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March 2008 | Volume 65 | Number 6
Reaching the Reluctant Learner
Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner
School cultures dominated by high-stakes tests are creating more and more reluctant learners.
Since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), students have been exposed to an unprecedented number of tests. Every year in grades 3–8 and at least once in high school, virtually all public school students take tests in math and reading (and soon science). Students also take regular benchmark tests—supposedly to predict performance on the mandated tests—and district assessments throughout the school year. The time spent talking about, preparing for, and taking tests has increased exponentially.
What has all this testing achieved? Five years after NCLB was enacted, there is no convincing evidence that student learning has increased in any significant way on tests other than the states' own tests. On measures such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), no reliable increases in scores have occurred, nor have achievement gaps between students of higher and lower socioeconomic classes narrowed.
In contrast, a wealth of documentation indicates that the unintended and largely negative effects of high-stakes testing are pervasive and a cause for concern (see Jones, Jones, & Hargrove, 2003; Orfield & Kornhaber, 2001). In our own research, we have documented hundreds of cases in which high-stakes testing has harmed teaching and learning (Nichols & Berliner, 2007). For example, high-stakes testing has been associated with suspicious forms of data manipulation, as well as outright cheating. The tests undermine teacher-student relationships, lead to a narrowing of the curriculum, demoralize teachers, and bore students.
Research has not fully examined the impact of this test-dominated school environment on students' attitudes and dispositions toward learning. But we suspect that for most students, schooling is less joyful than it was; and for reluctant learners, schooling is worse than ever.
From the motivation literature, we know that learners are more likely to enjoy learning when activities are meaningful, fun, or interesting. Yet, again and again, high-stakes testing diminishes the fun and meaning of learning. Under pressure to prepare students to perform well in math and reading, teachers engage in repetitious instruction that boils down content to isolated bits of information, leaving little time to engage in creative interdisciplinary activities or project-based inquiry. One Colorado teacher reports,
Our district told us to focus on reading, writing, and mathematics. … In the past I had hatched out baby chicks in the classroom as part of the science unit. I don't have time to do that. … We don't do community outreach like we used to, like visiting the nursing home or cleaning up the park that we had adopted. (Taylor, Shepard, Kinner, & Rosenthal, 2003, p. 51)
We also know that students are more hardworking and persistent when they perceive the purpose of learning as self-improvement or achievement of personal goals. Yet a high-stakes testing climate sends a message that the primary purpose of learning is to score well on the test. Sometimes teaching to the test is blatant, as when teachers assign daily worksheets taken from released older versions of the test. Sometimes it is less obvious, as when instruction is based on the specific information that will be on the test. One teacher explains,
I'm teaching more test-taking skills and how to use your time wisely. Also what to look for in a piece of literature and how to underline important details. There is a lot more time spent on teaching those kinds of skills. … Read questions, restate the question in your answer, write so the person grading the test can read it, etc. (Taylor et al., 2003, p. 39)
As a result of the overvaluing of test results, the curriculum has narrowed. All across the United States, the time devoted to untested subjects like art, music, and social studies has been reduced or eliminated completely so that schools can teach more math, reading, writing, and now science. For example, in Kansas in 2006, high school freshmen were required to "double dose" their English classes instead of participating in electives. In a California middle school, students were required to take two periods of all core subjects and funding was dropped for music, Spanish, art, and classes in the trades and industrial design (Zastrow & Janc, 2006).
In 2006, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released a report on the reasons students drop out of school (Bridgeland, DiIulio, & Morison, 2006). In this small survey of students who had already dropped out, 47 percent reported that school was "uninteresting." About 70 percent commented that they didn't feel "inspired" at school. For such reluctant learners, the increased test preparation and narrower curriculum resulting from high-stakes testing exacerbates the problem. Faced with an increasingly disjointed, decontextualized curriculum, many become actively disengaged; others simply leave.
A disturbing phenomenon popping up in more and more U.S. schools is the prevalence of schoolwide pep rallies, ice cream socials, and other peculiar events meant to "motivate" students to do well on the state-mandated test. For example, one Texas high school held a rally for parents, teachers, and students during which the principal informed parents of the importance of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) and compared it to a marathon, in which "students need endurance." He was not subtle when he said, "This is the test of your lives!" This speech was followed by a class pledge in which students promised to "pass the test and take Parker High School to the top and lead us to exemplary" (Foster, 2006).
This is not an isolated incident. In one New York school, every spring just before test time, the principal brings students together to sing songs that will "inspire" them before and during the test. Some songs included "I'm a Believer" and "I've Been Working on My Writing" (Toy, 2006).
