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"I Like to Read, but I Know I'm Not Good at It": Children's Perspectives on High-Stakes Testing in a High-Poverty School


Abstract and Figures

A significant body of research articulates concerns about the current emphasis on high-stakes testing as the primary lever of education reform in the United States. However, relatively little research has focused on how children make sense of the assessment policies in which they are centrally located. In this article, we share analyses of interview data from 33 third graders in an urban elementary school collected as part of a larger qualitative study of children's experiences in literacy in high-poverty classroom. Our analysis of assessment-focused interviews focused on two research questions related to children's perspectives on high-stakes testing: What patterns arise in children's talk about high-stakes testing? What does children's talk about high-stakes testing reveal about their perceptions of the role of testing in their school experiences and how they are positioned within the system of accountability they encounter in school? Drawing on tools associated with inductive approaches to learning from qualitative data as well as critical discourse analysis, we discuss three issues that arose in children's responses: language related to the adults invested in their achievement; their sense of the stakes involved in testing; and links between their feelings about test taking, perceptions of scores, and assumptions of competence. We argue that children's perspectives on their experiences with high-stakes testing provide crucial insights into how children construct relationships to schooling, relationships that have consequences for their continued engagement in school.
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“I Like to Read, but I Know I’m Not
Good at It”: Children’s Perspectives
on High-Stakes Testing in a
High-Poverty Schoolcuri_597 340..367
University of Colorado
Boulder, Colorado, USA
A significant body of research articulates concerns about the current emphasis on
high-stakes testing as the primary lever of education reform in the United States.
However, relatively little research has focused on how children make sense of the
assessment policies in which they are centrally located. In this article, we share
analyses of interview data from 33 third graders in an urban elementary school
collected as part of a larger qualitative study of children’s experiences in literacy in
high-poverty classroom. Our analysis of assessment-focused interviews focused on
two research questions related to children’s perspectives on high-stakes testing:
What patterns arise in children’s talk about high-stakes testing? What does chil-
dren’s talk about high-stakes testing reveal about their perceptions of the role of
testing in their school experiences and how they are positioned within the system of
accountability they encounter in school? Drawing on tools associated with inductive
approaches to learning from qualitative data as well as critical discourse analysis, we
discuss three issues that arose in children’s responses: language related to the adults
invested in their achievement; their sense of the stakes involved in testing; and links
between their feelings about test taking, perceptions of scores, and assumptions of
competence. We argue that children’s perspectives on their experiences with high-
stakes testing provide crucial insights into how children construct relationships to
schooling, relationships that have consequences for their continued engagement in
As Sharon passed out test booklets to her third graders, the children sat
quietly, sharpened number-two pencils and one closed book of the child’s
choice laying on each of their desks. The book was there to pass the time
just in case a child finished a test section early. Molly, one of the few
children small enough to swing her legs as she sat at her desk, pushed her
long brown bangs out of her eyes, and smiled nervously at Sharon as the test
© 2012 by The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto
Curriculum Inquiry 42:3 (2012)
Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road,
Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK
doi: 10.1111/j.1467-873X.2012.00597.x
was placed in front of her. The test booklet, lying next to her Frog and Toad
Are Friends “I Can Read” chapter book, created an ironic juxtaposition given
what Molly had explained to me in a conversation just a few days before.
She had told me that she loved to read and was happy that she could finally
read well enough to have chapter books. But, she said, “I know I’m not
good at it. I do bad on those tests. When we take them, I just know it will be
another low points, so the books I like, like I know they are too low for those
tests.” Molly, like all students, negotiates high-stakes testing as part of her
school experience. As high-stakes testing has become an increasingly
visible, tangible part of children’s schooling experiences in the last decade,
it would follow that children are engaged in making their own sense of this
aspect of their education and its perceived consequences.
The arguments against the current focus on high-stakes testing as a
primary focus of educational reform in the United States have increased
in volume during the past decade—and by volume we do mean both
quantity and decibel level. Researchers in assessment and policy critique
both the narrow focus of such assessments and their validity (Kiplinger,
2008; Koretz, 2008; Linn, 2000; Ravitch, 2010; Shepard, 2000; Solano-
Flores, 2006). Indeed, Nichols and Berliner (2007) argue that recent
educational policy as established within 2002’s revised Elementary and
Secondary School Act by United States federal legislators (known as No
Child Left Behind or NCLB) has fallen captive to Campbell’s Law, first
published in 1975 by social psychologist Donald Campbell, which states
that “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-
making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more
apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it was intended to
monitor” (pp. 26–27). Recent reports suggest that Campbell’s Law may
be at work in many states, including high-profile claims of significant
gains on standardized achievement scores that have been at the center of
arguments for a business-model approach to increased accountability
(Lyons, 2011).
These arguments, based on analyses of various aspects and outcomes of
current policy, point to the potential of high-stakes tests to create unhealthy
environments for teaching and learning in many classrooms. Specifically,
research raises issues such as narrowing the focus of curriculum (e.g., Au,
2007; Hamilton, Berends, & Stecher, 2005), reorganizing classroom time to
prioritize tested subjects over nontested subjects (e.g., Pedulla et al., 2003),
reallocating funds toward instruction focused on tested topics (e.g., math-
ematics and English) as well as on students near the proficient cut score
(e.g., Hamilton & Berends, 2006), and inducing teachers to teach in ways
that contradict their own understandings of effective practice (Abrams,
Pedulla, & Madaus, 2003). Given concerns raised in the research literature,
we need to access as many vantage points as possible to better understand
what is at stake in test-driven reforms for teachers, schools, the public
school system in the United States and, most importantly, for children.
In this article, we argue that one crucial lens on the impact of policy is
children’s perspectives. Researchers have provided important insight into
teachers’ and parents’ perspectives on standardized testing and students’
academic and social positioning in relation to high-stakes assessments (e.g.,
Barksdale-Ladd & Thomas, 2000; Enciso, 2001; Popham, 2001; Roderick &
Engel, 2001), and some research has focused on how children and youth
make sense of the assessment policies in which they are centrally located
(e.g., Filer & Pollard, 2000; Wheelock, Bebell, & Haney, 2000a). Here, we
seek to build on this growing literature by drawing on interview data from
33 third graders in an urban elementary school to examine children’s talk
about their understandings of high-stakes testing, understandings that we
contend inform the narratives they can construct about their potential as
learners and, thus, hold consequences for children’s engagement and
investment in school (Madaus & Clarke, 2001; Perna & Thomas, 2009;
Vasquez-Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008).
Although viewed by some policy makers as objective and neutral measures
of competence, high-stakes tests are far from neutral in the experiences of
children and teachers (Mathison & Freeman, 2003; McNeil, 2000; Whee-
lock et al., 2000a, 2000b; Zacher-Pandya, 2011). Indeed, our critical theo-
retical orientation assumes that all aspects of schooling—and certainly
testing—are constructed through discourses that are informed by and
embedded within power relations that benefit some individuals and groups
more than others. Because the scores children receive construct them as
either proficient or less than proficient, the policy emphasis on high-stakes
testing is implicated in how children construct identities in relation to
schooling. In Davies and Harré’s (1990) words, “binary logic constitutes the
world in hierarchical ways through its privileging of one term or category
within the binary...being positioned as one who belongs in or is defined
in terms of the negative or dependent term can lock people into repeated
patterns of powerlessness” (p. 107). They argue further that one’s sense of
the world is interpreted, in part, from who we consider ourselves to be. We
experience our “selves” as a personal production, while remaining unaware
of how our taking up of certain discursive practices can shape the narratives
we tell about ourselves and those others tell about us. Although there is
always room to accept, reject, or transform the positions offered us by the
institutions and communities of which we are a part (and, indeed, students
read and discuss their sense of their academic competence in many con-
texts in addition to testing environments), once a person ascribes to a
particular position as his or her own, that person begins to see the world in
terms of the storylines that are made available and relevant within the
discursive practices in which they are positioned (Harré & van Langenhove,
As several scholars have emphasized, the language surrounding the
reforms stemming from NCLB and Race to the Top, the Obama adminis-
tration’s more recent and wide-sweeping education reform incentive plan,
is embedded with unexamined assumptions about children and achieve-
ment, as well as race, class, and ability (e.g., Dutro, 2010; Campano, 2007;
Collins & Valente, 2010; Fusarelli, 2004; Hicks, 2005; Sleeter, 2004). As
critically oriented scholars argue, one of the results of current policy is the
inscription of an instrumental view of learning that points to acquisition of
discrete skills as the unambiguous remedy for the struggle of poor children
and children of color to thrive in some public schools. Further, the narrow
views of learning embedded in policy ignore the structural, material, and
social effects of poverty and institutionalized racism emphasized by
research across fields of sociology, anthropology, and economics (Danziger
& Haveman, 2002; Iceland, 2006; Newman, 2000; Rank, 2005).
