What Can Student Drawings Tell Us About High-Stakes Testing in Massachusetts? by Anne Wheelock, Damian J. Bebell & Walt Haney - November 02, 2000Many 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 A larger percentage of drawings portrayed students as anxious, angry, bored, pessimistic, or withdrawn from testing.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.
All rumors of [the test's] esoteric and labyrinthine questions
are true, and it personally took me over 17 hours to complete the
- Christian Drake, Northampton, Massachusetts, Class of 2000
The questions were really hard. I don't know how they expected
us to answer them.
- Sarah Dauphinais, Westfield, Massachusetts, Class of 2003
We think it's unfair because they're testing us on things we
haven't even learned yet. -Yaraliz Soto, Holyoke,
Massachusetts, Class of 2002
After the first two days of tests, your fingers and your mind
hurt. A lot of kids didn't try after that.
- Arthur Page, Wareham, Massachusetts, Class of 2003
Yes, the tests are challenging, but they are not unfair.
- James Peyser, Chairman, Massachusetts Board of Education
Over the past decade, in response to the
requirements of Goals 2000 and Title 1 legislation, states have
greatly expanded testing programs for public school students.
Fashioned to fit state curriculum frameworks, state tests typically
reinforce the "content standards" the frameworks represent. In the
name of "accountability," many states have also adopted policies
that make use of test scores to determine graduation from high
school, grade promotion, distribution of rewards, and state
intervention. As local and national media bombard the public with
daily news of test results (see, for example, http://www.educationnews.org.
This URL and all others listed below have been checked and verified
as active as of September 15. 2000.), and as political leaders and
the press push for higher scores, educators across the country are
changing curriculum and instruction to boost students' chances of
passing the tests (Groves & Richardson, 2000; McNeil &
Valenzuela, 2000; McNeil, 2000; Shea, 2000).
In contrast to the enthusiasm of the media and policy officials,
however, researchers increasingly warn that relying on standardized
test scores to make educational decisions related to curriculum and
instruction, allocation of resources, or students' futures is
unwise (Dorn, 1998; Heubert & Hauser, 1999; Linn, 2000;
Mehrens, 1998; Noble & Smith, 1994; Stake, 1998; Whitford &
Jones, 2000). Widely-reviewed trade books with a focus on
standardized testing further caution that such testing has a
history of backfiring, resulting in narrowing rather than expanding
students' opportunities to learn (Kohn, 1999; Lemann, 1999;
Ohanian, 1999; Sacks, 1999). Yet despite extensive public
discussion, few have attended to how those most affected, namely
students, perceive and react to testing, or how students' responses
might affect test results.
As a step toward addressing this gap, this paper focuses on
student responses to high stakes testing in Massachusetts. Using
students' drawings of themselves taking the statewide test, our
study describes the range of responses of students to high stakes
testing. It also provides electronic links to the drawings
themselves, the coding scheme used to analyze the drawings, and
brief suggestions on using drawings.
THE NATURE OF STATEWIDE TESTING IN MASSACHUSETTS
spring of 1998, the Massachusetts Department of Education
implemented the first version of the Massachusetts Comprehensive
Assessment System (MCAS), prepared under contract with Advanced
Systems of New Hampshire. The MCAS is a paper-and-pencil test that
includes both multiple-choice and open-response items. Scores are
determined by measuring student performance against "standards"
that can be set at high or low levels. Starting with the class of
2003, all Massachusetts high school students will be required to
attain "passing" scores on tenth grade mathematics and English
tests in order to receive a high school diploma.
MCAS is a lengthy test, taking more time than the Graduate
Record Examinations or standardized tests required for medical,
law, or business school. The 1998 testing schedule called for
students to sit for seven sessions in English/language arts, three
in mathematics, and three in science and technology, with most
sessions running a minimum of one hour. The 1999 schedule required
fourth graders to sit for five sessions in English, two in
mathematics, two in science and technology, and one session of
tryout questions in history and social studies. In 2000, the state
reduced fourth grade testing time to five sessions in English, two
in mathematics, and two in science and technology, but spread
testing into the fifth grade for the first time, ostensibly to
reduce what Board of Education Vice-Chairperson Roberta Schaefer
called "testing burnout" (McFarland, 1999). Eighth and tenth grade
students sat for 13 sessions, with tryout questions scheduled for
sixth and seventh graders. Test times published by the Department
of Education are approximate; in all grades, actual test times
vary, and often exceed, those recommended.
MCAS is meant to be a difficult test. From the beginning,
policy-makers intended MCAS results to be scored at a more
demanding level than nationally normed standardized tests.
According to John Silber, then-Chairman of the Massachusetts Board
of Education, as reported in February 1997 minutes from the Board
meeting that month (http://www.doe.mass.edu/boe/minutes/97/min21097.html):
If on one of the nationally normed tests that is given in grades
4, 8 and 10, students should turn out with a B, and on the Advanced
Systems test they came out with a C, we might conclude that
Advanced Systems has pegged it just right with a more demanding
standard, a standard that would approach international standards.
