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Study: Schools Pushed to Prioritize Test-Taking Skills Over Personal Growth

A new study of thousands of U.S. schools finds that personal growth and job skills have taken a backseat to an increased focus on standardized test scores.

The findings are published in the journal Educational Administration Quarterly.

“The balanced development of both academic and soft skills is crucial, not only for well-rounded child development in schools, but also for career and life success,” says Jaekyung Lee, PhD, lead researcher and professor of learning and instruction in the University at Buffalo (UB) Graduate School of Education.

“Increasing concerns about poor student performance in the United States led states to adopt high-stakes testing policies,” says Lee. “However, working under the constraints of limited resources, complex power dynamics and externally imposed policies, school principals are often faced with challenges in prioritizing educational goals. Forced to focus narrowly on academic skills measured by state tests, other equally important goals were deprioritized.”

For the study, UB researchers analyzed the educational goals of principals at thousands of public, private and charter schools over two decades, and found the shift in priorities has been most pronounced in public schools.

The change in educational goals can be traced to the rise in test-based school accountability policies in the 1990s, which reached a peak with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 that mandated statewide testing in the U.S., according to the study.

The study is one of only a few to examine the influence of education policies on school principals’ priorities, rather than on student achievement or teacher practices. A school leader’s perception of educational goals guides, directs and motivates the daily operations and performance of school members, says Lee.

Using data from the Schools and Staffing Survey, the researchers compared the national trends of educational goal priorities between public and private schools from 1991-2012.

In a survey, principals were asked to choose their top three priorities among the following goals: basic literary and numerical skills, academic excellence, personal growth, job skills, work habits and discipline, human relations, moral values, and multicultural awareness.

Academic excellence experienced a significant rise in ranking among public school principals, with 83% choosing it as one of three top priorities in 2012, up from 60% in 1991. The percentage who selected development of basic literacy and numeracy skills also rose, increasing from 76% to 85%.

The shift, however, came at the expense of personal growth (self-esteem and self-awareness), which in 1991 was chosen by 62% of public school principals but only by 32% in 2012. The importance of job skills also declined, with the percentage of principals rating it as one of three top priorities falling from 13% to 9%.

Private school principals experienced a similar but less dramatic shift in priorities. The study findings reflect the influence of educational policy discourse and media reports on private schools which, unlike public schools, are less exposed to government regulations on curriculum standards, said Lee.

The study results regarding the NCLB policy’s impact on narrowing educational goals support Lee’s previous studies, including a recent report published by the Rockefeller Institute of Government that called for renewed education policy actions to improve children’s socioemotional skills and well-being.

“School leaders can and should play an important role in envisioning and realizing educational goals,” says Lee. “Principals need to develop strategies to accomplish the whole educational mission, encompassing academic, socioemotional, moral, multicultural and vocational learning to meet the diverse needs of their students as well as the larger society.”

Source: University at Buffalo


Study: Schools Pushed to Prioritize Test-Taking Skills Over Personal Growth

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Study: Schools Pushed to Prioritize Test-Taking Skills Over Personal Growth. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Apr 2020 (Originally: 17 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 Apr 2020
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