Pressures of the Season: An Examination of Classroom Quality and High-Stakes Accountability

Issue/Topic: Accountability
Author(s): Plank, Stephen; Condliffe, Barbara
Organization(s): American Educational Research Association
Publication: American Educational Research Journal
Published On: 8/21/2013

High-stakes tests are the most heavily weighted measures in accountability systems developed in response to No Child Left Behind. While some studies show high-stakes accountability being related to test score gains, others suggest these policies do not improve achievement and often result in unintended consequences.

To investigate whether and how high-stakes accountability influences classroom quality

  • There is reason to assert that fairly good pedagogical building blocks exist in the emotional support and classroom organization domains. Consistent with prior research, the authors, however, found distressingly low levels of instructional support in these 23 classrooms.

  • The classrooms of third grade teachers offered lower levels of instructional support, as measured by CLASS, than the classrooms of second grade teachers who were not experiencing the same level of accountability pressure. The authors suspect that teachers may be concerned with shoring up students' basic literacy and numeracy skills in advance of high-stakes tests to such an extent that delving into higher-order problem solving or discussing students' approaches to a writing prompt or math story problem might have been squeezed out of instruction.

  • The very nature of activities related to test preparation may have precluded activities that facilitated rich teacher-student feedback loops or concept development.

  • It is noteworthy that across all three domains the third grade teachers, once released from the pressures of the high-stakes assessment, demonstrated levels of classroom quality indistinguishable from their second grade colleagues.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:
  • Successful strategies for improving the capacity of teachers to offer instructional support will likely include a combination of recruiting and retaining teachers who excel in these areas and developing greater capactiy among current teachers. However, even if a district is successful in this, the results of the study suggest that accountability pressures may undermine these efforts since they may unintentionally encourage educators to use a more teacher-centered pedagogical style and do not reward higher-order thinking.

  • It is important to design accountability policies that are explicitly intended to improve classroom quality. One way to do this might be to hold schools and teachers accountable for more than just test scores and to broaden the metrics of school quality to include the quality of the classroom environment.
Full text available: http://aer.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/08/16/0002831213500691.abstract?rss=1

Research Design:
Hierarchical linear modeling

348 observations across 23 second grade (2008-2009) and third grade (2009-2010) classrooms in eight schools in Baltimore City Public Schools

Year data is from:


Data Collection and Analysis:
Classroom quality was measured using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), an observation instrument developed to assess classroom quality in preschool through third grade classrooms. CLASS conceives of classroom quality in three domains: emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support. Observers visited each classroom for two days in January and two days in May. Classrooms were observed for at least 16 observation cycles split between January and May.


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