On the other hand, if the situation were reversed, where a
nationally normed test shows that the students were performing at
about a C level and Advanced Systems had a B level, then we would
know that the standards in that exam were perhaps not rigorous
Since setting the "cut-off" scores for MCAS is a political
matter, "passing" scores can be set at a higher level relative to
other tests. Indeed, at its January 2000 meeting, the Board of
Education established the official requirement that students in the
graduating class of 2003 meet or exceed the threshold scaled score
of 220 on English and mathematics MCAS grade 10 tests in order to
satisfy requirements of the "Competency Determination" for a high
school diploma (http://www.doe.mass.edu/boe/bib/bib00/12800.html).
This decision followed by two months the news that nearly half the
state's tenth grade students did not meet this performance
MCAS is also a controversial test. Despite a concerted campaign
by business, media, and policy leaders to promote MCAS as a tool
for accountability and reform (Guenther, 2000; Hayward, 2000b),
those closer to student learning have become increasingly vocal
about their disenchantment with high stakes testing in
Massachusetts. Educators from all grade levels, including several
former Massachusetts Teachers of the Year and McArthur Fellow
Deborah Meier, have questioned the value of such testing for
student learning (Associated Press, 2000; Greenebaum, 2000;
Hayward, 2000a; Lindsay, 2000; Lord, 1999; Marcus, 1999; Meier,
2000; Penniman, 2000; Sukiennik, 2000; Tantraphol, 2000a). Parents
have launched a petition drive and lobbied elected officials to
reject the tests as a means to determine graduation (Daley D.,
2000; Downs, 1999; Walsh, 2000a, 2000b; Wilson, 2000; also,
Finally, the Student Coalition Against MCAS (http://www.scam-mcas.org) has
distributed position papers on MCAS and testified at school
committee meetings. In the spring of 2000, hundreds of students
from across the state organized a test boycott, rallies, and the
delivery of letters to the governor protesting MCAS (Crittenden,
2000; Gentile and Sukiennik, 2000; Glading-Dilorenzo, 2000;
Hayward, 2000d; Steinberg, 2000; Scherer, 2000; Shartin, 2000;
Sweeney, 2000; Tantraphol, 2000b; Thesing, 2000; Vaishnav &
Vigue, 2000; Vigue and Yaekel, 2000).
PARTICIPATION IN AND RESULTS OF MCAS TESTING
1998, Massachusetts administered its first round of testing in
English/language arts, mathematics, and science/technology to
201,749 students. With participation required of virtually all
students, including students with disabilities and those whose
first language is not English, the testing pool included 96.6% of
all students enrolled in the fourth, eighth, and tenth grades.
Although the 1999 participation rate for students with disabilities
dropped by several percentage points in each grade tested, overall
participation for the second year of testing was similar to that of
1998 (Massachusetts Department of Education, October 1999a;
Massachusetts Department of Education, November 1999).
MCAS results are reported in four categories: "Advanced,"
"Proficient," "Needs Improvement," and "Failing." Results of the
first round of testing reported in December 1998 were
disappointing. Only in the Grade 8 English/language arts test did
more than half the students score in the "Advanced" and
"Proficient" categories. In May 1999, another 215,045 students sat
for the second round of testing, and results reported in December
1999 had changed little from the previous year. As in 1998, only in
English/language arts in Grade 8 did more than half the students
score above the "Needs Improvement" category, results Governor
Celluci called "unacceptable" (Mashberg, 1999).
Results for African American and Latino students were more
disheartening. According to an analysis of 1998 results prepared by
the Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and
Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston
(http://www.gaston.umb.edu), 49% of the African American and 58% of
the Latino tenth graders failed the English portion of MCAS
compared with 19% of the state's white tenth graders. While 80% of
African American and 83% of Latino tenth graders failed
mathematics, 43% of the state's white tenth graders did so (Uriarte
& Chavez, 2000). The Gaston Institute's analysis also revealed
that high numbers of minority students had failed MCAS in specific
districts. Cities like Boston, Springfield, Worcester, New Bedford,
Lowell, Holyoke, Fitchburg, Chicopee, Chelsea, and Salem posted
still higher failing rates for their African American and Latino
tenth graders than for those students statewide. A Department of
Education analysis based on 1999 scores revealed similar patterns
In response, researchers, parents, and community leaders warned
that without a change in the policy linking MCAS scores to
graduation, urban students would begin to drop out of school in
increasing numbers (Allen, 1999; National Center for Fair and Open
Testing, 2000; Rodriguez, 1999; Vigue, 2000).
