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Educators increasingly prioritize academic development over personal development

Researchers suggest that standardized tests are changing the face of education

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One of the chief criticisms of the U.S. educational system is its overreliance on standardized testing, and a recent study suggests that it may be hurting the development of our nation’s young people.

Researchers from the University of Buffalo collected responses from thousands of principals to gauge the educational goals they had for students. The findings suggest that educators are increasingly placing more importance on academic success over personal growth and career skills.

"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," said lead researcher Dr. Jaekyung Lee.

Changing priorities

Lee and his colleagues came to their conclusions by analyzing the changes in principals’ rankings for several educational priorities over time. These included goals such as academic excellence, numerical skills, basic literacy, work habits and discipline, multicultural awareness, human relations, job skills, personal growth, and moral values.

In the most recent ranking from 2012, 83 percent of principals ranked academic excellence as one of their top three goals, up from 60 percent in 1991. Basic literacy and numerical skills also rose from 76 percent in 1991 to 85 percent in 2012.

In contrast, personal and vocational skills fell in value as time went on. In 1991, 62 percent of principals ranked personal growth in their top three educational goals; that fell to 32 percent by 2012. Job skills fell from 13 percent to 9 percent over the same time span.

Focusing more on tests

Lee notes that this change in priorities isn’t something that should be blamed on the nation’s educators. He traces these changes back to the 1990s, when mandated state testing was implemented under the No Child Left Behind Act. 

"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."

"School leaders can and should play an important role in envisioning and realizing educational goals," Lee continued. "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."

The full study has been published in the journal Educational Administration Quarterly.

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