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Student Self-Portraits as Test-Takers: Variations, Contextual Differences, and Assumptions about Motivation

by Anne Wheelock, Damian J. Bebell & Walt Haney - November 02, 2000

A study of students' drawings of themselves taking the MCAS, the Massachusetts high stakes test, reveals a considerable range of responses to high stakes testing among children. In this paper, we review the literature on motivation to learn and on students' responses to testing as a guide to reflecting on these drawings. We note that students' responses are inevitably idiosyncratic, depending on individuals' experiences, developmental maturity, and interpretation of test items. We consider the variations in responses of students in elementary and secondary grades and in urban and non-urban districts in light of variations in district testing, grade retention, and ability grouping policies. We suggest that policies that assume high stakes are necessarily to motivate students to take academics more seriously do not adequately account for students' attitudes and beliefs about testing and may actually backfire by reducing motivation for a substantial proportion of students, particularly among older and urban students.


In "What Can Student Drawings Tell Us About High-Stakes Testing in Massachusetts?"(Wheelock, Babell, & Haney, 2000), we reported on an exploratory study of students' reactions to MCAS, the Commonwealth's high-stakes test, expressed in drawings done at the invitation of teachers to "Draw a picture of yourself taking the MCAS." Summarizing the results of the coding of the drawings, we reported a rich array of responses. Students' self-portraits expressed reactions to test content, format, length, and difficulty. They also conveyed a wide range of affective responses. In a positive vein, some students portrayed themselves as diligent, confident thinkers and problem-solvers. A greater number of drawings, however, depicted students as anxious, angry, bored, pessimistic, or withdrawn from testing.

Overall, the individuality and diversity of the responses lead us to consider that students' beliefs, attitudes, and feelings about testing may well have an impact on their testing behavior and test scores. Students' responses, however, are rarely factored into decision making regarding high stakes testing policies. In this paper we consider students' reactions to testing in light of differences in students' grade level and schooling experiences and reflect on how the MCAS drawings challenge policy makers' assumptions about testing, especially the impact of high stakes on student motivation.


Much political rhetoric regarding high stakes testing hypothesizes a simple relationship between curriculum standards, instruction, testing, and student performance. As the argument goes, once students are provided with a standardized curriculum, and once "passing" scores are defined at a "challenging" level, students will work to meet the standards set for them. Rewards and sanctions attached to these standards reinforce the value of hard work and effort (Keller, 2000).

Students' responses to testing, however, render this formula of doubtful general validity. In practice, student motivation to achieve depends on a complex mix of individual beliefs, attitudes, and feelings that interact with personal relationships, classroom practices, and school routines at every level of schooling (Ames & Ames, 1984; Ames & Ames, 1985; Anderman & Maehr, 1994; Brophy, 1998; Covington, 1992; Henderson & Dweck, 1990; Kohn, 1999). Rewards or threats linked to standardized tests may carry relatively little weight in this more complex picture. Indeed, a review of the literature on motivation and testing sponsored by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) concluded that, contrary to claims that external examinations inspire greater student effort, such testing not only fails to energize most students but may precipitate harmful outcomes, including higher dropout rates (Kellaghan, Madaus, & Raczek, 1996).

Despite this research, assumptions regarding the relationship of test-based consequences and effort color the lens through which many educators and policy makers view MCAS scores. Many educators interpreted low performance in the first years of MCAS testing as a reflection of the fact that scores did not yet "count" for graduation. As one Massachusetts educator explained, "In some ways, the tenth-graders didn't make the kind of progress we had hoped for.... But they knew this wasn't a hoop they had to jump through" (Barber, 1999). Likewise, officials at the Massachusetts Department of Education rationalized low scores on the assumption that because scores would not determine graduation until 2003, students had yet to put their effort into the test (Parker, 1999). These observations reflect a narrow understanding of motivation. In fact, recent research on testing suggests that such high stakes are not necessary to persuade students to "take tests seriously" (Russell & Haney, 1997).

The MCAS drawings suggest that students now in line for the high stakes consequences of MCAS are aware that MCAS is a critical "hoop" they must jump through to obtain a high school diploma. Nevertheless, rather than bolstering a willingness to persist, the high stakes attached to MCAS may backfire, discouraging the best effort of many students. Students may choose to withdraw from testing to preserve a sense of integrity rather than endure what feels like an insult to their competence. In the long run, many may also decide that withdrawing from school entirely is preferable to the possibility of repeating their MCAS failure and the public humiliation associated with that prospect.