Viewed through these lenses, the dichotomy of proficient/not proficient
categories embedded in high-stakes testing discourses leaves little room for
students to foster nuanced understandings of themselves as learners and,
indeed, no direct route to refute or reorganize the pronouncement of the
test. As performance on standardized tests becomes increasingly predomi-
nant in the discursive worlds of school, we wondered what stories children
would tell about themselves as learners as they became acculturated into
the discourses of high-stakes tests. Given the prevalence of dichotomized,
assumption-driven understandings of success and struggle, tools are neces-
sary to dig into and beneath discourses surrounding testing, uncovering
some of the assumptions that too often remain hidden in accountability
policy and become even more insidious in their invisibility.
In this section we discuss two areas of research that centrally inform our
argument: research on high-stakes testing and studies drawing on student
perspectives to inform policy and practice.
High-Stakes Testing
High-stakes assessments are currently a crucial component of the institu-
tional power in which children negotiate schooling. Prominent scholars
of assessment have long argued that these measures provide just one
partial lens on what a child knows and is able to do (e.g., Koretz, 2008;
Linn, 2000; Ryan & Shepard, 2008; Shepard, 1995). Therefore, such mea-
sures should be viewed as providing only a particular kind of information
about children’s learning or a classroom teacher’s or school’s facilitation
of children’s learning. Research conducted since NCLB suggests that the
intense focus on high-stakes testing has led to both overt cheating of the
system (e.g., Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2006; Vasquez-Heilig & Darling-
Hammond, 2008), covert corruption of quality teaching and learning
(e.g., Au, 2007; Wright & Choi, 2006) and concerns about outcomes for
some students, including increased dropout rates (e.g., Clarke, Haney, &
Madaus, 2000; Jacob, 2001).
Specifically, studies suggest that the emphasis on testing constrains
teachers in their attempts to provide students with rich learning experi-
ences (e.g., Abrams et al., 2003; Amrein & Berliner, 2002; Au, 2007; Ber-
liner, 2007; Hamilton et al., 2005; Madaus & Clarke, 2001; Mathison &
Freeman, 2003). For instance, an increased focus on reading and math, as
tested by standardized tests, has resulted in less instructional time spent on
subjects like science, social studies, and the arts, and more time engaged in
drilling students, especially poor children, in practice tests designed to
mimic the tests (Berliner, 2007; Ravitch, 2010). Madaus and Clarke (2001)
note that when teachers teach to the test, they pay attention not only to the
content of the test, but also to the form; thus, the form of the questions can
narrow the focus of instruction further. Indeed, some studies suggest that
high-stakes tests can undermine children’s opportunities to learn impor-
tant aspects of content. For instance, Hillocks (2002) studied state writing
tests and found that in some states, the high-stakes writing assessments were
driving instruction in ways that emphasized simplistic notions of genre,
purposes for writing, and process. Beyond the research that exposes the
unintended and problematic consequences of standardized tests, a recent
review of the literature on high-stakes testing concludes that there is not
convincing evidence that such testing has its intended effect of increasing
student learning (Nichols, 2007).
The potential of assessment to foster and reward less sophisticated
approaches to subject matter follows from some of the assumptions about
competency and achievement embedded in policies that rely on high-
stakes tests as the primary assessment of children’s learning, including
the assumption that competency can be reduced to observable behaviors
and captured through one paper-pencil assessment (Norris, Leighton, &
Philips, 2006). Ravitch (2010) argues that policies such as NCLB and Race
to the Top may actually lower education quality, as they are based on a
“technocratic approach to school reform that measures ‘success’ only in
relation to standardized test scores in two skill-based subjects” (p. 27).
Further, it follows that pressure to perform would be high for children and
teachers for, as Noddings (2002) writes, high-stakes testing assumes “that
we are not only trying to find out ‘how we are doing,’ but how each and
every child is doing....There is the clear implication that if kids and
teachers are working hard enough every child should pass” (p. 70). In
short, much research on the use and consequences of high-stakes testing
concurs with Nichols and Berliner’s (2007) arguments that as Campbell’s
Law would predict, overreliance on high-stakes tests as the mechanism of
reform is flawed and harmful to education at both individual and institu-
tional levels (p. 31).
With the recent implementation of Race to the Top, this emphasis on
high-stakes testing in the United States is far from waning. As states move
to comply with demands to pass legislation that makes it possible to link
teacher and principal evaluation, in part, to students’ achievements on
high-stakes tests, the scope of the consequences for such tests is increasing
across the country (Sawchuck, 2009). Beyond specific measures, the Race
to the Top effort increases the overall emphasis on longitudinal test score
data as a significant factor in determining effective schooling (Race to the
Top, 2011).
Attention to Student Perspectives
In turning to children’s perspectives on testing, we situate this study in the
work of other researchers who argue for the importance of student per-
spectives in informing research that intends to intervene in policy and
practice (e.g., Cook-Sather, 2002, 2006; Jones & Yonezawa, 2002; Kirshner
& Pozzoboni, 2010; Marquez-Zenkov, 2007; Mitra, 2003, 2006; Rubin &
Silva, 2003; Rudduck, Chaplain, & Wallace, 1996; Thiessen, 2007; Thiessen
& Cook-Sather, 2007). As Thiessen (2007) writes, attention to student
perspectives as a crucial lens through which to understand and improve
education is grounded in the conviction “that what matters in schools is
centred on students, their daily actions and interactions, and how they
make sense of their lives” (p. 6). Rudduck et al. (1996) argue that young
people are not only a crucial source of information on effective practices in
schools, but respond constructively and analytically when adults seek their
perspectives. We conducted our study in the spirit of those convictions,
including arguments surrounding the particular importance of heeding
the perspectives of children who attend school in districts in which large
numbers of students do not make it to high school graduation (McNeil,
Coppola, Radigan, & Vasquez-Heilig, 2008; Mitra, 2006; Rubin & Hayes,
2010; Marquez-Zenkov, 2007).
Indeed, researchers invested in learning directly from children and
youth consistently emphasize the opportunity presented by students’ views
to create an array of contextualized, on-the-ground changes to better
support students. Yonezawa and Jones (2009), in a study that engaged
students as co-researchers in educational reform in the San Diego Unified
School District’s high school reform initiative, note how a wide array of data
that includes input from students “allows teachers to develop a more
complete portrait of students’ needs and the kinds of classroom practices
that best support student learning and academic success” (p. 210). Simi-
larly, Mitra (2006) describes how the introduction of student voice efforts
can have positive effects for youth themselves, as well as for teachers and
schools, increasing positive student–teacher communication, influencing
school policy, and motivating teachers.
Although adolescents predominate in studies drawing centrally on
student perspectives, our analysis joins others who turn to the views of
younger children to inform understanding of policy and practice in schools
(e.g., Allodi, 2002; Pollard, Thiessen, & Filer, 1997). This work includes
some studies that have specifically investigated children’s perspective on
high-stakes assessment (Haney & Scott, 1987; Thorkildsen, 1999). For
instance, Wheelock et al. (2000a) used student drawings of themselves
taking high-stakes tests in Massachusetts to show that a majority of sampled
students depicted themselves as anxious, upset, bored, or cynical about
testing. In a later article, they further concluded that student drawings
suggested that high-stakes testing “does not motivate all students in the
same way,” and that while some students maybe respond to the high stakes
of the test with increased motivation, others, often older, urban students,
“may simply give up,” seeing the tests as less of “a challenge” and more as
a sources of “intimidation and humiliation.”
In this section, we discuss the contexts of the study, the participating
children, and our approach to data collection and analysis.
Research Context and Participants
Although the data we share in this article is drawn from interviews with
children, those conversations took place within an extended, qualitative
classroom-based study that allowed for close observation and contextual-
ized understandings of the children’s responses. Through Elizabeth’s close
collaboration with a third grade teacher, Sharon, the larger study investi-
gated the relationship between children’s uses of literacy in and out of
classrooms, the learning and understandings they demonstrated in the
classroom, and their experiences with policy implementation in the wake of
NCLB. (Makenzie collaborated on data analysis and writing after the study
was completed.) The study employed ethnographic methods to build inter-
pretations that were grounded in the everyday experiences of life in this
classroom, school, and neighborhood. Throughout the 2 years of the larger
study, Elizabeth was a participant-observer in Sharon’s classroom at least 2
days a week for approximately 3 hours per visit, with additional visits if
children were engaged in special activities (such as musical performances,
the talent show, the field trip, or field day) or if Sharon needed additional
adult help for a special activity. Visits included observations and interac-
tions with children—captured on a digital recorder or through field
notes—in the classroom and on the playground, in the lunchroom, after
school, and on the one field trip the class took to the city’s Museum of Art
in the first year of the study. Elizabeth also interacted with parents and
family members after school and at school events and witnessed Sharon’s
conversations with parents in these settings. In May of each school year,
Elizabeth conducted formal interviews, lasting approximately an hour, with
each of the children about his or her perspectives on reading and writing,
out-of-school activities, hobbies, friendships, descriptions of homes and
neighborhoods, and life, residential, and school histories. As we describe in
more detail later in this section, the interview also included a set of ques-
tions about children’s experiences with and perspectives on district and
statewide standardized testing, the analysis of which is the focus of our
discussion here.