MCAS "Failing" scores also put large numbers of students with
disabilities and students whose first language is not English at
high risk of leaving high school without a diploma. According to
reports released by the Massachusetts Department of Education, 64%
of the tenth graders with disabilities and 59% of students with
limited English proficiency received a "Failing" score on MCAS in
1998. Failing rates were still higher in 1999 when 71% of the tenth
graders with disabilities and 66% of students with limited English
proficiency received "Failing" grades (Massachusetts Department of
Education, October 1999a; Massachusetts Department of Education,
CHALLENGES TO MCAS
MCAS results have been announced with great fanfare and assurances
of their reliability, MCAS may, in fact, mistakenly classify
competent students as ill-prepared for life after high school.
Comparing the scores of students who had taken both the MCAS -- and
one of four other standardized tests -- the Iowa Test of Basic
Skills (ITBS), Stanford 9 Achievement Tests (SAT9), Educational
Research Bureau tests (ERB), and the Preliminary Scholastic
Aptitude Test (PSAT), researchers have found that many students
with scores in the upper ranges on each of these four tests could
readily fall into any one of the four MCAS score categories (Horn,
Ramos, Blumer, & Madaus, 2000). Likewise, the state Board of
Education's own technical report summary notes that student
achievement as measured by national tests varies widely within MCAS
categories. This October 1999 report noted that the group of fourth
graders receiving "Failing" MCAS scores in 1998 included students
who had received "average" scores, up to the 50th percentile, on
the Grade 3 1997 Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). Further, fourth
graders receiving "Needs Improvement" MCAS scores included students
whose ITBS scores ranged from the 30th percentile to the 80th
percentile (Massachusetts Department of Education, 1998 MCAS
Technical Report Summary, Figure 2, 1999). These findings emphasize
the possibility that MCAS scores may unreliably report what
Massachusetts students know and can do and may result in
misclassifying individual students into the "Failing" or "Needs
Improvement" categories when, in fact, their achievement is above
Professional associations and university educators have also
cautioned against the potential misuse of MCAS. In a statement to
the Massachusetts legislature, Jacob Ludes III, Executive Director
of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges has warned,
" The notion that a single high-stakes test can be used to set
policy, and reward or punish schools and the children in them, is
indeed appalling" (Katz, 2000). Harvard professor Vito Perrone,
summarizing an analysis of publicly-released 1998 MCAS items, has
raised additional concerns about both the educational quality of
MCAS questions and the effects of MCAS on student learning and
engagement. Writing on behalf of the Coalition for Authentic Reform
in Education (CARE), Perrone (CARE, 1998: 4) states:
In general, the conclusion [from a review of MCAS items] was
that the tests were very much like all the other standardized tests
we have reviewed over the years; that they might be difficult for
many students, not because they are particularly rigorous or
challenging, but because they are long, tedious, lacking in a
genuine performance base, and filled with ambiguities; and that the
tests are likely to dampen student achievement by undermining
A year later, in a similar review of items made public after the
second round of MCAS, Perrone (CARE, 1999: 3, 25) added:
In general, the 1999 tests are much like the previous year's
tests.... MCAS tests were described as generating no genuine
interest, viewed by students as tedious and ambiguous, representing
a lack of trust in their abilities and commitments and constituting
a waste of their time. It is not surprising that the tests didn't
receive students' best efforts.
STUDENTS' PERCEPTIONS OF STANDARDIZED TESTING
implication that the most important challenge to MCAS comes from
the responses of students to the tests invites further inquiry into
students' perceptions of MCAS. If students judge a test as unworthy
of their participation, scores from even well designed assessments
will not accurately reflect what they have learned in school or
what they can do with their knowledge. If students do not put their
best effort into testing, both test results and the value of the
test as an educational tool are called into question. In addition,
student anxiety, stress, fatigue, and motivation to learn
compromise test results, a phenomenon known as "test score
pollution" (Haladyna, Nolen, & Haas, 1991; Madaus, 1988).
USING STUDENTS' DRAWINGS TO EXPLORE THEIR PERCEPTIONS OF HIGH
With a view to understanding the phenomenon of test score
pollution, a few researchers have surveyed and interviewed
students. (Debard & Kubow, 2000; Haney & Scott, 1987;
Paris, Lawton, Turner, & Roth, 1991; Paris, Herbst, &
Turner, in press; Thorkildsen, 1999; Urdan & Davis, 1997).
However, although surveys and interviews are valuable tools for
gathering information from students, they are often difficult for
teachers, school leaders, or community decision-makers to use in
their classrooms, schools, and communities. In contrast, asking
students to draw pictures of themselves as test-takers in order to
examine their perceptions of testing is cost-effective,
unintrusive, and compatible with many classroom routines. Using
drawings to elicit impressions of schooling can capture the
perspectives of students for whom reading or completing survey
forms might be difficult, including students with disabilities and
students whose first language is not English. Teachers seeking a
way to document changes in classroom organization, teaching, and
learning can easily collect drawings for reflection and discussion
(Haney, Russell, & Jackson, 1997; Tovey, 1996). In addition,
drawings are proving to be a valid and reliable way of illuminating
how individual students and groups of students understand their own
learning processes (Lifford, Byron, Eckblad, & Ziemian, 2000;
Russell & Haney, 1999). See Appendix A:
"Using drawings to spur reflection and change."