Supporters of high stakes testing make their case, in part, on the assumption that students will choose the immediate costs of persisting on a long test they may find "tedious," "tricky," or "stupid," retaking it over and over if necessary, in order to ensure the long-term benefits of a high school diploma. Some students, however, may calculate the costs and benefits in a different way. For reasons perhaps related to their individual natures, perhaps to prior testing or schooling experiences that limit opportunities to learn, the immediate costs of testing for these students involve anxiety, diminished confidence, anger, and helplessness. If these costs feel intolerable, students may withhold effort from testing to obtain relief, even as they are aware of the consequences of doing so. Eventually, believing they are unlikely to pass MCAS, those who have little patience with the prospect of repeating the tests, especially those who are already overage for their grade, may rationally conclude that "school is not for me" and abandon school altogether (Clarke, Haney, & Madaus, 2000; Fine, 1986; Kellaghan, Madaus, & Raczek, 1996, Wehlage & Rutter, 1986; Wheelock & Dorman, 1988).


Asking fourth, eighth, and tenth graders to draw pictures of themselves taking the MCAS elicited highly personal responses. In many cases, these responses were at an intensity not reflected in our coding scheme. For example, the word "angry" used in our coding does not adequately convey students' feelings more accurately described as "seething," "pissed off" or "defiant." Likewise, students' drawings often went beyond a one-dimensional response to communicate several layers of opinion and emotion. Students coupled portraits of themselves as disheartened or bored test-takers with a critique of MCAS as "stupid," "too long," or "annoying." These feelings and beliefs as expressed in the drawings call into question a number of assumptions about high stakes testing in Massachusetts, for example, that scores always accurately reflect students' accomplishments and that consequences attached to their scores will motivate students in a consistent manner.

The wide variation in students' responses to MCAS captured in our sample brings to mind earlier research that has highlighted the complex relationship between test-making and test-taking. For example, when Haney and Scott (1987) asked individual students to explain their answers to particular multiple-choice questionsons on standardized tests, they found that depending on students' life experiences, developmental maturity, understanding of test rules, and other factors, students' idiosyncratic reactions to test items could affect their selection of "right" answers. They concluded:

What it is that a test item measures (that is, its content validity) depends not on what adult experts or critics think it measures nor on what item statistics suggest about the item but rather on how individual test-takers perceive and react to the test or item.... To delve into what it is that a test or test item measures for particular test-takers requires some kind of observation or communication with them on an individual basis (Haney & Scott, 301- 302).

Likewise, students' classroom experiences play into their perceptions and responses to the fairness of testing. Reporting on her interviews with students, Thorkildsen (1999) found that their judgment of how much testing is fair had to do, in part, with the curriculum and instruction they experienced on a day-to-day basis. Consequently, those taking a test that differs radically in mode or content from their classroom learning may respond negatively to the test itself, especially if the test does not allow them to demonstrate what they know how to do. In Massachusetts, researchers have documented such a mismatch in Wellesley and Worcester, where test scores of students using pencil and paper to respond to MCAS writing prompts significantly under-represent the quality of the written work the same students do when they use a computer, their usual mode of classroom work (Russell & Haney, 1997; Russell & Plati; 2000).

Those who support high stakes testing assume that serious consequences will cause students' to take testing seriously. However, students do not come to testing as blank slates. They bring with them beliefs about themselves as learners, opinions about the value of the test, expectations for success, aspirations for their future, and feelings about being assessed and judged. These dispositions may play out in different ways and to different degrees during testing itself. Thus, Kellaghan, Madaus, and Raczek (1996: 21) ask, "How likely is it that a high-stakes examination will motivate and change the behavior of students who are low in 'confidence,' behave 'helplessly,' or who believe their 'ability' is low and non-malleable?" They conclude, "The extent [to which] situational and personal factors... affect the motivational process would lead us to expect considerable variation among individuals in their reactions to the incentives, penalties, and hurdles incorporated in a system(s) of external examinations" (Kellaghan, Madaus, and Raczek, 1986, p. 21).