Davis Elementary School is located in a large Midwestern city with one of
the highest rates of child poverty in the United States and high school
dropout rates of over 60% in both years of the study. Although many of the
city’s schools reflected long-established patterns of racial homogeneity in
neighborhoods, Davis Elementary was located in a racially diverse neigh-
borhood, with African American, Puerto Rican, White, multiracial, and
smaller numbers of Middle Eastern and Asian American families living in
close proximity to the school. Across the 2 years of the study, Sharon’s
classroom reflected the racial diversity of the school and neighborhood as
well as the poverty impacting most of the families in the school (100% of
children received free or reduced lunch). A total of 33 children partici-
pated in the study, including 18 in year 1 and 15 in year 2. Of the total
participating children, 17 self-identified as boys and 16 as girls; 7 self-
identified as African American, 5 as Puerto Rican, 14 as White, 4 as biracial,
1 as Lebanese, 1 as Trinidadian, and 1 as Guyanese (see Tables 1 and 2).
As reflected in Tables 1 and 2, the participating students represented
the full range of scoring categories on the state reading assessment. Seven-
teen students scored at proficient or above (two “advanced,” six “acceler-
ated,” and nine “proficient”), while 16 were identified as below proficient
(10 “basic” and 6 “limited”). Although our current analysis focuses on
themes and discourse patterns in the interview data, rather than detailed
portraits of individual students, we attempt to situate our illustrations of
children’s responses within our understanding of particular children’s aca-
demic positioning within the classroom.
Data Sources and Analysis
The interviews that provided the data for our analysis were contextualized
within data collected in the larger study, including field notes of observa-
tions, students’ written work, and audio recordings of instruction, informal
interactions with the teacher and students, and formal interviews with the
teacher and each student. Additional data sources relevant for our analyses
here include state and district assessment results in reading as well as
policy-focused documents Sharon received from the district and school,
including notices about assessment dates, professional development,
reminders to teachers that they needed to be following the guidelines set by
literacy coaches, and notices related to the scheduling of high-stakes state
tests and the school’s push to improve its progress toward Adequate Yearly
Progress (AYP), an element of NCLB that required schools to reach specific
achievement goals for the school as a whole and for specific subgroups of
The assessment-focused questions we posed to children were included in
the spring interviews conducted with participating third graders across the
2 years of research. Children were interviewed individually in a quiet space
in the school. If an interview exceeded 1 hour, children took a break to get
a drink and have a small snack. At the time of the interviews, Elizabeth was
a familiar presence in the children’s classroom and most children were
enthusiastic participants in the one-on-one conversations. During the
second year of the study, Elizabeth also conducted two focus-group inter-
views with six of the children (three in each group), then fourth graders,
who had participated in year 1 of the study (identified in Table 1). Those
Year 1, Student Self-Identified Race/Ethnicity and Reading Proficiency
Designated Reading
Reading Achievement
Diante African American Basic
Ella White Limited
Jade* African American Limited
Samantha White Basic
Jalal* Lebanese Limited
Tara White Proficient
Randy White Basic
Molly* White Basic
Julius* African American/Puerto Rican Advanced
Dion African American Basic
Liana* Puerto Rican Accelerated
Thomas Puerto Rican/White Limited
Mohinder Guyanese Limited
Anjali Trinidadian Proficient
Tiffany White Basic
Noelle White Proficient
Amy White Proficient
Ricardo* Puerto Rican Limited
* Children who were also interviewed in the spring of fourth grade during year 2
of the study
interviews occurred in the spring and focused specifically on the children’s
recent experiences with the high-stakes state assessment (see Appendix A
for interview protocols). The fourth-grade students were chosen based on
two overlapping factors: first, children identified for follow-up conversa-
tions reflected a range of achievement categories and responses to high-
stakes assessment experiences (e.g., enthusiasm, discouragement); second,
because children’s participation in the follow-up conversation required
new parental consent and teachers’ cooperation to schedule common
meeting times during the school day, the six children also represented a
convenience sample of students from the first year of the study. Each
individual and focus-group interview was audio recorded and transcribed.
Our analysis of the transcribed interviews involved two primary tools that
were chosen based on two questions guiding the analysis: What patterns
arise in children’s talk about high-stakes testing? What does children’s talk
about high-stakes testing reveal about their perceptions of the role of
testing in their school experiences and how they are positioned within the
system of accountability they encounter in school? To address these ques-
tions, we drew on tools associated with inductive approaches to learning
from qualitative data as well as tools from critical discourse analysis.
Our inductive analysis involved reading and coding transcripts to iden-
tify patterns in children’s talk in relation to each of the interview ques-
tions pertaining to assessment, resulting in sets of categories of responses
mapped to each interview question. For instance, the question “Why do
you think you take these kinds of tests in school?” resulted in three
Year 2, Student Self-Identified Race/Ethnicity and Reading Proficiency
Designated Reading
Reading Achievement Test
Alberto Puerto Rican Proficient
Aisha African American Accelerated
Lebron African American Proficient
Ruby African American Proficient
Allison White Basic
Tina White Proficient
Donovan White Proficient
Antonio Puerto Rican Accelerated
Edgardo Puerto Rican/White Accelerated
Jesse African American/White Accelerated
Rihanna African American Basic
Zachary White Basic
Ron Puerto Rican Basic
Hillary White Advanced
Travis White Accelerated
primary categories captured by the following phrases “find out what I
know,” “see if I learned it,” and “determine grade placement.” In addi-
tion, we also paid close attention to responses that were surprising
and/or pushed back on or challenged some of the patterns that arose.
For instance, an anomalous response to the interview question we cite
above, and that we found important, came from Tyrone, a child whose
family moved often and who had been absent from school almost half of
both second and third grade. He responded, “That’s how they keep track
of where you at. It tells the name of the school right on the paper.”
Although our discussion of the inductive analysis foregrounds themes
identified in the data, a different perspective, like Tyrone’s, was certainly
instructive in considering the relationship between testing and other
aspects of a child’s experiences in the classroom.
Our theoretical assumption that relations between discourse and power
are central in the schooling experiences of children led us to our second
analytic tool: critical discourse analysis (CDA). CDA attempts to investigate
the sociocultural aspects of language use within an explicit commitment to
discern and analyze issues of power embedded in the array of ways people
use speech and other forms of communication to represent the world and
convey meaning (Fairclough, 2010; Kress, 2009). We drew primarily on the
following analysis questions adapted from Fairclough (2010):
What relational values do words have?
Are there euphemisms used?
Are there markedly formal or informal words?
What social relationships does the language depend on and
What expressive values do words have? Is there a positive or negative
connotation? Are there values apparent/do values contrast?
Relational modality: Are there implicit authority claims and implicit
power relations?
How are pronouns (e.g., I, you, we, them, they) used? What identifi-
cations or separations do these create?
Is there grammatical agency? If so, with whom is it located?
The CDA focused on the bounded statements of the children, rather
than on the full exchanges between Elizabeth and the children. In other
words, our focus was on the children’s use of language in their responses to
the interview questions, rather than issues of turn-taking or the interplay of
the adult and the child’s language. As we read children’s responses we
posed the analytic questions above, which resulted in notes on each tran-
script that we then compared across transcripts. We documented patterns
(and anomalies) in the data and then identified examples of children’s
responses that provided instructive illustrations of our primary findings. In
the following section, we share the results of our analysis.
The results of our analysis reflect both the critical discourse and thematic
analyses and center on three areas: children’s language about the adults
invested in their achievement, their sense of the stakes involved in testing,
and links between their feelings about test taking, perceptions of scores,
and assumptions of reading competence.
The Adults “Behind the Curtain”: A Nebulous, Ubiquitous “They”
In analyzing the language children used to talk about the purposes and
consequences of high-stakes testing, one of the most striking findings was
the ubiquitous presence of the pronouns “they” and “them” to designate
those who created the tests and determined students’ success or failure.
When asked why they think they take tests like the state reading test in
school, all of the children used these pronouns in their responses. In
contrast, in response to that question, none of the children used the name
of an adult in their school, for instance their principal or teacher (though,
as we discuss below, known adults were mentioned by a few children in
response to other questions). As Fairclough (2001) argues, the use of the
pronouns “we,” “you,” and “they” are often cues to issues of power and
solidarity in discourse.
The use of the pronouns “they” and “them” suggests that the children
are highly aware that there are adults who exist “behind the scenes” who are
actively involved in high-stakes testing. As Julius, one of the two children in
the study who scored in the “advanced” category, said, “They need us to
take those tests so they know how we are doing in school. They take our
scores and they decide if we are making it.” Similarly, other children spoke
of unnamed adults who created tests and used them in various ways to make
decisions about students. For instance, in a response emphasizing the tests’
role in assessing what students have learned, Liana, whose reading test
score designated her “accelerated,” explained, “It helps them to know if we
have learned the stuff we’re supposed to learn.” Tara, a “proficient” reader,
responded, “They want to know if we read well enough.” Although also
pointing to test results as demonstrations of what students know, Rihanna,
whose scores located her in the “basic” category, said, “They can see if we
know how to do everything right,” suggesting a seemingly impossible bar
for students. Finally, sharing a response we heard from several children
(and also discuss in relation to a separate finding below), Ella, who scored
in the lowest achievement category, said, “I don’t really know. I guess they
need to see if we can go to the next grade.” These children’s responses
represent the range of ways that children employed “they” or “them” when
talking about the reasons why they take high-stakes tests in school.