Despite these advantages, we acknowledge potential drawbacks to
drawings as a form of research and inquiry. Based on past
experience, we know that when asked to draw aspects of their
learning and school experience, students sometimes fall back on
visual stereotypes, or highly unusual but memorable events. Also,
we have seen that older students, in their mid-teens, sometimes
decline to draw because they view drawing as childish or have been
taught to doubt their own artistic ability. Additionally, we have
learned that it can be hazardous to interpret the meaning of
individual drawings without being able to talk with the artists who
created them (see Appendix A). Ideally, in
order to inquire more fully into students’ reactions to high
stakes testing, we would like to use not just drawings, but also
interviews and observations. Nonetheless, we think that this
exploratory study provides a unique window on the perspectives of a
group whose views are far too often ignored in debates about high
stakes testing, namely the students who are subjects to such
Gathering drawings from Massachusetts classrooms
In May 1999, shortly after the second round of MCAS testing
ended, we sent out an e-mail invitation to a small listserve of
Massachusetts teachers asking for their help in an exploration of
students' perceptions of MCAS based on students' drawings of
themselves as MCAS test-takers. Fifteen educators from fifteen
schools in eight different districts responded, and in June, all
asked their students to follow the simple prompt: "Draw a picture
of yourself taking the MCAS." Subsequently, these teachers sent us
drawings by 411 students. Of these, 303 (73.7%) were from 4th
graders, 58 (14.1%) were from 8th graders, and 50 (12.2%) were from
10th graders. Disaggregated by type of community, the 411 drawings
included 109 (26.5%) from classrooms described as urban, 209
(50.9%) from classrooms described as suburban, and 93 (22.6%) from
those described as rural.
We asked teachers to note the student's grade level and the
general location of each school (urban, suburban, or rural) on the
back of each drawing. We assured teachers that any presentation of
the drawings or a summary of patterns would not identify
contributing students, teachers, schools, or communities. We have
received their permission to use the drawings anonymously to
illustrate the general patterns and findings from our sample.
Developing a coding scheme
Over the fall of 1999, we used a random sample of drawings to
identify surface features apparent in the drawings, then clustered
those features into a coding scheme reflecting broad categories
that emerged. Our intention was not to look at the drawings
through a psychoanalytic lens, but rather to describe facets of the
testing situation that students chose to include in their drawings.
To a great extent, then, we listed explicit aspects of the
drawings, including such unambiguous features as student postures,
testing materials, and the presence of other students or teachers.
In addition, the coding scheme included affective responses that
were clearly discernible in the drawings. Finally, we allowed for
space to note specific and individual features from students'
self-portraits, including comments written in thought bubbles,
speech bubbles, or captions. (For a copy of the coding scheme used,
see Appendix B.)
Coding the drawings
Following the development of the rubric, we coded each drawing
individually, noting the characteristics listed in the rubric as
well as any additional characteristics, including written
commentary by students. Categories were not mutually exclusive, and
single drawings encompassing multiple characteristics were coded
for all characteristics. All drawings were coded by the first
author. In addition, a graduate assistant also coded a randomly
selected sample of 40 drawings to assess the inter-rater
reliability of the coding scheme, and the first author recoded
another set of 60 randomly selected drawings to assess intra-rater
reliability. The agreement in independent ratings was greater than
90%. To further study the reliability of coding of drawings, we had
five graduate students independently code a random sample of
drawings. In this study we used not just percent agreement, but
also Cohen’s kappa (which adjusts observed agreement for the
probability of chance agreement). Across all ten pairs of
comparisons, the mean Cohen’s kappa was 0.67. In his
methodological note on kappa in Psychological Reports,
Kvalseth(1989) suggests that a kappa coefficient of 0.61 represents
"reasonably good" overall agreement. Our results show clearly that
reliability of coding drawings surpass the standard suggested by
Kvalseth. Finally, in January 2000, we met with educators who had
submitted the drawings. Reviewing the drawings together, we
elicited their comments, discussed their interpretations based on
their knowledge of testing conditions, and considered the
Analyzing the findings
Given our dependence on busy teacher volunteers, the sample used
in our analysis is an opportunity sample and does not represent all
Massachusetts students in the grades tested, or all students in
urban, suburban, or rural communities. Recognizing the limitations
of our sample, then, we have analyzed and reported our findings so
as to reduce misinterpretation as much as possible. To this end, we
have combined drawings gathered from eighth and tenth graders into
a larger sample of drawings from secondary students. In addition,
the differences in proportions we report for various categories of
responses may reflect the vagaries of our sampling approach, and
some differences in proportions may not be real but may have
resulted simply from the chance of sampling. For these reasons, we
generally avoid discussing differences in the proportions of
drawings showing particular features when those differences are
less than 0.10 or 10%.