Bulletin boards, posters, and daily mantras constitute additional forms of explicit emphasis on the importance of tests. Clichéd slogans often appear on posters and banners throughout the school. Messages like "Take Us to Exemplary" are pervasive in many Texas schools.
When teachers report that most of their time is spent preparing for the test, when we go into schools and find hundreds of posters related to the upcoming test, when we hear of schools with daily announcements about the "test standard of the day," and when students tell us that not a day goes by without mention of the test, we can be pretty sure that the test has become the primary focus for learning.
High-stakes testing encourages teachers to view students not in terms of their potential, or what unique or new qualities they bring to the learning environment, but rather as test-score increasers or suppressors. Students quickly pick this up and realize they are defined as winners or losers on the basis of their test scores.
Test-score suppressors receive the clear message that they are not valued as highly as their better-performing peers. Sadly, some teachers and principals have done all sorts of unprofessional things to ensure that test-score suppressors either pass (because of rigorous test-prep activities or even more questionable means) or are dropped from testing altogether. For example, more than 500 low-scoring students in Birmingham, Alabama, were administratively "dropped" from school just days before state testing (Orel, 2003). Scores rose, principals received substantial bonuses, and hundreds of students had their lives made infinitely more difficult in the process. Such actions help to transform slow learners into reluctant learners, compounding their problems in school.
Issues associated with test score suppressors are exacerbated in states where high school students have to pass a test to receive a diploma. Hundreds of students are dropping out or opting to take the GED route, mainly because passing the test has become an insurmountable obstacle to them. This is especially true for special education students and English language learners (ELLs). Thousands try as hard as they can but cannot pass the test despite meeting all other graduation requirements. Chronic failure is demeaning, causing many otherwise highly engaged students to give up, drop out, or become increasingly cynical about schooling. The high-stakes testing culture communicates to students that their other abilities are of no value. Outstanding talent in dance, welding, art, knowledge of the U.S. Civil War, computer programming, consensus building in small groups, foreign languages, acting, and so forth count for little.
Even students who score high may become less motivated as a result of the high-stakes testing culture. These test-score increasers often feel "used"—for example, when they are pressured to take the test even when they are sick. As a result, they may adopt cynical attitudes about the purpose of being in school. As one student points out,
The TAKS is a big joke. … This is the easiest test you could ever take. … I mean, forget logarithms and algebra, forget knowing about government and the Bill of Rights. Instead, we read a two-page story and then answer 11 short questions about it such as, "What was the meaning of the word futile in paragraph two? A: generous, B: deceptive, C: useless, and D: applesauce." ("Teen Talk," 2007)
When many students see education as punitive and uninteresting, and when they have their abilities narrowly defined by a single test score, the potential for irreparable and damaging consequences is high. For students who struggle academically, high-stakes testing can diminish their sense of self worth, leading to decreased motivation to do well in school. And for students who see the tests as an easy rite of passage, a school culture formed around high-stakes testing is boring and unconnected. Thus, high-stakes testing cultures build reluctant learners out of even these academically talented students.
How do we know this? The voices of youth are pretty clear. They understand the exaggerated importance of tests in their lives, and it frustrates them. A 12th grader writes,
Students (teachers as well) focus on only the TAKS. It's almost as if they have been given an ultimatum: Either pass the test and get the ticket out of there, or pass the test months later and live with the disappointment all your life. It's not fair. ("Teen Talk," 2007)
Others find the tests dehumanizing and feel angry about the narrow curriculum being forced on them. They worry that their schooling ignores other aspects of their lives. An 11th grade student writes,
In Texas many public school districts have found raising their standardized testing averages to be the No. 1 goal of classroom curriculum. Consequently, school is no longer a forum where students can discuss the effects of alcohol, or the best method to achieve a life filled with value and pleasure, or the simple antics of their daily life. ("Teen Talk," 2007)
The pressure to achieve is highest in high-poverty schools because they are most likely to be shut down or reconsolidated under NCLB. There, the score suppressors are often force-fed a daily curriculum that includes bits of information devoid of any connection to their real lives. Foster (2006), talking with Latino students attending a high-poverty high school heard, "We learn in isolation. We learn one skill one day or in a week and then we never see it again until test time." (p. 143). Another Latino student in the same school commented,
I was written up and sent to the office because I didn't want to do a TAKS assignment. I was told in the office that I had to do it because it was important that I pass this test. I am tired of doing TAKS, TAKS, TAKS. I am not learning anything. (Foster, 2006, p. 144)
Especially revealing are the following excerpts from a transcript of one teacher's attempt to motivate her 16 Latino 11th graders. The teacher had just handed out an essay similar to those that would be on the upcoming state test. Her goal was to motivate and inspire students to perform well on the test. But students were savvy about what was happening.