All children expressed an understanding of high-stakes tests as a source
of information for adults about them and their peers (the “we” they
invoke), but their sense of what the adults are looking for varies from Julius’
and Liana’s nuanced understandings of scores as an indication of what
students have learned to Rihanna’s suggestion that the tests measure stu-
dents’ ability to get “everything right.” As confident, accomplished readers,
Julius and Liana experience tests as a context to demonstrate their knowl-
edge and skills, whereas Rihanna’s response suggests a discouragingly
impossible expectation for a child aware of her academic struggles in
relation to some of her peers. She invokes a stark dichotomy between right
and wrong, everything and nothing, and her scores locate her on the
“wrong” side of those binaries.
The use of the pronouns “they” and “them” also suggested that the
children point to adults well beyond those they know and with whom they
work closely at their school as involved in the creation or the consequences
of these assessments. Although several children did invoke adults in their
school when discussing their understanding of the stakes involved in high-
stakes tests. When asked who they were thinking of when they used the
words “they” or “them” (for instance, the follow-up question to Tara,
quoted above, was, “I noticed you said “they” want to know how well you
read. Who are they? Who is it who wants to know how well you read?”), 19
of the 33 children indicated that the adults invested in testing were located
outside of their school. As Travis said, “They are people who our tests go to.
I think they are downtown. I know that our scores are important to people
downtown and even the state! That’s why we have to do our best.” Like
Travis, who was designated an “accelerated” reader in the second year of
the study, other children who indicated that the adults invested in their
tests were located outside of their school invoked the district or the state in
their explanations. For instance, children framed their use of “they” as “the
people downtown,” “the superintendent,” “the people in charge of all of
the schools,” “even the state wants our grades,” and “I think the governor is
even involved.”
When asked to explain their use of “they” or “them,” six children
expressed uncertainty or confusion (for instance, shrugging or murmuring
“I really don’t know”), but the remaining eight children identified their
teacher, principal, or other known adult when asked to explain their use of
“they.” Tara, for instance, referred to her teacher and the school principal
in her response, explaining, “Ms. Blair can look at our scores and see how
we’re doing. It’s important that we do good. Ms. Jackson [the principal]
and Ms. Blair told us it’s really, really important.” Ron, a child designated
a “basic” reader in the second year of the study, said, “Ms. Blair and the
other teachers” and Anjali, a “proficient” reader from the first year,
responded, “Well, Ms. Jackson and Ms. Barnes [principal and vice princi-
pal] see our points on tests.”
Children’s use of pronouns indicates varying understandings about
those who are invested in the high-stakes tests they experience in school.
Although some children connected their testing experiences with adults at
their school, for many children the adults they connected to those tests
exist as nebulous authority figures, disconnected from the adults who they
know to be invested in their success in school. The children’s constructions
of the nebulous “they” appears connected to the limited information they
have gleaned about the disposition of their tests. Many of them understand
that the tests are not kept at the school, but are “sent away” to be “graded”
by adults who do not know them. Others clearly have not gleaned that
understanding, considering only the classroom or school level when
describing their understandings of how the tests are used. Still others use
“they” or “them” to invoke adults’ investment in their assessment perfor-
mance, but could not articulate (or, perhaps, did not feel comfortable
expressing) a sense of who those adults might be. The children who spoke
of adults outside of their school demonstrate a more complex understand-
ing of the nature of high-stakes testing in their district and state, pointing
correctly to investment in their test scores at both the district and state
levels. As we describe in the section below, although their conception of the
adults who are involved in testing may be various and, at times, nebulous,
the children ascribe those others tremendous power over their schooling.
Children’s Views of What Is at Stake in Their Scores
Children expressed several understandings related to the stakes involved in
the assessments they experienced in school. Their responses indicated an
understanding that the tests held weighty consequences for their school,
teachers, and their own school experiences. However, their responses also
reveal several misunderstandings about the relations between testing, their
individual and collective experiences, and the consequences of their per-
formance. Children expressed understanding of high-stakes tests as being
used to judge their own learning and performance primarily in response to
the questions: Why do you think you take these kinds of tests in school? Do
you know what happens after you take the tests? Are the scores on those
tests important? Why? Below, we discuss two primary themes in children’s
responses to those questions: personal consequences of test scores and the
stakes for their teachers and school.
Personal Consequences
The most prevalent personal consequence of testing the children raised
was grade retention. In the focus groups with the six fourth graders who
had participated in the research when they were in third grade, all of the
children indicated that the high-stakes tests they would take in fourth grade
would determine whether they would be allowed to progress to fifth grade.
The following is one illustrative exchange from the discussion with Julius,
Ricardo, and Jalal (who scored respectively at Advanced, Limited, and
Limited on the third grade reading test):
[researcher]: Do you think your scores on these tests are important? If so, why are
they important?
Julius: Oh yeah! We all need to do good on them cuz we want to go on to fifth grade.
Ricardo: Yeah, I just do not want to stay in fourth grade.
Jalal: I know. What if everybody went to fifth grade and you were just stuck back in
fourth grade?
Certainly, in the focus groups, children built on one another’s
responses. Julius raised the issue of grade placement and the other boys
responded to the assumed link he created between scores and retention.
However, their focus on retention was not an anomaly. Among the 33 third
graders interviewed across the 2 years, 15 children, from across scoring
categories, ascribed this weighty personal consequence to their scores. For
instance, Liana, who consistently expressed confidence about her achieve-
ment, said, “My score on the tests means that I will go to the next grade and
the next and that someday I can go to college and do whatever I want.
That’s what my mama says.” In contrast, Jade, who scored in the “limited”
category on the reading test, responded, “Since I don’t do so well on the
test, it maybe means that I will have to be behind other people and maybe
have to get more school in the summer or something.” Similarly, when
asked whether and why the tests are important, Dion, who was designated
a “basic” reader, said, “Yes they are, cuz, you know, you might not get to go
to fourth grade. Like, I had to do kindergarten twice.” Lebron, a “profi-
cient” reader, explained, “They’re important because we want to go to
fourth grade.”
We did not anticipate children’s assumed connection between their
performance on state tests and the specter of grade-level retention.
Although some urban districts, Chicago being a prime example, have tied
retention to assessment scores as part of reform initiatives in the past
decade, this was not the case in these children’s district. The children’s
scores were used to determine the school’s status in relation to AYP, had
consequences for the amount of oversight teachers would experience,
and could place a school on a list for potential district takeover or
closure. However, the scores from the third grade state reading tests or
the fourth grade state assessment held no punitive consequences for indi-
vidual students.
Institutional Consequences
In addition to describing the high stakes for them as individuals, children
also indicated some understanding of the tests as being consequential for
their school and their teachers. Twenty-one of the children spoke of some
sense of their teacher and/or principal as having a stake in students’
performance. For instance, Randy described in some detail his understand-
ing of these consequences when addressing the question of why the scores
on high-stakes tests are important: “Well, I know that Ms. Blair is nervous
about those tests. She tries to hide it, but when you have a whole assembly
to talk about trying our hardest, then you know that the teachers want us to
have high scores. I mean, even Mrs. Jackson talks a lot about how we can do
better than before and how our school can get good scores. She doesn’t
want her school to be in trouble, like, they will say ‘your kids need to spend
more time in school’ or ‘that school is not very smart.’ She wants us to do
our best and Ms. Blair does too.”
Jesse also talked about the school’s investment in children’s perfor-
mance on high-stakes tests: “Well, I know the school cares because I heard
that some schools could be shut down if kids don’t get good grades on
those tests. My cousin’s school did shut down and maybe it was because of
tests, I don’t know. They did have a contest at his school, before it was shut,
so kids could win a bike if they got the highest test in the school. If you even
did some better, you could get smaller stuff like a ball or even a video game.”
Although other children’s statements tended to be briefer, illustrative
responses invoking the institutional stakes of test scores included Ruby’s
sense of the consequences for her teacher (“Well, someone [the literacy
coach] comes to visit Ms. Blair sometimes and maybe they will think she
isn’t a great teacher if we don’t do good on the test”) and Donovan’s
understanding of the stakes for the school as a whole (“At an assembly, Ms.
Jackson said we should try our best to do really our best. The scores will tell
them if our school is teaching us good”).
