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The attrition rate among teachers is increasing at an alarming rate

Is State Standardized Testing a Major Contributing Cause to Teacher to Burnout? 

Running head: Is State Standardized Testing a Major Contributing Cause to Teacher to Burnout? 

Is State Standardized Testing a Major Contributing Cause to Teacher to Burnout?

Cidny Burrows and Karen Shade

California State University at San Bernardino



      The purpose of this research project is to determine if state standardized testing is a major contributor to teacher burnout. The scope involved only those negative stressors of which had to be determined were the primary triggers to teacher stress. A mixed method approach was used comprised of quantitative and qualitative research methodologies to facilitate identification and analysis of stress triggers among teachers. As research tools, a survey and interview format w selected. The survey requiring closed answer responses yielded inferential statistical data that was evaluated using inferential reasoning. Two teacher interviews were conducted focusing on five open-ended questions that provided detail if not subjective information as to the origination of job stressors as well as to the affects these stressors have on students and instruction. The synthesis of the data from the survey and the information derived from the interviews coupled with supplemental resource material indicate that state standardized testing is a major contributing cause to stress. Because of the implications involved in failing to address the causes of teacher burnout, the attrition rate of teachers is increasing, putting fiscal pressure on cash-strapped public schools, as well as affecting the quality of students’ education.    


Statement of the Problem

      Is the emphasis on state standardized testing in public education one of the primary causes of teacher burnout?

 Review of Related Literature

      In 2006, Costigan and Crocco’s study of the affects of high-stakes testing on teachers and students indicated that high-stake testing mandated by New York State generated more negative than positive teachers and students’ outcomes. Based on over two hundred interviews with student teachers and professional teachers, twelve focus groups consisting of small groups of teachers over a course of four years, and including many discussions with professionals outside the teaching professions, Costigan and Crocco (2006) used qualitative research for her study. (p. 4).

      The research resulted in findings that spoke to teachers’ frustration in adhering to scripted lessons designed to maximize students’ scores on high-stake testing. For example, teachers expressed disappointment and annoyance about the demands of administrators on them to meet the state criteria for students’ progress as measured by the state tests. The teachers felt it was unreasonable to judge students’ skills and abilities using one measure. They also pointed out that by emphasizing a particular type of curriculum using scripted lesson plans degraded the teaching experience and did not promote a broad range of academic skills and knowledge students needed to succeed. (p. 5). Although the study focused on New York, Crocco and Costigan (2006) cited other research that spoke to the same results in other states where students’ academic progress is determined by state mandated standardized testing.

      The study suggested that curriculum driven by state tests reinforces the factory model of education. Costigan and Crocco (2006) put it this way, “By this we mean an educational system that emphasizes the basic education (math and English) and not the luxuries of education (social studies, music, and art), use of  interchangeable poorly employees (teachers), standardization of curriculum nationwide, and emphasis on narrow measures of return on investment, e.g. success on tests. (p. 6). 

      Pursuant to the study, teachers become stressed to the point of leaving the profession because of the way they have to teach their classes to align with formulaic instruction. They addressed other grievances as well, such as too much time devoted to test taking strategies, administrative meetings regarding tests’ results, and a lost of independence in the classroom. (p. 10).

      Costigan and Crocco’s study (2006), pointed out the emotional toll state testing has on teachers. The study clearly suggests that good teachers are leaving the profession because they no longer feel a viable part of the education system, a system whereby students and teachers become hostages to the mandates of state testing. (p. 11).

      Byrne’s article (1993), ‘The Maslach Burnout Inventory: Testing for factorial validity and invariance across elementary, intermediate and secondary teachers’, spoke to the results of quantitative research that tested the validity of the Maslack Burnout Inventory used to measure teacher’s burnout. First, Byrne (1993) defined burnout as “the inability to function effectively in one’s job as a consequence of prolonged and extensive job-related stress and is considered the final step in a progression of unsuccessful attempts to cope with negative stress conditions” (p. 197). Second, in the last ten years administrators and clinicians have observed a sharp increase in incidences of teacher’s burnout. Finally, the importance of this problem in education warrants an analysis to determine if the Maslack Burnout Inventory (MBI) is an adequate tool to diagnose it. (Byrne, 1993, p. 197). 