STUDENTS' DESCRIPTION OF MCAS DIFFICULTY, LENGHT AND
drawings provide a variegated picture of how students in
elementary, middle, and high school grades view high stakes
testing. Overall, our sample of student drawings depicted the task
of sitting through the multiple MCAS sessions as a solitary
experience. Almost three-quarters of the drawings (70.7%) showed
students seated alone at their desk or table. Click here to
see a sample of nine such drawings. By comparison, 9.0% of the
drawings included other students, and 2.7% included an adult,
presumably a teacher. A little over a third (36.8%) of the drawings
showed students both seated and writing, while almost half (45.9%)
showed them seated but not writing. The test booklet was visible in
about three quarters (76.3%) of the drawings; 41.0% of all drawings
depicted the test booklet with writing, and 12.7% showed "bubbles"
to be filled in.
Of the 411 drawings, 152 (37.0%) contained no evidence of what
students thought or felt about taking the MCAS. These
self-portraits convey a picture of students' complying with MCAS
requirements with no marked reaction to the task at hand.
Contrasting with the relatively neutral drawings, the remaining 259
drawings provided some explicit information about students'
perceptions of MCAS. Using thought bubbles, speech bubbles, written
captions, and unambiguous postures or gestures, students critiqued
the test, referring to test difficulty, content, and length.
PERCEPTIONS OF TEST DIFFICULTY
out of six (17.6%) drawings referred to test difficulty in captions
or thought bubbles. Students were more than four times more likely
to describe the test explicitly as "hard" (9.3%) than as "easy"
(1.7%). Some described MCAS as a mixture of hard and easy items.
Drawings from fourth graders and urban students were most likely to
allude to test difficulty. Urban students (15.6%) were more likely
than suburban students (5.7%) to describe MCAS as "hard." Click here for
a sample of nine drawings depicting student perceptions of test
PERCEPTIONS OF TEST CONTENT AND ITEMS
group of drawings conveyed students' reactions to MCAS content,
including content they found "tricky" or confusing. About one out
of twelve drawings (8.5%) included question marks, often in thought
bubbles, sometimes without text, sometimes as part of specific
questions. In some of these drawings, students pictured themselves
asking for help from the teacher. In others, they raised questions
about specific test items, as in one drawing that asked, "Who was
Socrates? Who was Socrates? What kind of question is that." In
still other drawings, students' questions conveyed simply "What?
What? What?" or "What is this?" or "Huh?" A handful of drawings
offered self-portraits of students who appeared to be "stuck" or
"blanked out" in response to test content. Click here for
a sample of nine drawings depicting student perceptions of test
content and items.
PERCEPTIONS OF TEST LENGTH
percent of all of the drawings alluded to the length of the MCAS,
in terms of both number of pages and/or the time required to take
it. Urban students were most likely to draw themselves as taking a
test they described as "too long." While only 3.3% of suburban
students and none of the rural students commented on test length,
16.5% of the drawings from urban students described MCAS as "too
One eighth grader, steam coming from her ears, drew herself with
a test booklet of 6,021,000 pages in front of her. A fourth grader
labeled a booklet of 1,000,956,902 pages with the title "Stinkn'
test" and portrayed herself saying "TO (sic) MUCH TESTING."
Another frowning student drew herself thinking "5 pages more."
Drawings also portrayed students saying, "Is it over yet?" and,
perhaps alluding to the daily repetition of the MCAS ritual,
exclaiming, "Not MCAS again!" A related set of drawings, while not
referring directly to test length, portrayed students as feeling
tired or rushed to complete the test. Click here for
a sample of nine drawings depicting student perceptions of
STUDENTS' AFFECTIVE RESPONSES TO MCAS
A number of students'
portraits of themselves as test-takers departed from critiquing the
test itself and instead delineated the wide range of affective
responses students have toward MCAS. In some drawings, students'
reactions to MCAS were generally positive or negative, and we coded
these as "nonspecific positive" (Click here for
a sample of nonspecific positive drawings.) or "nonspecific
negative" (Click here for
a sample of nonspecific negative drawings.). While 2.9% of all
students drew pictures that conveyed a "nonspecific positive"
response to MCAS, over six times that number (19.3%) used the
drawings to communicate a "nonspecific negative" response. We
considered drawings that communicated "I like MCAS" as "nonspecific
positive" responses to MCAS. We included drawings with captions
such as "I hate MCAS," "This test is stupid," and "This feels like
jial (sic)" as "nonspecific negative" responses. Other
drawings conveyed more distinct personal attitudes and feelings
toward MCAS, both positive and negative.