Students' MCAS drawings remind us of the enormous variability of students' responses to high stakes testing and highlight the fact that no single test will motivate all students in the same way. On one hand, some students may indeed approach MCAS as serious scholars. Our sample of MCAS drawings suggests that some students, about 20%, may appear willing to comply with test requirements without comment. Another 20% work diligently, think about problems, and feel confident as test -takers. However, for a sizable third group of students, MCAS may have neither an uplifting or even a neutral impact. For these students, MCAS evokes more cynical, even despairing, responses of boredom, helplessness, anxiety, and anger. Students who are apprehensive or self-doubting are unlikely to give their best effort through many days of testing. If lengthy and tedious testing generates hostility and withdrawal, more students may choose to disengage from schooling itself (Clarke, Haney, & Madaus, 2000; Kellaghan, Madaus, & Raczek, 1996).

Students' unique reactions to testing as expressed in the MCAS drawings stand out in high relief. Such individual responses demand recognition from policy makers that high stakes testing does not generate a uniform reaction from the diverse population of students attending Massachusetts schools. In reality, students' emotional reactions to testing vary greatly, influencing the ways in which some engage with the high stakes MCAS so that results may well underestimate what individual students know and can do.


Research on student attitudes toward testing in Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, California, and Florida suggests that student responses to standardized tests also vary considerably depending on students' ages (Debard & Kubow, 2000; Paris, Lawton, Turner, & Roth, 1991; Paris, Herbst, & Turner, in press; Urdan & Davis, 1997). Typically, elementary students hold positive views of testing, believe in standardized tests as a reasonable way to assess their achievement, and are optimistic about their prospects for success on the tests. However, by early adolescence, many report a growing skepticism about the effectiveness of standardized tests to assess their knowledge and skills. These older students more frequently report that they answer test questions halfheartedly, fill in "bubbles" at random, withhold effort, and give up (Paris, Lawton, Turner, & Roth, 1991; Paris, Herbst, & Turner, in press).

Grade-level differences in students' MCAS drawings suggest similar patterns. Although fourth graders were more likely than secondary students to refer to test difficulty and describe MCAS as "hard," they were also more likely to draw themselves as confident test-takers, focused on their task, thinking about test questions, and using test-taking skills. They were also more likely to draw themselves with a smile on their face, and less likely to convey generally negative attitudes toward MCAS.

In contrast to the younger students, eighth and tenth graders more often portrayed themselves as disaffected test-takers. Older students conveyed nonspecific negative reactions to MCAS at almost three times the rate of younger students. Although they were less likely to refer to the difficulty of the test or describe MCAS as "hard," eighth and tenth grade students were more likely to draw themselves as angry, bored, or asleep at their desks. They were also less likely to portray themselves as diligent test-takers, engaged in thinking or solving problems.

Grade level differences in MCAS drawings suggest that students for whom MCAS will "count" in a life-changing way are, indeed, aware that "failing" MCAS could result in repeated attempts to achieve passing scores at best, and in not graduating from high school at worst. Drawings by fourth graders conveyed anxiety or concerns about a bad grade slightly more often than those from older students. But while the younger students combined anxiety with a large dose of diligence, students in the secondary grades combined anxiety with anger and a high rate of "nonspecific negative" responses. Thus, the knowledge that MCAS "counts" may register with Massachusetts students; but this awareness, and the anxiety that may accompany it do not necessarily translate into greater investment in testing.

Prior research suggests a number of variables that could contribute to grade level differences in students' responses to standardized testing; (Paris, Lawton, Turner, & Roth, 1991; Paris, Herbst, & Turner, in press; Urdan & Davis, 1997). By eighth grade, many students may have taken so many standardized tests that testing loses its meaning as students become more aware of the ways in which schools use tests to judge, label, rank, and compare students (Anderman & Maehr, 1994). Older students' anger in regard to MCAS may reflect their understanding that test scores are used to determine grade retention or tracking, practices that set students apart from their peers and accelerate disinvestment from schooling (Smith & Shepard, 1989; Oakes, 1985).


Just as different children respond to schooling in different ways, different schools offer children different experiences and resources for learning. With the gap between high- and low-spending districts standing at nearly $4000 per student annually, students in Massachusetts have different kinds and levels of resources available for learning from one end of the state to another (Quality Counts, 2000). These differences translate into unequal opportunities to learn, depending on where students live and the school they attend (See, for example, Associated Press, 1999; Coleman, 1999, 2000; Cook, 2000; B. Daley, 2000; Pressley, 1999.). In turn, differences in learning conditions affect learning itself. As one Massachusetts student says, "It's easier to learn in a classroom than in a hallway" (McElhenny, 2000).