      The study referred to in the article randomly selected 7000 thousand participants comprising of 3,600 elementary and middle school teachers and 3400 high school teachers. Out of the 7000 teachers, 1159 elementary, 388 middle school, and 1384 high school teachers responded to the questionnaire that were sent out. (Byrne 1993, p. 200).

      The research findings in this article indicated that the MBI in all but two categories, emotional exhaustion (EE) and depersonalization diagnosed teachers at risk for burnout. Consequently, because the MBI used in this study measured twenty-two categories, it was concluded that the EE and DP should be deleted from it for it to be a valid and reliable test for teacher’s burnout. Surprisingly, the results of the MBI marked an uniformly of responses among elementary, middle school and high school teachers where variances were to be expected accounting for the different classroom environments and teaching stresses particular to each of the three areas. Byrne (1993) put it this way:

In light of the extremely stringent tests imposed both within and across teaching panels, the revised 20-item scale proved to be quite psychometrically sound. The fact that all item measurements and theoretical structure were invariant across elementary and intermediate teachers and across intermediate and secondary teachers is truly remarkable! (p 208).

        A quantitative study by Lambert et al (2009) used the elementary version of the Classroom Appraisal of Resources and Demands (CARD) to determine causes of stress among a sample of elementary teachers in an urban area of the southeast. The findings from the study were consistent with the CARD’s theoretical premise that stress “results from an imbalance between perceived demands and resources” (p. 986). The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) measured symptoms of burnout in three categories: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and professional accomplishment. Teachers who were assessed as being stressed reported higher levels of all three. These teachers perceived administrative demands and students’ behavior problems to be the most stressful job characteristics. Included in administrative demands are testing and paperwork.

      A 2002 qualitative study by Tye & O’Brien sought to determine if teacher discontent and attrition in California was linked to standardized testing. They distributed surveys to 900 individuals who had completed the teacher credentialing program at Chapman University. The number one reason cited by the respondents who had left teaching was increased accountability, which included high-stakes testing, test preparation and standards. The other reasons were “increased paperwork, changing student characteristics, negativity, and pressure from parents and the community, and tension between teachers and administration.” (p. 27). The respondents who were still teaching ranked accountability as their third highest stressor, with salary issues being the highest. Both current and former teachers ranked paperwork and other non-teaching demands as their second highest reason for leaving or wanting to leave teaching profession. The authors noted that the curriculum is dictated by state standards and the emphasis on high stake testing leaves very few decisions to the teachers’ professional judgment.



      Inherent in this research project is the assumption that teacher burnout actuates teacher turnover. Haberman (2003) see it this way, “Some stress is inevitable and may be beneficial. This is especially true in teaching where teacher effort and enthusiasm has a positive impact on student learning. At some point however, and this varies for individuals, too much stress is a predictor of poor teacher performance, absenteeism and teacher turnover.” (p. 3). This team acknowledges the strong correlation between teacher burnout and teacher turnover and for purposes of this research has linked teacher burnout with teacher turnover.


      In determining the research question, different reasons as to teacher burnout were considered and evaluated. Major contributors to teachers stress could stem from students’ disciplinary issues, conflict with students’ parents, lack of administrative support, inadequate resources, or unreasonable demands on teachers time. Although some educators and psychologists argue that a combination of factors lead to teacher’s burnout, rather than one in particular, they fail to explain how these causes account for the sudden dramatic rise of teacher burnout in the last ten years. To this point, this team asked what major change could have occurred in education in the last ten years that could have resulted in negatively affecting public school teachers. It was determined that the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, had a significant impact on public schools throughout the nation. This Act mandated that schools be held accountable for students’ outcomes and left to the states’ discretion what standardized measures they would use to evaluate students knowledge and skills. Consequently, states mandate standardized tests be administered annually to every student to evaluate their progress in content standards of which math and Language Arts are emphasized. Because school funding is tied to the results of states’ tests and harsh disciplinary tactics is used against those schools where students fail to post adequate scores, administrators exert pressure on teachers to extend instruction in areas of math and Language Arts, focusing on those attributes of studies that may appear on state standardized tests. Therefore, because this development matches and traces the high trajectory rate of teacher turnover, this research team, henceforward referred to as, this team hypothesized that standardized state testing is a major contributor to teacher burnout.