Feelings About Tests, Knowledge of Scores, and
Assumptions of Competence
One of the concerns that both researchers (e.g., Nichols & Berliner,
2007) and social critics in education (e.g., Kohl, 2005; Kozol, 2005) raise
in relation to the current emphasis on high-stakes testing is children’s
emotional experiences with testing. Perhaps the relatively small number
of studies investigating this issue is due to the complexities involved in
accessing this aspect of testing. Wheelock, Bebell, and Haney (2000a)
approached this issue by asking children and youth to draw pictures of
their testing experience. This method allowed researchers to analyze
children’s visual representations as well as the children’s explanations
of what they depicted. They found that some children and youth drew
pictures conveying anxiety, frustration, anger, or dread in relation to
Although interviews certainly cannot fully access children’s experiences
of testing, what children say about their affective responses to those situa-
tions is an important part of forming deeper understandings about how
high-stakes testing functions for students. Thus, we included questions that
focused on children’s feelings related to high-stakes assessment. In contrast
to Wheelock et al., the children in our study did not express strong negative
emotions in relation to tests. When asked about their feelings about the
high-stakes tests they had recently experienced, children’s responses most
often indicated that they either liked or disliked the experience of test
taking and/or they expressed boredom in relation to testing. Of more
interest in our data were the connections children drew between their
knowledge of or assumptions about their scores and their sense of their
competence in reading. Because children’s expressions of their positive or
negative feelings about the tests related to their discussions of the link
between test scores and competence, we discuss both issues in this section.
As one might expect, when asked about their feelings about the tests,
most children began by framing their responses in terms of whether they
“liked” the experience of testing. As also might be assumed, many children
(25 of the total 33) described negative feelings about the act of sitting and
taking the tests. This response is not surprising—most would not presume
that sitting in a desk and taking a pencil-and-paper test is a fun or enjoyable
experience—and, thus, cannot be overinterpreted as holding negative con-
sequences for their schooling experiences. Indeed, children often framed
negative feelings about the tests in terms of boredom, although some, as we
discuss further below, did express discouragement about their scores and,
as discussed above, some children seemed anxious about their presumed
link between test scores and grade retention.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this category of response was that
five children, Julius, Liana, Noelle, Aisha, and Edgardo, all of whom scored
at “proficient” or above, expressed positive feelings about the experience of
taking high stakes tests. For instance, Julius said, “I kind of like the tests. I’m
really good at them, that’s what my grandma says, and I know I get high on
them, so I think they are kinda fun.” Noelle shared, “I don’t mind them. They
can be interesting.” Similarly, Aisha said, “Well, they’re OK. I like doing that
kind of work and I finish early a lot and get to read my book” and Edgardo
explained, “What’s fun about them is that it’s a different kind of day—we get
mints and some extra recess breaks.” In their daily school experience, these
five children received many positive messages about their achievement—
from high grades on report cards to being asked to support peers during
assignments. Enciso (2001) also describes a boy from her research study who
enjoyed taking standardized tests and made a connection between taking
the tests and his process of pursuing goals or “levels” when playing his
favorite video games. Like the boy in her study, the children who spoke
positively about the tests were all children who expressed identities as high
achievers in school, which positioned them very differently in relation to
high-stakes testing than many of their classmates.
Although children’s general expressions of dislike for the testing expe-
rience may not be surprising or particularly noteworthy, it is important to
note that none of the children across the 2 years of the study who scored
less than proficient on any of the high-stakes tests they experienced
expressed positive feelings about their testing experiences. Indeed, to
varying degrees, children made connections between their understandings
of the construction and uses of high-stakes testing, their feelings about the
tests, and their perceptions of their own competence in literacy. Most of
these connections were brief and focused primarily on their perceptions of
their own scores on the tests. These responses were primarily connected to
the questions in the interview that specifically asked if the child knew about
their own scores, how they knew, and what they thought their score meant.
The degree to which children claimed to know their scoring level varied
widely and most children did not use the language employed by the district
or state to describe scoring levels (note that for the third grade students any
knowledge of their performance on the assessment would be focused on
district assessments, as state scores were not yet reported at the time of the
Five children—Ella, Jalal, Mohinder, Allison, and Zachary—claimed to
not know how they scored on the tests, responding to the question with
“No,” “I don’t know,” or “I have no idea.” Those children were still asked
what they thought their score would mean and all five responded similarly:
that the scores reveal whether you are a good reader. In another part of
their interview, children were asked what it meant to be a good reader and
whether they thought they were a good reader. All five of the children who
said they did not know their test scores had indicated that they did not
consider themselves good readers. For these students, all of whom scored
below proficient, the tests could function to cement their perception of
themselves as reader into “good” or “bad.” Although our analysis cannot
provide evidence about the consequences of these children’s views of the
meaning of test results, further analyses might illuminate whether knowl-
edge of their test scores would construct or reinforce children’s percep-
tions of themselves as “bad” readers.
Some of the children’s responses suggested that they were making
assumptions about their test scores based on other evidence they had
gathered about their reading competence. This theme in the responses
mapped to a group of 11 children who indicated relatively vague knowledge
of their own proficiency as measured by the tests. Most of these 11 children
said they were not sure how they knew about their scoring level, which makes
sense in light of the nonspecific nature of their knowledge about their score.
For instance, Ricardo captured this category of response, saying, “I don’t
think I did too good.” Similarly, Aisha responded, “I think I would be high on
that test,” sharing her correct assumption that her scores would suggest
strong reading skills. Demonstrating a similar assumption that his test score
would map to other evidence of his reading competence, Randy shared,
“Well, not too good, because I know I don’t read the best in this class.”
When the children we quote above asked what their scores on the tests
mean for them, the children’s responses generally echoed their answers
to the earlier question on what the tests mean for students more gener-
ally. For instance, Ricardo said, “It probably means I need to read better.”
Randy responded, “I hope it doesn’t mean that they won’t let me go to
fifth grade” and Aisha said, “It means that Ms. Blair can see how I’m
doing.” Six of the 11 children whose responses fell into this category
expressed concern or anxiety over grade retention or a need to improve
their reading.
The remaining children claimed to know how they scored on the assess-
ments they had taken earlier in the year (or in previous years). For children
who claimed to have knowledge of their scores, their answer to the question
of how they knew indicated parents or other family members, their teacher
(some children who scored at “proficient” or above indicated that Ms. Blair
had privately praised them), or uncertainty of a specific source (e.g., “I
think I saw it on a paper at home.” “Well, wasn’t it on my report card? I
think it was”). We included children in this category who spoke confidently
of their knowledge, whether or not their responses mapped to the language
used to report scores by the district or the state. In other words, we were
interested in their claims of that knowledge and how they interpreted their
claimed knowledge of their scores, rather than whether their claims indi-
cated “correct” understandings.
Children who claimed to know their scores often spoke with certainty
about their reading competence, whether in positive or negative terms. For
instance, Julius, an “advanced” reader, said, “Oh, yeah, I know I got a high
score. Everybody in my family and Ms. Blair were proud of me.” Jade, who was
in the “limited” scoring category, shared, “Yes, I did not get high on the test.
I am trying harder, but it’s hard, you know, to answer those questions.”
Tiffany, who scored at the “basic” level, replied, “I never do good on a
reading test. I like reading, but the tests, no way, I’m not good on those.”
Hillary, deemed an “advanced” reader, said, “Yeah, well, I don’t mean to
brag, but I get high on tests. I think I might be the highest reader in the class.”
Dion, who scored at the “basic” level, explained, “I get a bad grade on those
tests because I just think and think, but I can’t tell what is the right bubble to
fill in.” These responses represented the range of answers children provided.
As we discuss further below, what we found most striking in this area of
responses was, first, the overlap between children’s positive or negative
feelings about tests and their position within high- or low-proficiency
categories and, second, their dual assumptions that their sense of their
competence within the classroom would dictate their test score or that the
test score would reinforce their sense of their reading competence. In what
follows, we further discuss our interpretations as well as some of the impli-
cations of our analyses.
Our analysis is certainly constrained by the small number of participants
and our focus on interview responses, which, though instructive, are but
one of the important directions needed to better understand how chil-
dren are situated within the current policy emphasis on high-stakes
testing. For instance, an important direction for further research and
analysis is to map children’s responses to high-stakes testing to their expe-
riences with literacy as documented in other data sources. We have begun
to do this by building case studies of the complex connections between
high-stakes testing and children’s larger experiences with literacy in this
and our other long-term classroom-based studies. As our analysis demon-
strates, however, examining children’s responses across the 2 years of this
qualitative study reveals some of the ways that children make sense of
high-stakes testing and, as we discuss in this section, raises crucial issues
and questions about how children are situated in the discourses sur-
rounding testing and accountability.
We were struck by our finding that only children who scored proficient
or above spoke positively about their testing experience or about their own
competence in relation to the test. In contrast to some findings from
conversations about testing with elementary students (Debard & Kubow,
2002), the children designated as low achieving in our study were not
optimistic about their ability to score highly on the tests they experienced.
In addition, unlike in Wheelock et al.’s (2000a) research examining stu-
dents’ drawings of their testing experience, the children in our study did
not respond to tests with anger. In part, this could be because the students
we interviewed were younger than the students in Wheelock et al.’s study.