Teacher: OK, this is last-minute work for TAKS. You can pass the test. You don't want to take it again, right?
Students: No response.
Teacher: Please say yes.
Teacher: You are brilliant. … The test is not hard. Take your time; in fact take all the time you need.
Teacher: OK, there will be three types of open-ended questions and three types of literary selections. What does "literary" mean?
Teacher: Is it fiction, nonfiction, or biography?
Teacher: Are you going to talk to me or you don't know?
Teacher: (in an angry voice) It's fiction, you all. (pause) First thing you do is answer the question. It must be insightful and thoughtful. Do not restate the question. You have five lines to fill in. Then you have to support a response. If you summarize in an open-ended question you get a zero. But if you use support for the passage, you get points. Look at this essay. Do you see how this student used textual support?
Teacher: (in an angry voice) Come on!
Students: No response. (Foster, 2006, pp. 155–158)
And on it goes. Another exciting day at school marked only by passive resistance to what students accurately perceive to be an inferior (and boring) education.
High-stakes tests are not likely to go away, but schools can and should try to minimize their harmful effects. Schools should at least refrain from engaging in test-prep rallies, ice cream socials, or social events that focus specifically on the test. Such activities only reinforce the impression that the test is the primary goal of schooling. If schools want to hold such events to create a sense of community, they might simply rename the events to emphasize learning, not testing (for example, a Rally for Learning). Of course, the learning celebrated has to be genuine: completing outstanding science fair projects; presenting classroom projects to the town council; writing poetry, essays, or a play; and so forth. Schools need to reward demonstrations of learning in all its varieties.
Administrators and teachers should work together to reframe the purposes of learning in their school. As a start, eliminate the word "test" from any banner, poster, or encouraging slogan. Instead, use language that focuses on mastering knowledge, improving individual performance, or seeing the value of schooling for enhancing one's future.
In addition, teachers and administrators should strive to create a climate of caring and cooperation, instead of competition. We know that students are more likely to attend school and excel when they feel they belong. Feelings of connection lead to greater effort, greater persistence, and positive attitudes. Feelings of rejection have the opposite effects.
Significant changes in NCLB are unlikely to occur soon. This law has not only exacerbated the problems of reluctant learners already in our schools, but also manufactured additional reluctant learners for the schools to deal with. It is up to administrators and teachers to mitigate the damaging effects of this untenable law on many of our students by proactively working to diminish the importance of high-stakes testing in schools.
Bridgeland, J. M., DiIulio, J. J., & Morison, K. B. (2006). The silent epidemic: Perspectives of high school dropouts. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises. Available:
Foster, S. L. (2006). How Latino students negotiate the demands of high-stakes testing: A case study of one school in Texas. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Arizona State University, Tempe.
Jones, M. G., Jones, B., & Hargrove, T. (2003). The unintended consequences of high-stakes testing. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Nichols, S. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2007).
Collateral damage: How high-stakes testing corrupts America's schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Orel, S. (2003). Left behind in Birmingham: 522 pushed-out students. In R. C. Lent & G. Pipkin, (Eds.), Silent no more: Voices of courage in American schools (pp. 1–14). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Orfield, G., & Kornhaber, M. L. (Eds.). (2001). Raising standards or raising barriers? Inequality and high stakes testing in public education. New York: Century Foundation Press.
Teen talk: Tackling TAKS. (2007, March 9).
San Antonio Express-News, pp. F1, 5. Available: www.mysanantonio.com/salife/teenteam/stories/MYSA030907.01P.TAKS.fbdf0e.html
Taylor, G., Shepard, L., Kinner, F., & Rosenthal, J. (2003). A survey of teachers' perspectives on high-stakes testing in Colorado: What gets taught, what gets lost
(CSE Technical Report 588). Los Angeles: University of California.
Toy, V. (2006, January 1). Elmont's school success is a lesson to others. New York Times, Sec. 14LI, p. 1.
Zastrow, C., & Janc, H. (2006). The condition of the liberal arts in America's public schools: A report to the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Council for Basic Education.
Sharon L. Nichols is Assistant Professor, College of Education and Human Development, University of Texas at San Antonio;
David C. Berliner is Regents Professor, Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, Arizona State University, Tempe;
Copyright © 2008 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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