New Evidence Strengthens Claim that Testing Narrows Curriculum

K-12 Testing




FairTest Examiner - October 2007



Evidence from three new studies supports the contention that high-stakes testing narrows curricula to English and math, the subjects that count for No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The extra time spent on the tested subjects detracts from many other aspects of schooling. The impact is greatest in schools labeled "in need of improvement" by NCLB, which tend to be those serving low-income and minority students.

The Center on Education Policy (CEP) examined the impact of NCLB on curriculum and found clear evidence of narrowing to the tested subjects of English and math. Since NCLB took effect in 2002, 62% of districts in this national study reported they increased time for reading and math in elementary school. In middle school, more than 20% increased time in these subjects. The increase was large, 46% in reading and 37% in math; 42% in the two subjects combined.

Something had to give to make room for the increased focus on math and reading. CEP found that 44% of districts reduced time from one or more subjects or activities (social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch or recess) at the elementary level. The loss amounted to almost 30 minutes per day, an average reduction of 31% in time for these subjects since NCLB took effect. The impact was greatest in districts with schools identified for improvement by NCLB. CEP found that not only is NCLB narrowing schooling to these two subjects, but within those subjects, schools are changing their curriculum to emphasize content and skills covered on state tests used for NCLB.

Researcher Wayne Au, an assistant education professor at California State University, analyzed 49 qualitative studies to see how high-stakes testing affects curriculum. He found that high-stakes testing damages all three aspects of the curriculum: subject matter content, structure or form of content knowledge, and instructional practices. The dominant trend was that testing narrows content to tested subjects. In the tested subjects, knowledge tends to narrow and become fragmented into "bits and pieces learned for the sake of the tests themselves." Also, high-stakes testing often leads to more lecture-based, teacher-centered ways of teaching, which other research has found fails to enhance learning.

Finally, a study by the National Center for Education Statistics looked at changes in instruction in grades 1 through 4 in four subjects. It found an overall decrease in hours spent on science and social studies and an increase in English and math instruction. The study used data from a teacher questionnaire to see the hours spent delivering instruction in English, math, social studies and science from 1987 to 2004. NCES said their findings were descriptive and inferred no cause for the trends.

Recent polling data shows the public recognizes these trends and thinks they are damaging public education (see "New Polls," this issue). The results of these three studies lend support to the argument that Congress must overhaul the federal No Child Left Behind law to include both multiple indicators of school quality and multiple forms of assessment. These reforms would help reverse these damaging trends and encourage all schools to provide their students with a varied, high quality curriculum.


o The CEP study is available at
o A free abstract of the Wayne Au study is available at
o The NCES report is available at