Anger could signal some understanding of the tests as flawed or unfair,
whereas the children we interviewed appeared to assume the infallibility of
the test itself as well as the infallibility of nebulous adults who monitored
students’ scores. Studies of older students’ perceptions of testing experi-
ences (e.g., Paris, Herbst, & Turner, 2000; Wheelock et al., 2000a) suggest
that resistance to and resentment of high-stakes tests’ authority may build
as students continue to encounter them over years of school. However,
these young children’s acceptance of the tests’ authority to capture their
competence as readers and its power to determine their trajectory in school
was one of the most concerning findings in our interviews. If, from their
earliest experiences in classrooms, children are building storylines about
themselves as learners with potential to succeed in school, the authoritative
messages they receive about their achievement matters deeply in what
narratives are available to them. In districts in which dropout rates suggest
that many students already experience a fragile relationship to school,
research affirms our concern that students’ knowledge of their positioning
as less than proficient in key content areas such as reading may discourage,
rather than encourage, students’ investment in school (e.g., Wortham,
Along with other studies, ours challenges some of the assumptions
embedded in recent policy rhetoric about the importance of high-stakes
testing as the key accountability measure in schools (e.g., Madaus & Clarke,
2001; Vasquez-Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008; Wheelock et al., 2000a).
Although policies such as Race to the Top emphasize consequences for
adults (teachers, school and district administrators) based on students’
achievement scores, the children in our study perceived dire personal
consequences for low achievement, even in the absence of any such overt
penalties. In addition, although our data do not allow access to tests’
impact on student motivation, the children’s talk about testing comports
with other researchers’ findings challenging the assumption that attaching
high stakes to tests motivates students to try harder (Nichols & Berliner,
2007; Ravitch, 2010; Wheelock et al., 2000a). It was only the already-high-
achieving readers in our study who responded with energy, confidence, or
enthusiasm to either the experience of taking the tests or their perception
of their scores. Students in the two lowest scoring categories held no
illusions about how they were positioned within the successful reader/
struggling reader positions available in the classroom, suggesting that some
children assume their test scores will reflect their already-established per-
ception of their competence as readers.
Children’s responses in these areas point to the importance of opening
up new and different storylines in which children can locate themselves as
they are supported in reading and other subject areas. For instance, chil-
dren need and deserve clarity about how high-stakes tests function for them
and for their schools. If students face personal stakes through test scores, as
they do in some school systems, they need to understand those conse-
quences. However, children also need to know when test scores hold no
punitive consequences for individual students, as was the case for the
children with whom we worked. It is simply not acceptable for children to
carry the dread of something as dire as grade retention when adults who
could eliminate those fears surround them each school day. In addition,
explicit conversations about growth and trajectories would challenge the
stark binaries some children seem to perceive in relation to achievement
and open up positive narratives about potential and progression toward a
series of achievable goals. Otherwise, as Ravitch (2010) argues, an overem-
phasis on test scores to the exclusion of other important goals of education
can undermine students’ desire to learn lead to an unappealing outcome:
“higher test scores and worse education” (p. 230).
Finally, we point to the children’s use of pronouns to indicate ambigu-
ous, invested adults who waited in the wings to receive their test scores
and determined what those scores would mean for students, teachers,
and schools. First, we are interested in how their use of pronouns, par-
ticularly “they” and “them,” indicated children’s understandings of key
aspects of the testing process. For instance, many children rightly pointed
to adults at the district and state levels who cared about student scores
and who held significant power over schools and those in them. When
schools are holding assemblies to encourage strong performance on tests,
as well as sending many subtle and not-so-subtle messages about the
importance of test scores, it is no wonder that even young children may
sense pressure from entities located outside of their schools. As a number
of children’s responses suggested, even those adults who are putatively in
charge, such as teachers and principals, are under surveillance. Second,
the children’s use of pronouns suggested their sense of their positioning
within a power hierarchy in which nebulous others monitored their indi-
vidual achievement. This raises questions of what it means, in de
Charms’s (1977) words, to feel like a “pawn” in a system, experiencing
one’s actions “as determined by others and external circumstances(p.
445). Research with urban students in high-poverty schools suggests that
students’ feelings of decreased control over important aspects of their
schooling impacts their perceptions of their ability to forge a positive
path toward high school graduation (Diamond & Spillane, 2004; Lee,
Smith, Perry, & Smylie, 1999; Oakes, 2005; Valenzuela, 2005; Vasquez-
Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008; Marquez-Zenkov, 2007). Based on her
work in an elementary school in California in which English language
learners experienced many high-stakes tests across the school year, what
she refers to as “overtesting,” Zacher-Pandya (2011) suggests that children
absorb and can become discouraged by their understanding that others
are deeply invested in their continually monitored and publicly displayed
performance on tests. Although the third graders in our study were quite
matter-of-fact in their conviction that unknown adults awaited their test
scores, they were also clearly building understandings and harboring mis-
understandings about the high-stakes accountability and oversight that
drives current school reform in the United States. Research linking high-
stakes testing with increased dropout rates among older students who are
similarly positioned in underresourced schools and neighborhoods
underscores the importance of seeking, heeding, and learning from
children’s perspectives early in their school experience. Here, too, we
argue that for children to construct positive narratives about school and
their trajectories as learners, they need explicit information about high-
stakes testing and its consequences, coupled with demonstrations from
adults charged with supporting them that test scores are fallible and
cannot paint full and accurate portraits of their potential to thrive in
We wish Molly could have celebrated her reading of Frog and Toad,a
book that represented her tremendous growth as a reader. By the end of
third grade, Molly and many of her classmates had clearly absorbed the
import of the tests they took including a sense of the high stakes involved
for them as individuals, their teachers and administrators, and their school
as an institution. We wish to be clear that it is not our intent to demonize
large-scale assessments per se. Shepard (2008), for instance, points to the
potentially useful role large-scale tests could play in providing useful and
generative data on student achievement if such assessments were substan-
tively challenging (as opposed to limited to multiple choice items), focused
on capacity building rather than coercion, and considered along with other
indicators of robust learning in schools and classrooms. What we do
contend, however, is that children’s responses to high-stakes assessment
underscore the serious cautions running through a significant body of
educational research about imbuing high-stakes outcomes with the ulti-
mate authority to determine how children, teachers, and schools are
positioned in the dichotomous categories of proficient/not proficient,
successful/unsuccessful, or adequate/inadequate permeating discourses of
accountability in the United States. Statistics suggesting that more than half
of the children who participated in these interviews will not complete high
school underscore the urgent need to listen and learn from students about
how accountability policies play out in their school lives.
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Interview Protocol
The interviews followed a set of structured questions that were posed to
each child. However, the interviews were semistructured in the sense that
follow-up questions and conversation built from each child’s responses.
Introductory statement: I wanted to ask you some questions about some of the tests
you take in school. These questions are about the tests like the [state reading test] or
the [district reading test]; the ones where you have a booklet, and you read a passage
and then answer some questions and fill in the bubbles [provided further descrip-
tions, examples of the tests until the child seemed clear about the tests to
which the questions referred].
Questions posed to each child:
Why do you think you take these kinds of tests in school?
Do you know what happens after you take the tests?
Are the scores on those tests important? Why?
How do you feel about those tests? [Do you remember the state reading test
that you took last week? Can you describe the experience of taking the test?
What was it like for you?]
Do you know how you did on the tests? [Prompt: I mean, do you know how
you scored?] [If so] How do you know? [To all students] What do the scores
mean for you?
Additional questions asked of the fourth-grade follow-up students:
Was there anything different about the [state] test this year and the tests
like that one that you took last year?
What else did you learn about these kinds of tests in fourth grade that you
didn’t know in third grade?
... A large body of research over the past two decades has raised concerns about the validity of high stakes testing (HST) and its constraining effects on instruction (e.g., Linn, 2000;McCarthey, 2008;Ravitch, 2010); the emotional toll these tests take on students and teachers (e.g., Gonzalez et al., 2017;Richards, 2012;Segool et al., 2013); and the extent to which they may be culturally biased and thus inequitable (e.g., Luykx et al., 2007). However, little research has examined how teachers and students grapple with these constraints, even though scholars have argued that such work is necessary (e.g., Certo et al., 2008;Davis & Willson, 2015;Dutro & Selland, 2012;Triplett & Barksdale, 2005;Wheelock et al., 2000). Recently, Hikida and Taylor (2020) pointed to this gap and argued, "By remaining relatively silent on this work, the educational research community makes statements about the (lack of) possibilities for teachers and students to respond and resist standardizing educational policies like HST" (p. ...
... Some studies have looked at the extent to which high-stakes assessments mediate children's and adolescents' identities as readers and writers (Anagnostopoulos, 2003;Dutro et al., 2013) while others have considered the impact of literacy assessments on students' conceptions of reading and what it means to be a reader (Kontovourki, 2012). Particularly relevant to the present study are those studies that have explored students' or teachers' perspectives on literacy assessments (e.g., Davis & Willson, 2015;Dooley & Assaf, 2009;Dutro & Selland, 2012;McCarthey, 2008;Triplett & Barksdale, 2005;Wheelock et al., 2000), which we discuss next. ...