Differences in schooling experiences may also affect how different groups of students perceive MCAS. In our sample, urban students were more likely than suburban students to describe MCAS as difficult and overlong. Urban and suburban students were equally likely to portray themselves as diligent. However, urban students were less likely to show themselves thinking or solving problems and more likely to depict themselves anticipating a score for their work, particularly a low score. Finally, urban students were more likely to draw themselves as angry, bored, withdrawn from testing, or relieved that testing was over.

The differing self-portraits of urban and non-urban students, like the differing profiles of younger and older students, may reflect, in part, differences in access to appropriate curricula, resources, or opportunities for test preparation. But just as these varying classroom experiences may set some students up for different responses to MCAS, the larger social context of testing may have an influence on others. For example, recent research suggests that some students may retreat from situations, including testing, that threaten to confirm widely held negative stereotypes about their group. In particular, research psychologist Claude Steele has found that when African American students fear that their performance might validate derogatory assumptions about their capabilities, many, especially the most accomplished, may withdraw from testing, withhold effort, and produce test results that are inferior to work they do in less threatening situations (Steele, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1998). These findings raise concerns that the high stakes nature of MCAS within an overall climate of racism could contribute to some minority students' failing to put their best effort into test-taking, resulting in test scores that distort students' real achievements. The Massachusetts Department of Education itself may have reinforced students' fears of stereotyping by releasing 1999 MCAS results by race, a story reported widely in the headlines of the state's major newspapers while the Spring 2000 MCAS testing was in process (Hayward, 2000c; Vigue, 2000).


Encountering resistance to testing from parents, teachers, and students, policy makers ask, "What's going to spur achievement if there's no pressure brought on by the high-stakes test?" Without doubt, encouraging students to put their best effort into their schoolwork is a worthy goal. However, a strategy tied to a high-stakes test alone is likely to backfire, especially when implemented alongside existing practices, policies, and conditions that actually work against strengthening students' motivation to learn.

Student effort and engagement depend on many factors. In relation to testing, for example, student effort benefits when students know they will receive results and comments immediately after the test, rather than after a delay of even a day or more (Haney, 1996). Yet, while students take MCAS in May, results are not available until the following November. By then, many students are not only assigned different teachers but may, especially in the case of eighth graders, be enrolled in an entirely different school where teachers have little idea of their students' prior learning conditions.

Yet motivation and engagement also depend on other factors not so immediately connected with testing conditions. Human relationships that allow for both caring and respect, students' beliefs that intelligence is not inborn and fixed, the extent to which students value a particular assignment, and the way students assess the probability of mastering that assignment all foster student motivation (Brophy, 1999). If we acknowledge that the attitudes, beliefs, and habits students develop in their day-to-day schooling experiences may spill over into the testing situation to influence students' willingness to invest in MCAS, we must then consider how certain "regularities" of schooling interact with testing practices. Further we must assess prevailing practices and policies in light of their effect on students' willingness to engage their best effort in testing. In particular, we must consider how MCAS testing is positioned in relation to the positive teacher-student relationships necessary for learning, and in relation to the sorting practices of many schools, especially in urban districts, that may contribute to students' developing beliefs about intelligence that sabotage effort and motivation, both in day-to-day learning and under testing conditions.

Testing and teacher-student relationships

For many students, the motivation to learn develops largely within teacher-student relationships that are grounded in what Theodore Sizer (1996) calls "rigorous caring." Such relationships, which evolve from teachers' respect for students' integrity and identity and allow teachers to personalize learning, are essential to high expectations for teacher commitment and to student learning (Delpit, 1995). These relationships offer students the social support necessary for achievement. In fact, schools may push students to achieve, but without a concomitant degree of social support, students will not engage and learn at high levels (Lee, Smith, Perry, & Smylie, 1999). Finally, these relationships are an essential element of school culture that encourage and value student work that meets high standards of quality (Wheelock, 1998).

High stakes testing in Massachusetts may, however, impoverish the very personal relationships and social support that learning depends on. In some districts, the push for higher test scores may limit the time available for teachers to get to know students well. Explaining how MCAS eats into teacher-student relationships, one superintendent reports, "It takes us almost a month to do all of the testing. There certainly is less time for talking about things and, quite frankly, it is important to talk about things" (Oliveira, 1999).