Definition of Terms

      Teacher burnout for the purposes of this research is defined as “the inability to function effectively in one’s job as a consequence of prolonged and extensive job-related stress and is considered the final step in a progression of unsuccessful attempts to cope with negative stress conditions” (Bryne, 1993, p. 197).

      High stake testing in this research project refers to those tests that "carry serious consequences for students or educators “(Marchant, 2004, p.1). Standardized tests referenced in this research reports refers to tests that according to the Office of Congress Technology Assessment (1992) ”use uniform procedures in administration and scoring in order to insure the results of different people can be comparable"

Significance of the Proposed Study

      Teachers who are burned out leave the profession for less stressful jobs. The attrition rate among teachers is increasing at an alarming rate. According to The American Progress Local Talking Points (2005), the U.S. Department of Education estimates that two million teachers will enter the profession in the next decade and out of those 666,000 will leave within three years of their starting date; furthermore, one million of them will not make it past ten years (p. 1). The problem of teacher turnover is endemic across the nation. Schools in rural neighborhoods as well as urban districts are adversely affected by it. According to “Teacher Attrition: A Costly Loss to the Nation and to the States” (2008), “A conservative national estimate of the cost of replacing public school teachers who have dropped out of the profession is $2.2 billion a year” (p.1). Further exacerbating the problem is that teacher burnout impede on a teacher ability to deliver quality instruction, sapping the energy and commitment that is necessary for good teaching.

      What motivate individuals after years of study and training to go into teaching and then recoil from their chosen occupation? What can be done to stop the exodus? Many educators point to teacher burnout as the primary cause, but teachers have always had to manage many issues and have never left in such numbers as they do now. What has changed from ten years ago in education that can account for the sudden rise in teacher turnover? Answers to these questions need to be found that will help isolate the root cause of teacher turnover in determining the best solutions or ideas that will ameliorate the environmental conditions that precipitate teacher burnout. To do otherwise, place financial burdens on already cash strapped school districts, compromises the integrity of instruction, and put at risk students’ academic goals.  

Design and Methods

Subjects and/or Case

      Research analysis was based on a mixed method design incorporating quantitative and qualitative data. A closed question survey was created to determine if standardized testing contributed to teacher burnout. The survey was sent out to twenty-one teachers across five elementary schools in Riverside County California, of which eighteen teachers responded to and sent back. The local sample was stratified on new and tenured teachers. Two interviews were also conducted that resulted in qualitative data that was used to support the findings. Finally, this research entailed extensive review of previous quantitative and qualitative research studies that yield relevant data to the study of teacher burnout.

        Because teacher burnout may be the result of many variables, independent factors had to be measured and evaluated with subjective data to insure the results represented the facts on the ground rather than reflect a bias in one direction or another. To this aim, this team used a mixed method research approach that integrated applied and qualitative research methodologies, synthesizing the results of both studies. Because teacher burnout is on going and rising, our research conducted between October 2010 and November 2010 yield significant and relevant findings.

Instrumentation/Data Collection

      The instrument selected to obtain and process quantitative data was a survey. The survey entailed twelve statements/questions that asked respondents to rate their answers as to which appeared on one line horizontal rating matrix. For example, question 8 reads as follows:                  I feel unreasonable demands are placed on me.                          Strongly Disagree  Disagree   Neither Agree/Disagree   Agree    Strongly Agree

      The questions or statements were created to shift out various stress factors such as behavioral issues, lack of support, etc., so as not to focus or lead respondents to answer positively or negatively to any one stressor. This way, this team could identify if there was any singularity among the stressors, and isolate it from the rest as being the most relevant stress trigger. Some of the questions on the survey asked the respondents to rate several items under them which required more time and thought, morphing what would otherwise be a short survey into a in depth review of how teachers think and see themselves in their positions.

      Conducted in an informal setting, the two face-to-face interviews involved questions requiring open-ended answers. The interview questions followed-up on the survey responses as to why the respondent answered in the way he or she did. As in the survey, absent were leading questions that may have influenced or skew the answers. Because of time constraints, the interviews lasted fifteen minutes. However, it is this team’s opinion, that the quality and type of questions asked are more relevant to our research than how much time is involved in a question/answer session. In this regard, the information derived from the interviews adequately reflected the views of the teachers.