... While some researchers have documented elementary students' perceptions, few studies have devoted attention to adolescents' perspectives on HST. For example, Dutro and Selland (2012) interviewed 33 third graders in an urban elementary school and found that literacy assessments tended to position children as proficient/ not proficient readers based on test performance and that children sometimes had an incorrect understanding of the consequences of test scores. Other studies have analyzed children's drawings about testing experiences and documented that negative emotions (e.g., anger, anxiety) characterized their experiences with and perceptions of HST (Triplett & Barksdale, 2005;Wheelock et al., 2000). ...
Background/Context High-stakes testing (HST) weaves through the fabric of school life, stretching beyond the test day. Results have consequences for a school's reputation and autonomy, as well as teachers’ evaluations and students’ graduation and morale. Prior research demonstrates the constraining and inequitable effects assessments can have on students’ learning. Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study Recently, scholars have called for more research on students’ and teachers’ perspectives on HST. Responding to this call, we conducted a yearlong study in a high school designated as “persistently struggling” by the state. We examined adolescents’ and educators’ perceptions, reactions, and resistance to HST. We traced participants’ interactions with and about testing over the course of a school year as they prepared for, discussed, and eventually participated in test day. Research Design We conducted a yearlong qualitative study in which participants were 15 focal 11th graders and 9 teachers. We conducted 425 hours of observations and 52 interviews, as well as collected assessment data and classroom artifacts. For this article, we used quantitative survey data as a secondary source and analyzed the responses of 425 11th graders. Conclusions/Recommendations Analysis showed that HST served as a dominant context for literacy-related teaching across disciplines. Participants negotiated tension between their beliefs about education and their efforts to boost test scores. Teachers reported that assessments and their accompanying prescriptive curriculum hindered literacy and content area teaching and learning. Students, although they had diverse opinions about HST's usefulness, reported it created emotional distress, which compromised test performance. Testing contributed to a high-pressure environment in which literacy and content instruction were made reductive. Participants’ perspectives, and ways in which they resisted, provide insights into HST effects, as well as suggest promising, alternative routes toward equitable assessment that supports meaningful learning.
... In this regard, Derrick's situation as an adolescent Black male who enjoys and values reading is more precarious, as current reform policies zero in with monolithic understandings of Black male students and compel schools to adopt blanket instructional practices that ignore and may possibly thwart possibilities for students like Derrick. Dutro and Selland (2012) state, "we need to access as many vantage points as possible to better understand what is at stake in testdriven reforms for teachers, schools, the public school system in the United States, and most importantly, for children" (p. 341). ...
... Additionally, their perceptions of self-motivation, self-competence, and selfcontrol became more tied to their achievement on tests, skewing their understanding of what they had actually learned, as well as what they had accomplished overall, in school. Dutro and Selland (2012) found that only students who scored at the proficient level or above spoke positively about high-stakes testing. Other studies corroborate the finding that making student learning and academic success contingent on high-stakes, standardized assessments leads to students' feelings of boredom, anxiety, pessimism, and cynicism about learning in school (e.g., Wheelock, Bebell, & Haney, 2000). ...
... Researchers, administrators, teachers, and community members must also continue sharing counterstories like Derrick's, and to ensure they represent the diverse range of stakeholders affected by federal education policy (Dutro & Selland, 2012;Granger, 2008). This means continuing to bring the voices of students to the fore, since their interests are what reform efforts purport to honor, and to spotlight not just what they experience in reading instruction during testing season but also on a daily basis, across the school year, and across grades. ...
This qualitative case study presents the perceptions of Derrick, a Black urban adolescent male who enjoys reading but believes that inconsistent school discourses hinder his success and enjoyment as a reader. Findings show that Derrick's purposeful work while reading was limited and misunderstood because, among other factors, there was a pervasive effect of test-driven reform. I argue that his critique of formal reading instruction reveals that even progressive approaches to education are not immune to the discursive power of the accountability and standardization movement, and that resultantly, the active and avid reading engagement of this Black adolescent male was ultimately neglected, inhibited, and dismissed.
... Participants recognised an agenda to the tests which was not for their benefit and which diminished their wellbeing. A similar perspective was observed in a reading study with 33 children aged 8-9 years old in the USA (Dutro and Selland, 2012). In interviews about their perspectives of reading tests, all children demonstrated an understanding of the tests as a source of information about them and their peers for adults. ...
The aim of this thesis is to explore how children give meaning to the concept of wellbeing within a school environment. It is rooted in a recognition of the importance and value of respecting children’s rights to be heard. There is a scarcity of existing qualitative studies focusing on how young children in UK primary schools develop their understanding of wellbeing across a longitudinal course. This study asks what 6-8 year old children think wellbeing means and to what extent they see their experiences at school as supportive of children’s wellbeing. This is done to examine the impact of the school environment on how children create meaning and to enable school leaders, educators and academics to understand the nuances of children’s thought-processes and experiences in conceptualising wellbeing. Using a case study of an urban primary school in England, this study shows the importance of positive relationships and ideas about agency on children’s meaning-making. Children identified safety as a key component in their understanding of wellbeing and this was linked to both positive relationships with their teacher and a belief in God as a protector. Concerns about reprimands and peer teasing resulting from low academic attainment were found to diminish feelings of wellbeing. The significance of this study is that it informs our understanding of how a school’s particular ethos can have a considerable impact on how children conceptualise and rationalise abstract concepts. In addition, it demonstrates in practical terms the flexibility of a participatory methodology based on the Mosaic approach with exploratory methods such as story completion tasks adapted for use with young children and a successful switch midway through fieldwork to remote data generation due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
... Although the studies described in this article indicated that such instruction can and does take place, it is not par for the course. Often, reading instruction is focused on skill development in decoding and comprehension and is driven by skills-focused assessments, often with high stakes for students, teachers, and/or schools (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2006;Dutro & Selland, 2012). From a traditional "science of reading" perspective, this makes sense because determining what works (Foorman et al., 2016) for reading skill development would be the gold standard, with two important corollaries: Instructional practices that move the reading skills needle (cf. ...
Full-text available
Science of reading is a term that has been used variously, but its use within research, policy, and the press has tended to share one important commonality: an intensive focus on assessed reading proficiency as the primary goal of reading instruction. Although well intentioned, this focus directs attention toward a problematically narrow slice of reading. In this article, we propose a different framework for the science of reading, one that draws on existing literacy research in ways that could broaden and deepen instruction. The framework proposes, first, that reading education should develop textual dexterity across grade levels in the four literate roles first proposed by Freebody and Luke: code breaker (decodes text), text participant (comprehends text), text user (applies readings of text to accomplish things), and text analyst (critiques text). Second, the framework suggests that reading education should nurture important literate dispositions alongside those textual capacities, dispositions that include reading engagement, motivation, and self‐efficacy. Justification is offered for the focus on textual dexterity and literate dispositions, and we include research‐based suggestions about how reading educators can foster student growth in these areas. Finally, we propose that reading education should attend closely to linguistic, cultural, and individual variation, honoring and leveraging different strengths and perspectives that students bring to and take away from their learning. Reimagining a science of reading based on these principles has the potential to make it both more robust and more socially just, particularly for students from nondominant cultures.
... This is something that is all too often absent in scholastic experiences, but particularly for children and youth who are marginalized by standardized reading and writing practices. Research has shown that students often frame their talk about school and their own perception of their abilities around discourses of assessment, which often enact narrow definitions of reading and writing (Dutro & Selland, 2012). Essentially, this means that for many students who are framed as reluctant, not proficient, or struggling readers and writers, these labels drastically shape how they see themselves and the limitations they impose on their own reading and writing worth (Holland et. ...
Full-text available
For too many youths, school has become a place for students to withstand and kill time until they can leave and learn about things that matter to them. Instead, schools should be inviting and exciting places to learn but also nurturing spaces where all students feel they belong. Drawing upon expanded definition of literacies that include play and making, this study examines how the maker literacies—media production where multimodal, digital, and artifact-based literacies converge—creates opportunities for youth to critically engage their favorite toys and media in school. While the preponderance of research on media literacy has focused on critical consumption of multimedia, research on play-based literacies has focused largely on early childhood (K–2) spaces. This article examines student engagement in the intersection of critical media production and play-based literacies for older youth, specifically play, toymaking, and filmmaking in classroom makerspaces.
... However, students' perspectives on being research participants have not been discussed in a comprehensive manner, though particular aspects of this issue have been addressed in different contexts. For example, we know something about students' perspectives regarding testing (see Dutro & Selland, 2012;Wheelock, Bebell, & Haney, 2000), and students' motivations to participate in educational research have been studied in the context of minimizing attrition from longitudinal research (Cooper Robbins et al., 2012). Researchers have also investigated students' participation in studies perceived to be potentially harmful to participants, especially due to students dealing with traumatic issues from their past (Becker-Blease & Freyd, 2006;Jaffe, DiLillo, Hoffman, Haikalis, & Dykstra, 2015;Kilpatrick, 2004) or with ongoing troubling issues (Cato, Bockting, & Larson, 2016;Murphy, Edwards, Merrill, & Gidycz, 2011). ...