A supportive climate of "rigorous caring" may also become more difficult to realize as MCAS introduces a depersonalized and competitive culture into schools, one in which teachers, parents, and students view students' work through the lens of the state's standardized work samples rather than in the context of carefully constructed assignments and the genuine demands for quality teachers make of students in their classrooms (Freedman, 1999). Moreover, as one well-regarded and trusted middle school principal has confessed to parents, the emphasis on test scores inclines educators to form an impression of students in light of their potential MCAS scores, rather than in terms of their presence as creative, promising children (Heller, 2000). In the absence of strong, personal relationships between teachers and students, students may decide to "not-learn," choosing resistance to learning as a means of preserving a coherent sense of self (Kohl, 1992). To the extent that MCAS eats away at positive teacher-student relationships, students lose a resource that is essential to motivation and learning.

Overexposure to standardized testing in urban schools

For many Massachusetts students, MCAS is not the only battery of standardized tests they take. Although suburban or rural educators report that they may test students in reading and math during the late elementary years, they add that they typically abandon standardized testing by the secondary grades. In contrast, urban districts layer MCAS on top of standardized testing programs already required in almost every grade. As a result, the time urban students spend preparing for and taking all standardized tests may expand to a month or more of the school year, threatening student motivation to take any test seriously.

In addition to MCAS, many urban students in Massachusetts already take the Stanford Achievement Tests (SAT9), Metropolitan Achievement Tests (MAT), or Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) every year through the twelfth grade. Often these tests are given in the two weeks before MCAS testing in May. During the rest of the year, many urban students sit for additional standardized testing specifically for placement in selective programs, special education, or English as a second language classes. In some districts, schools participating in special projects may follow individual student progress using formative writing prompts and reading tests from the Diagnostic Reading Assessment (DRA) or the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) up to three times a year, and formative math and science prompts twice a year. Depending on the district, grade promotion or acceptance into special programs may require meeting specific scores on these tests.

Recognizing the harms of continuous mass assessment of students, the Educational Testing Service has recently cautioned policy makers about the dangers of testing policies that generate an avalanche of numbers but provide little information that improves learning (Barton, 1999). Such warnings echo research showing that extensive and repetitive testing seems to have a cumulative negative effect on students' attitudes toward assessment as they get older (DeBard and Kebow, 2000; Paris, Lawton, Turner, & Roth, 1991; Paris, Herbst, & Turner, in press; Urdan & Davis, 1997). The multiple testing programs of many urban districts may compound the age-related effects of overexposure to standardized testing for urban students, undermining some students' willingness to engage in MCAS testing.

Testing and student sorting practices: Grade retention and ability grouping

In many schools, test scores and practices that label, sort, and group students go hand in hand. Using test scores as indicators of perceived ability, many schools adopt grade retention and ability grouping practices in the belief that homogeneous classes will benefit student engagement in learning. In fact, however, such practices typically affect both achievement and motivation negatively (Oakes, 1985; Oakes, 1990; Smith & Shepard, 1989). In districts that depend on these practices, students' willingness to invest effort in high stakes testing is likely to be weakened.

An overwhelming body of research underscores that repeating a grade undermines school engagement, predicts truancy and placement in low track classes, and contributes powerfully to dropping out (Heubert & Hauser, 1999; Smith & Shepard, 1989; Weitzman, et al., 1985). Despite these negative outcomes, thousands of Massachusetts students, disproportionately from urban schools, are not promoted with their peers to the next grade every year. By the time they have taken MCAS in eighth grade, the state's urban students are nearly four times more likely than suburban students to have experienced grade retention (Massachusetts Department of Education, 1990; Wheelock, 1998). Then, as ability grouping and tracking further define differences in opportunities to learn for "top" and "bottom" students in the secondary grades, and as students in different groups are ranked and compared with others, many students come to believe that the labels attached to their group reflect their inherent learning capacities (Dentzer & Wheelock, 1990; Oakes, 1985; Oakes, 1990).