POSITIVE RESPONSES TO MCAS
Additional drawings displayed particular positive responses
to MCAS, including diligence and persistence, thinking and problem
solving, and confidence, and we coded them accordingly. These
categories are not mutually exclusive, and some drawings were coded
in several categories.
Diligence and persistence
put their faith in high stakes testing believe that attaching
consequences to test scores will push otherwise lackadaisical
students to take testing seriously (Manzo, 1997). For example,
Martha Wise, president of the Ohio State Board of Education
asserts, "Unless we say these [tests] are tremendously important
for our students and then tie high stakes to them, students and
others will tend to find excuses for not taking the tests [or] for
not achieving high scores" (Lawton, 1997).
In our sample, 18.0% of the drawings offered portraits of
students as diligent and motivated test-takers. In this category,
we included drawings in which students presented themselves as
thinking, solving problems, confident, or working hard for an "A"
or "100." Fourth graders were most likely to portray themselves as
diligent and persistent (21.5%), compared with 8.3% of eighth and
tenth graders. Drawings from urban and suburban students were more
21.1% and 20.1% respectively) to suggest diligence and persistence
than those of rural students (9.7%). Click here for
a sample of four drawings depicting diligence and
Thinking and solving problems
Supporters of high stakes testing in Massachusetts assert
that MCAS is better than other standardized tests in that its
questions stir students to use critical thinking skills. In 7.3% of
the drawings, students depicted themselves thinking and solving
problems. In some of these drawings, students were shown
considering specific questions from the English and mathematics
portions of the test. In others, they appeared engaged in a
thinking process, sometimes involving the weighing of various
answers to problems, sometimes using test-taking skills. Fourth
graders (9.2%), suburban students (9.1%), and rural students (8.6%)
were slightly more likely than the sample as a whole to draw
themselves using thinking skills, solving problems, or using
test-taking skills. Click here for
a sample of nine drawings depicting thinking and solving
approach testing with different views of themselves as learners and
different levels of confidence. Those who view themselves as
confident learners and test-takers may be more inclined to persist,
even when test items are tedious and ambiguous. Confident
test-takers may be more likely to ponder each test item rather than
guess or search for the single right answer. Confident test-takers
may also be more likely to check their work and correct
In our sample, 5.4% of all drawings depicted "confident"
test-takers. These drawings highlighted students as self-regulators
of their work. Some showed no signs of students' working for
specific marks on MCAS; others portrayed students anticipating an
"A" or "100." Fourth graders (6.3%) and suburban students (8.6%)
were slightly more likely to depict themselves as confident
test-takers, but given our sample size these differences are not
statistically significant. Click here for
a sample of seven drawings depicting confidence.
NEGATIVE RESPONSES TO MCAS
also conveyed distinct negative responses, including anxiety,
anger, pessimism, boredom, and loss of motivation, to the MCAS.
first administration of MCAS, reports of schools' efforts to
respond to students' anxiety have circulated widely. In one
suburban Boston school, where student absence, illness, and
headaches have been attributed to anxiety about MCAS, teachers have
arranged for a yoga instructor to instruct fourth graders in yogic
breathing before MCAS testing (Hays, 1999). Other schools have
sought to relieve student fears about testing (whether general
worries about failing, lack of time to think, and "blanking out,"
or specific concerns about multiplying decimals, spelling, and
historical dates) through after-school test preparation programs
(Yaekel, 2000). Mixed messages abound as teachers prepare students
in test-taking skills while reminding them "Don't stress; it's only
a test." On one hand, experts counsel parents to downplay MCAS
results (Meltz, 1999). On the other, Kaplan/Simon & Schuster
has promoted a "No-Stress Guide to the Eighth Grade MCAS" for
parents to use at home. As Kaplan publisher Maureen McMahon
commented, "Anyone could see there was a need for a guide that
would take some of the anxiety away from this process" (DiLorenzo,
We coded 13.4% of the MCAS drawings from all grades as showing
anxiety. These included students' self-portraits showing them
sweating or commenting on the test as "nerve-wracking." Other
drawings coded for anxiety included thought bubbles with a prayer
or wish for the arrival of help (as distinct from asking for help
from the teacher). Still others alluded to fear of failing and
having to go to summer school. Students at all grade levels and in
all kinds of communities portrayed themselves as worried about
MCAS. In our sample, the rate of drawings presenting anxiety was
not dramatically different for fourth graders (14.2%) and secondary
students (11.1%), or for urban (17.4%), rural (14.0%), and suburban
students (11.0%). Click here for
a sample of nine drawings depicting anxiety.
Anger and hostility
percent (10%) of the drawings portrayed students as angry about
MCAS testing. These drawings went beyond the "I hate MCAS" message
of the "nonspecific negative" drawings. Rather these drawings
portrayed students as "mad." Others included thought bubbles in
which students were setting fire to MCAS or marching on City Hall.