      This team consists of Cidny Burrows and Karen Shade. Cidny Burrows selected the type of survey used in this research and created the questions for it. Karen Shade randomly selected the group that consisted of tenured and non-tenured teachers of whom the survey would be sent and launched the survey. Cidny Burrows conducted the two interviews. Together they analyzed the results of the survey and correlated pertinent information obtained from the interviews to the survey findings. This research report represents the combination of efforts put forward by Cidny Burrows and Karen Shade.

Data Treatment Procedures 

      The results from the research survey provided a summary of statistical data on many different characteristics while the qualitative research via the interviews provided more in depth information. The survey was selected as a tool in applied research to gather empirical data from which certain conclusions could be drawn or inferred. In this respect, inferential, rather than descriptive statistics were used to draw conclusions that went beyond the data provided from survey results. In this case, this team inferred from the statistics what teachers think. Inductive reasoning was also used in evaluating the information from the interviews, in which this team could reasonably infer from the responses given face-to-face the effect specific stressors had on the participants.

The survey was created, implemented and its results analyzed on Zoomerang, an online company that provides free survey tools and analysis. The interviews were structured on five open-ended questions. Answers from participants were written down in real time and reviewed afterwards. The interviewer, Cidny Burrows did not comment on any of the participants’ answers and refrained from any demonstrative body language that could imply agreement or disagreement during the interview session.

 Presentation of Findings

      The results of this team’s research suggest that teachers are very satisfied with support services and facilities as indicated by their answer to question 3: “Now please rate your level of satisfaction with the school's support services and facilities. Again, if an item does not apply to you, please select N/A.”





      Of these 7 items the only item where more than 50% of the respondents responded that they were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied was the exposure to the arts.  In this item 76% responded with dissatisfaction.  The decrease in emphasis on the arts is directly attributed to increased emphasis on standardized testing.       Responding to question 5, “To what degree do you experience frustration in your job”? Thirty-five percent of the respondents indicated that they were highly frustrated and 24% indicated that they were severely frustrated.

      In response to question 6:  To what degree do aspects of your job result in you feeling tired and burned-out?, 41% of the respondents indicated that being held accountable for students’ scores on standardized state tests as well as behavioral issues resulted to a high degree in feeling tired and burned-out. However, 51% of the respondents indicated that time restraints resulted in a high degree of feeling tired and burned out.


                                                                                                                                    Evidenced by the responses to question seven, over half the participants, felt that the quality of their teaching experience would improve if less focus was put on standardized testing and they had smaller classrooms.

Question 7: To what degree would you change aspects of your job to improve the quality of your teaching experience? 







      The responses in the interview provided insight as to the effects standardized testing has on their students. For example, M.G. expressed her frustration this way,

 “Accountability paperwork, progress monitoring paperwork, common assessment paperwork, lesson planning for 2 grades levels with inclusion of state standard, content objective, and language objective for every lesson taught, behavior paperwork, emphasis on the state test which only addresses a small percentage of standards and preparation for this test does not teach the things students need to have to be responsible, productive citizens. We are developing a class of people who cannot problem solve, but can only respond to a situation when given choices.”

      When asked, “What aspects, if any, of standardized testing create the most stress for you?” M.G. said, “Being held accountable for students' test scores when I only have them for 5 hours a day and education is not held as a priority by the parents or students.” This is notable as she one of the respondents who answered that time restraints were causing her a high degree of stress.   

      S.P. responded to the same question this way, “I want all of my students to test well, but many don't because they get burned out and don't score as well as they should. I feel that we are honestly teaching to the test, more so than teaching the standards. It is the standardized tests that are driving our instruction, not standards.” When asked what if anything caused her frustration at school, S.P. said, “behavior of students, lack of interest, no parent involvement, AYP, API, and standardized testing.

Limitations of the Design

      The findings in this research could have been based on a stronger inductive argument if more information could have been obtained from the following:

        * Two or three focus groups each comprised of five teachers.

        *Survey sent out to more teachers from different schools grades 2-12.