Full-text available
This paper discusses high-school students' perspectives on their participation in educational survey research. Students responded to a Likert-style questionnaire about their school’s social-educational portrait and were invited at its end to briefly comment on the survey itself. Qualitative analysis showed that a sizable proportion of students crafted emotionally laden relational responses addressed to the researchers, spanning a broad spectrum ranging from gratitude through skepticism to angry suspicion. For some students, interest in their school experience was very empowering, giving students a sense of recognition and of being heard. Other students showed discomfort with the quantitative survey as a research tool. The study argues for the existence of relational stances in quantitative research and suggests that these be taken into account in planning the research and interpreting the results.
... Polesel, Rice & Dulfer, 2014) and children's self-efficacy (e.g. Dutro & Selland, 2012). This current study also noted a shift towards more academic instruction and formalised pedagogical styles in some kindergarten curricula (Kirk, 2014). ...
THIS ARTICLE EXAMINES THE strategies employed by one kindergarten teacher, Kyra, to create a classroom where the relationships, play situations and environments worked synergistically to support children’s social and emotional competencies. The data is drawn from a larger study, undertaken in 2009, that used qualitative methodology to examine how teachers were supporting kindergarten children’s social and emotional development. Out of the eight participants from the original study, Kyra’s pedagogical approach was found to be unique in that it provided increased opportunities for the development and consolidation of strategic processes that are essential for independent thinking and learning. It was found that these opportunities were fostered through a balanced provision of relationships, play and environments. Collectively, these elements created a context in which scientific and everyday concepts could connect. The children in this classroom were observed to demonstrate higher order thinking skills more often and seemingly more independently than the children in the other classrooms.
The term standardized tests is often heard along with high-stakes. Standardized tests are administered, scored, and interpreted in a consistent way, so that the performances of large groups of students can be compared. They are not in themselves high-stakes, but they are often used for high-stakes purposes such as determining which students will pass or graduate, which teachers are fired or given raises, and which schools are reorganized or given more funding. Heard less frequently are discussions of the effects of high-stakes standardized tests on student learning. Research shows that these effects include changing the nature of teaching, narrowing the curriculum, and limiting student learning. English language arts (ELA) teachers and their students feel these effects with special force because literacy is central in most standardized tests.
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With the advancement of reforms using high-stakes standardized tests to evaluate and manage schools, its unwanted effects are becoming more present while experiences of resistance multiply. This article using qualitative instruments for a period of five years in three schools in Santiago de Chile explore such unwanted effects and the impact of an educational campaign to end them.
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The aims of this research are focus in evaluate linguistic communication and mathematics competences of students in sixth grade of primary education from their perception, and to develop a valid and reliable questionnaire in order to perform a self-assessment. The methodology has quantitative, descriptive and correlational character. In this research 1424 students from 46 schools in Cordova and its province participated. The results show that variables such as gender, age, number of siblings and type of center have influence for a better or worse self-assessment of students; but extracurricular activities undertaken by students and the increased weekly time devoted are those which cause a greater appreciation of each competence. On the other hand, a lower daily use of television, computer and games console allows that students make a self-assess more capeble to different aspects of both competences.
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Many high-stakes testing policies rest on the belief that attaching consequences to test scores will persuade students of the importance of academics and will motivate them to exert greater effort to achieve at passing levels. This investigation explores this assumption through an examination of students' drawings of themselves taking the Massachusetts high-stakes test. Student drawings conveyed a range of opinions about test difficulty, length, and content. A small minority of drawings depicted students as diligent problem-solvers and thinkers. A larger percentage of drawings portrayed students as anxious, angry, bored, pessimistic, or withdrawn from testing. The overall patterns that emerge challenge the belief that the high stakes associated with MCAS will enhance the motivation and effort of students in a uniform way.
Background/Context School closure is becoming an increasingly common policy response to underperforming urban schools. Districts typically justify closure decisions by pointing to schools’ low performance on measures required by No Child Left Behind. Closures disproportionately fall on schools with high percentages of poor and working-class students of color. Few studies have examined how students interpret or respond to school closures. Purpose Our purpose was to document narratives articulated by students about the closure of their high school. Doing so is important because students, particularly students of color from low-income families, are often left out of policy decisions that affect their lives. Population/Participants Research participants were recruited from the population of youth who had attended the closed school and who remained in the district during the subsequent year. Twenty-three percent of students at the school were African American, 75% were Latino, and 2% were White. Over 90% of students were eligible for free and reduced lunch. A total of 106 students responded to surveys and peer interviews, and 12 youth who had dropped out of school participated in focus groups. Research Design This was a youth participatory action research (YPAR) study, designed collaboratively by former Jefferson students, university researchers, and adult community members. Data sources included open-ended surveys, peer interviews, focus groups, and field notes describing public events and YPAR meetings. Findings Our data show that most respondents did not agree with the decision to close their school. Student disagreement surfaced two counternarratives. First, students critiqued the way the decision was made—they felt excluded from the decision-making process that led to closure. Second, they critiqued the rationale for the decision, which suggested that students needed to be rescued from a failing school. Students articulated features of Jefferson that they valued, such as trusting relationships with adults, connection to place, and sense of belonging, which they felt were discounted by the decision. Conclusions/Recommendations Evidence from this study lends support to developmental and political justifications for robust youth participation in equity-based school reform. By developmental justification, we mean evidence that young people were ready to participate, which counters discourses about youth as immature or unprepared. By political justification, we mean evidence that youth articulated interests that were discounted in the decision-making process and that challenged normative assumptions about school quality. In our conclusion, we point to examples of expanded roles that students could play in decision-making processes.
The International Handbook of Student Experience in Elementary and Secondary School is the first handbook of its kind to be published. It brings together in a single volume the groundbreaking work of scholars who have conducted studies of student experiences of school in Afghanistan, Australia, Canada, England, Ghana, Ireland, Pakistan, and the United States. Drawing extensively on students’ interpretations of their experiences in school as expressed in their own words, chapter authors offer insights into how students conceptualize and approach school, how students understand and address the ongoing social opportunities for and challenges in working with other students and teachers, and the multiple ways in which students shape and contribute to school improvement. The individual chapters are framed by an opening chapter, which provides background on, bases of, and trends in research on students’ experiences of school, and a final chapter, which uses the interpretive framework translation provided to explore how researching students’ experiences of school challenges those involved to translate the qualitative research methods they use, the terms they evoke to describe and define students’ experiences of schools, and, in fact, themselves as researchers.
The United States is among the most affluent nations in the world and has its largest economy; nevertheless, it has more poverty than most countries with similar standards of living. Growing income inequality and the Great Recession have made the problem worse. In this thoroughly revised edition of Poverty in America, Iceland takes a new look at this issue by examining why poverty remains pervasive, what it means to be poor in America today, which groups are most likely to be poor, the root causes of poverty, and the effects of policy on poverty. This new edition also includes completely updated data and extended discussions of poverty in the context of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements as well as new chapters on the Great Recession and global poverty. In doing so this book provides the most recent information available on patterns and trends in poverty and engages in an open and accessible manner in current critical debates.
This book describes how social identification and academic learning can deeply depend on each other, through a theoretical account of the two processes and a detailed empirical analysis of how students identities emerged and how students learned curriculum in one classroom. The book traces the identity development of two students across an academic year, showing how they developed unexpected identities in substantial part because curricular themes provided categories that teachers and students used to identify them and showing how students learned about curricular themes in part because the two students were socially identified in ways that illuminated those themes. The book's distinctive contribution is to demonstrate in detail how social identification and academic learning can become deeply interdependent.
The 21st century is awash with ever more mixed and remixed images, writing, layout, sound, gesture, speech, and 3D objects. Multimodality looks beyond language and examines these multiple modes of communication and meaning making. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication represents a long-awaited and much anticipated addition to the study of multimodality from the scholar who pioneered and continues to play a decisive role in shaping the field. Written in an accessible manner and illustrated with a wealth of photos and illustrations to clearly demonstrate the points made, Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication deliberately sets out to locate communication in the everyday, covering topics and issues not usually discussed in books of this kind, from traffic signs to mobile phones. In this book, Gunther Kress presents a contemporary, distinctive and widely applicable approach to communication. He provides the framework necessary for understanding the attempt to bring all modes of meaning-making together under one unified theoretical roof. This exploration of an increasingly vital area of language and communication studies will be of interest to advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students in the fields of English language and applied linguistics, media and communication studies and education.
Despite its enormous wealth, the United States leads the industrialized world in poverty. One Nation, Underprivileged unravels this disturbing paradox by offering a different understanding of American poverty. It debunks many of Americans' most common myths about the poor, while at the same time providing a new framework for addressing this enormous social and economic problem. The author shows that the fundamental causes of poverty are to be found in America's economic structure and political policy failures, rather than individual shortcomings or attitudes. He establishes for the first time that a significant percentage of Americans will experience poverty during their adult lifetimes, and firmly demonstrates that poverty is an issue of vital national concern. Ultimately, the author provides the reader with a new paradigm for understanding poverty, and outlines a set of strategies that will reduce the phenomenon in America. One Nation, Underprivileged represents a starting point for rekindling a national focus upon America's most vexing social and economic problem.