The practice of sorting students based on test scores takes a toll on the way students think about intelligence and reinforces beliefs that undermine student motivation to invest in academic work. Students whose school experiences foster the belief that intelligence is inborn and fixed are especially vulnerable to anxiety, helplessness, and loss of motivation when confronted with new challenges, effects that often become more pronounced after the elementary grades (Henderson & Dweck, 1990; Midgley, 1993). Focused on the need to "look smart" so as not to lose their place at the "top," students in "fast" groups may avoid situations that require sustained effort when tasks become more difficult than usual and the "one right answer" is not obvious. Those in the "slow" groups may also come to view complex tasks as beyond their capabilities (Brophy, 1998; Dweck, Kamins, and Mueller, 1997; Kohn, 1999; Oakes, 1985).

The overuse of standardized testing, grade retention, and ability grouping are all inextricably intertwined in an approach to schooling that separates the "successes" from the "failures." Separately and together, these practices reinforce beliefs that some are inherently "smart" and some "not so smart." As a result, students caught up in this web of practices are vulnerable to developing beliefs that reinforce self-doubt and debilitate motivation to learn (Brophy, 1998; Covington, 1992). In turn, these beliefs put students at risk of diminished motivation to engage in high stakes testing. No matter how closely schools follow state curriculum frameworks or prepare students for MCAS, multiple testing programs, grade retention, and ability grouping limit students' beliefs about themselves as learners and constitute a powerful undertow that works against other efforts to help students approach high stakes test-taking in a positive manner. To the extent that these practices shape schooling in any given district, they will color students' responses to MCAS.


Throughout the first years of MCAS testing, Massachusetts political, education, and business leaders have stated a variety of goals for high stakes testing. At various times, education leaders, legislators, and business supporters have described MCAS as key to "holding schools accountable," providing "diagnostic" information for schools, and stimulating teachers to work harder. In addition, the same supporters have repeatedly claimed that high stakes testing that "counts" has the power to motivate students to take academic work more seriously.

But students already know that a high school diploma is a credential they need to pursue future life, educational, and work opportunities (Uriarte & Chavez, 1999; Wilgoren, 2000). Despite this awareness, MCAS drawings suggest that high-stakes testing in Massachusetts does not motivate all students in the same way. While some students may respond to the knowledge that their future life chances depend on their "passing" MCAS by mobilizing their resources and persisting to the end, others may simply give up. Older students and urban students appear to be especially vulnerable to these feelings, perhaps because, anticipating failure for themselves or their friends, they view MCAS less as a challenge than a source of intimidation and humiliation.

The findings of this study are, of course, circumscribed by an opportunity sample that does not encompass enough fourth, eighth, and tenth grade students from urban, suburban, and rural districts to allow us to describe conclusively the various ways in which different student groups may respond to high stakes testing. Despite these limitations, we believe our findings to be worthy of further exploration. For example, teachers can undertake similar studies as a form of action research in their own schools and districts, and we urge them to do so. Even without the quantitative analysis presented in this paper, we believe the drawings themselves can encourage teachers to reflect together on high stakes testing as experienced by students. This practice of reflection can stimulate discussion of the assumptions surrounding high stakes testing policies and the school-based practices that attend such policies. We believe this could be an especially valuable undertaking when educators and parents reflect together on the drawings from a school or district (See Appendix A).

Those who promote high stakes testing as a way of enforcing particular reforms have invested heavily in a strategy that aligns curriculum frameworks with large-scale assessments to improve learning. However, policy makers have paid little attention to the feelings, attitudes, and beliefs of those who are the intended beneficiaries of that strategy. If nothing else, the range of students' responses to MCAS reminds us that high stakes testing policies may have little meaning if, in the process of taking such tests, a sizable group of students become disenchanted with learning. As the University of Manitoba's Benjamin Levin notes, "We may arrange schooling on the basis of relatively standard treatment of all, but every educator recognizes that the best laid plans may, and often do, come to nothing in the face of students with different agendas" (Levin, 1993). Understanding the interaction between high stakes testing and real improvements in learning requires paying greater attention to the beliefs, attitudes, and feelings students hold about such testing, examining how related policies interact with these beliefs and attitudes, and taking students' own views and feelings about testing seriously.


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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. We alone take responsibility for our conclusions. A grant from the Spencer Foundation has been invaluable in providing support for completing this project.


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 book.
  • 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 yourself learning.

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 paper.
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.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 02, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10635, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:14:03 AM

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About the Author
  • Anne Wheelock
    Independent Education Policy Writer & Researcher
    E-mail Author
    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
    Boston College
    E-mail Author
    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
    Boston College
    E-mail Author
    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
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