High-stakes tests and ripple effects for science education

By Jillian Luchner - November 2015


Anderson, K. J. B. (2012). Science education and test-based accountability: Reviewing their relationship and exploring implications for future policy. Science Education, 96(1), 104–129. doi:10.1002/sce.20464


For almost two decades, strict accountability measures have been in place across the country. In this study, Anderson investigated the effect of accountability on K–12 science instruction. Looking across multiple studies, he found that curricula have narrowed, less time is being dedicated to science, teacher morale is lower, and expectations for disadvantaged students have increased.

Research Design

The study investigates connections in the research literature between accountability and five components of instruction: professional development, instructional practices, time devoted to science, ability to meet the needs of all students, and teacher attitudes. Anderson defines accountability as any policy mandating that test results be publicly available.

Anderson’s literature review identified 35 studies from 1983–2012 that met three criteria. The included studies all:

The 35 papers represent a mix of methods: case studies, interviews, surveys and questionnaires, and observations. Only five of the studies took place before the year 2000. Samples in the studies range from purposeful to stratified or representative, and random. Sample sizes ranged from case studies of four instructors to large surveys of 500 schools. Anderson emphasizes that the studies, though empirical, review teachers’ expressed perceptions, not causal links between changes and accountability policies.

Research Findings

The study had four main findings:

  1. Accountability was sometimes found to compete with research-based reform. Current research-based reform emphasizes inquiry-based, student-centered teaching. However, under accountability policies, teachers often reported resorting to more direct, decontextualized instructional methods with explicit relationships to standardized tests. Accountability policies may also be damaging student interest in science. Some educators reported that their students enjoy science less.
  2. Teachers reported that state tests, rather than professional judgment, directed their curriculum planning. They decreased the use of inquiry-based lessons and followed student interests less often. However, on the positive side, teachers noted that curricula were better aligned to state standards and more rigorous. Additionally, teachers reportedly paid more attention to student achievement scores as they aligned their practice with standards and assessments. Time on science instruction decreased as a result of increasing test-based accountability, especially in elementary schools. One study found a loss of as much as 75 minutes per week of science instruction among 28 percent of districts surveyed between 2001, before No Child Left Behind, and 2007. Some teachers reported that they refocused instructional time away from science because they were afraid of sanctions under No Child Left Behind for failing to meet standards in math and reading.
  3. Expectations increased for all students, but particularly for low-income and minority students. Anderson notes that the accountability measures may also be forcing schools to focus on students who are close to proficiency-level cut-off scores. The current accountability systems reward schools for the numbers of students who achieve proficiency rather than for student growth. To schools and teachers, then, boosting a student who is a few points away from the “proficient” level can seem more valuable than helping a student grow dozens or hundreds of points while remaining above or below the proficiency mark.
  4. Teachers reported that accountability measures added stress, decreased job satisfaction, restricted creativity, and constrained professional judgment.

Overall, Anderson found that only 26 percent of the studies mentioned positive aspects of accountability, while 97 percent mentioned negative aspects.

Implications for Practice

Anderson notes that no studies correlated student achievement with accountability policies, looked at longitudinal correlations, or examined the before-and-after effects of new policies.

The study suggests that classroom science has become increasingly narrowly defined and enacted. Informal science educators can help meet the resulting need for expansive, inquiry-based and learner-driven science in out-of-school settings.

Anderson suggests a need for more inquiry-based instruction and the use of multiple measures of achievement, including student engagement, creativity, and joy. He also suggests a need for curricular balance and a focus on growth and improvement, rather than on punishment and competition, among students, teachers, and schools.

Related Briefs:

  • Luchner, J. (2015). Declining science time and student performance: An ISE research brief discussing Blank, “Science instructional time is declining in elementary schools: What are the implications for student achievement and closing the gap?” http://rr2p.org/article/435