      *Information gleamed from additional teacher interviews, and

      *In-class observations

      Clearly, with additional time and manpower, these additional steps would have been taken to insure direct rather than casual correlations be tied to standardized state tests and teachers’ stress. Cognizance of this team’s limitations and the scope of the project, research methodologies were selected that best fit within the team’s timeframe and limited resources deemed adequate to answer the research question herewith. 


The survey’s results indicate a casual correlation between standardized testing and teachers’ stress. Analysis of the data makes clear that ten respondents (59%) out of seventeen wanted to see a major overhaul of the standardized state testing system. Furthermore, four respondents (24%) when asked, “To what degree do aspects of your job result in you feeling tired and burned-out?” checked they were moderately stressed being held accountable for students' scores on standardized state tests, while seven respondents (41%) checked they were stressed out to a high degree being held accountable for students’ scores on standardized tests, representing 65% of the sample. Finally, ten respondents (59%) of the sample indicated they would like to like to see a major overhaul to deemphasize standardized tests. Clearly, teachers think that the emphasis on state standardized testing is causing them high stress and leaving them feel burned out.

      The interviews provide stronger evidence in the way of first hand information that strongly links standardized testing to high stress levels. The two teachers interviewed expressed frustration and concern as to the effects standardized tests were having on their students. They both felt the results of the standardized tests did not adequately represent their students’ abilities or knowledge. They also indicated because of the emphasis on standardized state tests they had to focus their instruction on math and Language Arts, foregoing other content standards like visual and performing arts, subjects, which develop students’ creativity and provide them another way to relate to the world around them.

      The survey’s results, the interviews, and related articles make clear that state standardized testing affect teachers negatively. The emphasis of state standardized testing in the education has caused teachers a moderate to a high degree of stress owing to its influence on their students, their instruction, and their performance review. High stress can be directly linked to high blood pressure, poor concentration, and anxiety, which leaves individuals feeling tired and burnout. Teachers who are burnout are at risk of leaving their profession for less stressful, more satisfying jobs. The analysis of this team’s research support the hypothesis, that state standardized testing is a major contributor to teacher burnout.

Recommendations for Further Research

      It would be helpful to separate the responses of those teachers who started teaching after NCLB was implemented as opposed to those who started teaching before NCLB to determine if there is a difference in stress and burnout rates.  Those who started teaching after NCLB may have different stress factors or less burnout from state standardized testing because those teachers came into the classroom knowing that there would be a strong emphasis on testing.  As previously noted, Lambert et al (2009) premised that stress “results from an imbalance between perceived demands and resources” (p. 986) and those teachers who started before NCLB had different perceived demands as those who started after its implementation.





      Abrams, L, M., Madaus, G. F., & Pedulla, J. J. (2003). Views from the classroom: Teachers' opinions of statewide testing programs. Theory into Practice, 42 (1), 18-29.    Alliance for Excellent Education (2009). Teacher Attrition: A Costly Loss to the Nation and to the States. Brief Issue 15 (17). Retrieved from http://www.all4ed.org/files/archive/publications /TeacherAttrition.pdf

      Center for American Progress (2005). Local Talking Points February 28, 2005. Retrieved from http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2005/02/b307371.html#_ftn1

      Byrne, B. (1993). The Maslach Burnout Inventory: Testing for factorial validity and invariance across elementary, intermediate, and secondary teachers. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (1993), 66, 197—212

      Costigan, A, T. and Crocco, M.S. (2006) High Stake Testing: What’s at Stake for Teachers (and Students) in the Age of Accountability. The New Educator, 2 (1), 1-13.

      Haberman, M. (2004). Teacher Burnout in Black and White. Retrieved from http://www.habermanfoundation.org/Articles/PDF/Teacher%20Burnout%20in%20Black%20and%20White.pdf

      Marchant, G. J. (2004). What is at stake with high stakes testing? A Discussion of Issues and Research. The Ohio Journal of Science, 4 (2), 2-7, retrieved from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0HQW/is_2_104/ai_n25092071/?tag=content;col1 

      O’Brien, L., & Tye, B. G. (2002). Why are experienced teachers leaving the profession? The Phi Delta Kappan, 84 (1), 24-32.

      U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment (1992). Testing in America's Schools: Asking the Right Questions. OTA-SET-519 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office)

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