test preparation was not the lesson focus. This approach allowed researchers to compare how the quality of instruction from the same teacher varied depending on lesson content.
Researchers also evaluated the test each district used to assess students, rating how demanding each assessment was based on criteria such as whether questions were multiple-choice or open-ended.
“Based on both teachers’ self-reports and video lesson evaluation, we found that test preparation activities resulted in less ambitious teaching,” Dr. Blazar said. “Yet, our study only found small to moderate decreases in instructional quality as a result of test preparation activities, and this effect was smaller than that identified through previous research of other instructional interventions, such as teacher coaching.”
The researchers advocated for policymakers and school leadership to consider the complex relationship among testing, tests, and instruction in order to create comprehensive efforts to improve mathematics instruction.
The study authors outlined several limits to their study, including that, similar to other studies on this topic, teachers volunteered to participate in the research as opposed to being randomly assigned. As this study leverages variation across a small number of districts and assessments, the researchers consider this study as helping illustrate patterns about the relationship among test rigor, test-preparation, and the ambitious nature of teachers’ mathematics instruction, as opposed to providing conclusive evidence.
Dr. Blazar is a faculty member in the UMD College of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership. His research focuses on the economics of education, teacher effectiveness, and professional development.