Some drawings detailed the reasons for some students' hostility:
their encounter with "hard problems" or content they were not
familiar with, the belief that time spent in testing was time
stolen from learning, and the feeling that the test was designed to
reveal "what you don't know."
Drawings that distinctly conveyed hostility varied considerably
by grade level and kind of community. While 6.6% of the fourth
graders pictures themselves as angry, 19.4% of the eighth and tenth
graders portrayed themselves in this way. Urban students were four
times as likely as rural students to depict themselves as angry:
17.4% and 4.3% respectively. Click here for
a sample of nine drawings depicting anger and hostility.
sample, 4.9% of the drawings highlighted boredom as a response to
MCAS. Some students conveyed this reaction in commentary on test
questions as "easy, but boring." Others drew themselves with
thought bubbles, noting "I am sooooo bored. This is really
Secondary students were generally more likely to depict
themselves as bored, with 10.2% of the eighth and tenth grade
drawings communicating boredom as compared with 3.0% of those from
fourth graders. Eleven percent (11.0%) of urban students portrayed
themselves as bored with MCAS. Click here for
a sample of five drawings depicting boredom.
Sadness, disappointment, and pessimism
also depicted students as sad or pessimistic about their experience
with MCAS. We coded 2.7% of the drawings as "sad." Another 2.2% of
the drawings contained explicit references to students anticipating
failure, grade retention, or a poor score. A few students depicted
themselves as disappointed, including one who drew a large heart
cracked through the middle with the caption "Heart broken because
of MCAS." Urban students were slightly more likely than others to
portray themselves as sad, disappointed, or pessimistic. Click here for
a sample of seven drawings depicting sadness, disappointment, and
Loss of motivation and withdrawal from testing
of testing on material that may seem confusing, ambiguous, or
unfamiliar, students who feel anxious, angry, test-weary, or
pessimistic about their prospects for success are not likely to put
sustained effort into testing. In fact, during the testing period
in May 1999, absenteeism was up in some districts, while in others,
participating students "just put any old answer down," stopped
answering questions, and put their heads down on their desks
(Berard & Pearlman, 1999; Curtis, 1999a; Johnson, 1999; O'Shea,
1999). As one student from the first class required to pass MCAS
for graduation observed, "After the
first two days of tests, your fingers and your mind hurt. A lot of
kids didn't try after that" (Curtis, 1999b).
MCAS drawings showed student effort stalled in various postures.
Several artists described how they felt fresh and eager in the
early hours of MCAS but petered out and became careless as the
hours and days of testing continued. In 5.3% of the drawings,
students portrayed themselves sleeping during testing, or
daydreaming about things unrelated to MCAS. Secondary students
(7.4%) and urban students (6.4%) were slightly more likely to show
themselves as sleeping through MCAS. Click here for
a sample of seven drawings depicting loss of motivation and
withdrawal from testing.
set of drawings, representing 3.9% of all drawings, depicted
students as relieved that testing had ended. Some students
portrayed themselves proclaiming the test "done" while others
cheered, "Yeah, it's all over!" Drawings from eighth graders (5.2%)
and urban students (6.4%) were most likely to convey relief that
testing had finished. Click here for
a sample of three drawings depicting relief.
of students' self-portraits as MCAS test takers began with an
invitation to Massachusetts teachers to gather drawings from their
fourth, eighth, and tenth grade students following the second round
of MCAS testing in 1999. The drawings generated by this invitation
have allowed us to explore how students respond to MCAS testing.
Although we have been working with a small opportunity sample of
drawings, the patterns that emerge, we believe, raise questions
about the assumptions that undergird high stakes testing policies.
In particular, the drawings challenge the belief that the high
stakes associated with MCAS will enhance the motivation and effort
of students in a uniform way. To the contrary, the considerable
range of responses to MCAS from one student to another, by grade
level, and by the school location suggests that the connection of
high stakes testing to students' motivation is not so simplistic as
policy makers often assume. These variations also invite reflection
on how students' perceptions of high stakes testing may interact
with other aspects of their schooling. We discuss the patterns that
emerge in the MCAS drawings in our related paper (Wheelock, Bebell, & Haney,
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The authors most gratefully acknowledge the contribution of the
Massachusetts teachers who generously collaborated with us on this
project, gathered drawings, and provided commentary on our early
analysis of findings. We also extend special thanks to Mimi
Coughlin, Lauren McGrath, Christine Mills, and Genia Young for
their invaluable assistance in our data input, reliability
analysis, and technical production tasks, and to Christina
Capodilupo, Scott Paris, Kathleen Rhoades and Alan Stoskopf for
comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks also to two
anonymous TCR reviewers who provided helpful suggestions on a
previous version of this paper. We alone take responsibility for
our conclusions. Finally, we are grateful to the Spencer Foundation
for support in the completion of this project.
