Do High-Stakes Tests Make Teachers More Likely to Quit? Study Says No
For many teachers, high-stakes testing is a major source of frustration—but they're not necessarily quitting over it.
A new study found that eliminating state testing did not have an effect on overall teacher turnover and attrition. Early-career teachers, however, are less likely to leave the profession when there are fewer required tests.
The working paper, which was published by the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, analyzed the effects of changes in mandated state testing in Georgia. For eight years, all students in grades 1 through 8 were tested in reading, English/language arts, and math, and students in grades 3-8 were also tested in science and social studies. But starting in 2011, the state began to scale back the number of required end-of-year tests. Now, students in grades 3 through 8 are tested in English/language arts and math, and only students in grades 5 and 8 are tested in science and social studies.
The changes gave researchers a chance to find out: Does getting rid of testing make teachers less likely to change schools or quit?
"You hear a lot of talk about how teachers are leaving the profession because of high-stakes testing and the related stress and time spent on so-called teaching to the test," said Tim Sass, an author of the study and a professor at Georgia State University.
But, he said, that doesn't seem to be the case. The researchers compared changes in mobility over time in grades and subjects that discontinued testing with grades and subjects that are always tested. They found that the removal of statewide tests had no effect on the likelihood of changing schools within a district, moving between districts, or quitting altogether.
There is one meaningful exception: Teachers with fewer than five years of experience were less likely to leave the profession when there are fewer testing requirements. For new teachers, the likelihood of leaving fell from 14 to 13 percentage points for teachers in grades 1 and 2, and from 14 to 11 percentage points in grades 6 and 7, the study found.
"For early-career teachers, they probably aren't aware of exactly how testing plays out before they enter a classroom," Sass said, adding that veteran teachers may also be less susceptible to changing policies.
On average, early-career teachers are much more mobile than veteran teachers, and also are more likely to leave the profession overall.
Teachers have long expressed frustration over state-mandated standardized testing. According to the 2019 national PDK poll, more than half of teachers said they would vote to strike for more say in school standards, testing, and curriculum. (More than 80 percent of K-12 parents said they would support teachers who went on strike over these issues.) But only 1 percent of teachers pointed to testing requirements as a reason they have considered leaving the profession.
Even so, federal data from 2012-13 found that 55 percent of teachers who leave the profession are doing so, at least in part, because they're dissatisfied. And among those who cited dissatisfaction as a reason for leaving, 25 percent were referring to testing and accountability measures.
A 2015 report from the Georgia Department of Education found that teachers ranked the "number and emphasis of mandated tests" as the most prominent reason why teachers would leave.
"What people say and what they do are not always the same thing," Sass said. "People may express dissatisfaction, but that doesn't necessarily mean they end up quitting. ... It could very well be the case that a lot of teachers are feeling stressed and burned out, but [that's] not showing up in large reasons to actually leave the profession."
The study comes as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has announced a plan to further cut down on standardized testing by eliminating four high school tests, and the 5th grade social studies test. The move is supported by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the largest teachers' group in the state.
"When you look at the big picture, it's clear Georgia simply tests too much," Kemp said, according to the Associated Press. "On test days it's making students physically sick because they're worried they will not do well."
Sass said his study did not look at the effects of reducing testing on student outcomes. He's also interested in doing further research on whether more extensive state testing requirements reduces instructional time.
"There could be other reasons why you want to alter the testing regime," he said. Still, "further reducing tests is unlikely to make a significant dent on the outflow of teachers."
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