USING DRAWINGS TO SPUR REFLECTION AND CHANGE
For more than five years we have used drawings not just in the
sort of research reported here, but also in less formal efforts to
document and change the educational ecology of schools and
classrooms (see Haney, Russell, Gulek& Fierros; 1998 for a
summary of how this work evolved). We have also seen a number of
teachers use drawings to help students reflect on their own
thinking and learning (see, for example, Black, 1991; Lifford,
Byron, Eckblad, & Ziemian; 2000).
Here are a variety of prompts we or our colleagues have used to
elicit drawings of different sorts:
- Think about the teachers and the kinds of things you do in your
classrooms. Draw a picture of one of your teachers working in his
or her classroom.
- Think about all of the different things your teachers do with
you in the classroom. Draw a picture of what a camera would see
when one of your teachers is working in the classroom.
- Draw a picture of yourself doing math.
- Think about all of the different things you do when you read.
Draw a cartoon or pictogram of everything you do when you read a
- Draw a picture of yourself using a computer.
- Think about the steps you take when writing a paper for school.
In the space below, draw a picture or series of pictures that
reflect your writing process.
- Think about the teachers and the kinds of things you have done
in your class today. Draw a picture of your teacher teaching and
We have most experience in using the first prompt. After
collecting drawings from all or a representative sample of students
in school, we assemble one or more random sets of 50 drawings (50
is a large enough number to afford representative results, but
small enough for review in a reasonable period). We present the
drawings to teachers in small discussion groups of three or four
people. The teachers are asked to flip through the drawings and
look for patterns, speculate about their causes, and think about
what they might do differently, based on the drawings. Finally
small groups share their findings. The school staff are encouraged
to reach consensus on priorities for change and to set concrete
goals for changes they hope to see in future survey results.
Some practical tips on using drawings:
1. Use plain white paper, not lined
2. When setting your classroom up for the drawing activity,
consider the pros and cons of asking students for drawings in
color, pen, or pencil. Drawings in color may allow for greater
expression, but the costs of reproducing multiple copies for
discussion may be higher.
3. Before sharing drawings outside particular classrooms or
schools, be sure to get appropriate consent of students and
educators involved. And remove words, such as personal names that
might allow identification of individuals.
4. Be cautious in interpreting the meaning of individual drawings.
Below is an example of why.
Caution in Interpretation!!!
In one school, two students' drawings depicted a most unusual
scene, an image of their science teacher standing in front of the
blackboard with flames coming out of his pocket. This unusual scene
might readily provoke speculation as to its meaning , but what
became apparent in discussion was that both students were depicting
an incident that had actually happened some months before. The
teacher in question had a nervous habit of fiddling with change in
his pocket as he taught and what had once happened was that while
fiddling with contents of his pants pockets, two books of matches
had rubbed together and caught fire.
|APPENDIX B: CODING MATRIX
Student seated at desk,
Student seated at desk, not
Student outside of school
Student, face only
Other students in picture
No people in drawing
No facial features
--Student holding pencil
--Pencil laid on desk or test
--No pencil shown
Food and/or drink
Student desk alone
Student desks in rows
Student desks clustered
Not too hard, not too
Bubbles to fill in (multiple
Blank space on test
Using test-taking skills
Anticipating a grade
Anticipating a good grade
Anticipating a bad grade
Thinking about other
- Anne Wheelock
Independent Education Policy Writer & Researcher
Anne Wheelock, an independent education policy analyst and writer, is
author of Crossing the Tracks: How 'Untracking' Can Save America's
Schools (1992) and Safe To Be Smart: Building a Culture for
Standards-Based Reform in the Middle Grades (1998). She is also co-author (with Christina Capodilupo) of a research analysis of Massachusetts dropout rates in the era of high stakes testing, posted on line at http://www.fairtest.org/care/MCAS%20Alert%20Sept.html.
- Damian Bebell
Damian J. Bebell is a doctoral student at Boston College where he is
employed at the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and
Educational Research (CSTEEP). His research interests include
educational philosophy, alternative forms of assessment, and addressing
student perspectives in education. His related work with the
Massachusetts Teacher Test is on line at http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v7n4/.
- Walt Haney
Walt Haney, Ed.D., Professor of Education at Boston College and Senior
Research Associate in the Center for the Study of Testing Evaluation and
Educational Policy (CSTEEP), specializes in educational evaluation and
assessment and educational technology. He has published widely on
testing and assessment issues in scholarly journals such as the Harvard
Educational Review, Review of Educational Research, and Review of
Research in Education and in wide-audience periodicals such as
Educational Leadership, Phi Delta Kappan, the Chronicle of Higher
Education and the Washington Post. His recent work, "The Myth of the
Texas Miracle in Education" can be found on line at http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n41/. Also, a recent discussion of the gap between testing and technology in schools is available at http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n19.html