This study examines the influences of high-stakes testing in the context of the federal law, No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). In particular, this study presents the National Writing Project (NWP) as an example of a professional development program helping build versatile teachers and confident students to cope with the effects of high-stakes testing. High-stakes testing, the singular mode of accountability under NCLB, now affects all students in the American public school system. By bringing educator voices to the forefront, the professionals who know their field best can relate their experiences under the current system and envision future modes of accountability.
Table of Contents:
No Child Left Behind
There is a wide research base examining the theoretical underpinnings of high-stakes testing, especially with the advent of federal standardized testing under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). NCLB is a federal law with an overarching goal: “that all American students reach math and reading proficiency by 2014” (Paige, 2003). The law requires the state to report students’ proficiency rates in both reading and mathematics. NCLB puts enormous pressure on schools to reach annual yearly performance (AYP) percentages set by the federal government. This pressure derives from the fact that if the school does not meet proficiency levels, it must be restructured at the cost of the state. Federal restructuring puts the school under federal oversight and replaces the schools’ previous curriculum with federally approved reading or math curricula. In a restructured school, to receive federal funds teachers must follow carefully designed lesson plans and only use textbooks and reading materials provided by the federally approved curriculum.
NCLB is based on “scientifically based” quantitative research. Aimed at filtering out qualitative research, this agenda is reflected in press releases from the U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. In January 2008, Spellings delivered a speech to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on NCLB, regarding her priorities for 2008. This speech in particular sets out the Bush administration’s view on the 7-year-old law, from its inception to the present. In the speech, Spellings states: “Instead of questioning our children’s potential… let’s use research, data, and technology to guide innovation like we do in business and medicine.” NCLB is a major revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which is often looked at by historians as a response to the Cold War concern that math and reading skills of American students were not up to par with the rest of the world. NCLB carries on this legacy of turning out children to compete in the global economy. However, the means by which children can achieve this goal are through reading testing that mirrors math and science testing. In a “Response to the National Council on Teacher Quality Report,” members of the Language Arts Faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa fired back at allegations that teachers were ignoring the National Reading Panel’s (NRP) emphasis on “phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension”(Nowak et al. n.d.). The NRP designed the phrase, “the science of reading,” which was meant to use scientifically based research to show teachers how they should teach.
This approach is furthered by the creation of the “What Works Clearinghouse,” a research database created in 2002 to provide “a source of scientific evidence of what works in education” (What Works Clearinghouse, 2008). The What Works Clearinghouse awarded Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.a $50 million contract to filter research.Initially, the NRP organized the research used to formulate NCLB. According to their website, the NRP took the 100,000 studies on reading published in public databases and only used a few (around 300) to analyze because “it was not possible for the panel to critically review all this research.” Nowak shows how the term “reading science” is a political construction replacing the study of literacy. Nowak points out that science itself assumes possibility over certainty, “especially the kind of certainty which the authors of the report seem to claim about the teaching of reading, and the implications of which they propose to impose on schools” (Nowak et al., n.d., p. 6). As a result, the research base behind key parts of NCLB is severely limited, endangering the accuracy of reading curricula proliferated across the nation.
Effects of High-Stakes Testing on Students and Teachers
The theoretical costs of an inordinate focus on only one particular strain of research have been examined previously. At the center of the NCLB focus on scientifically based curricula is the use of high-stakes testing. High-stakes testing has become the singular tool of accountability used by the federal government in the NCLB Act. Many teachers recognize the importance of a multifaceted process of accountability. This is voiced in the assessment vision of the National Education Association (NEA). The NEA defines several other measures of accountability, including teacher evaluations taking into account classroom assignments and grades, and progress on standardized tests as opposed to raw test scores (Seed, 2008). Singular test scores as represented in AYP percentages by schools are used by the federal government to manipulate funding, fire teachers and administrators, and punish students and the community as a whole by dubbing the school “unsuccessful” with respect to the rest of the nation.
Another question remains: What are the costs of high-stakes testing on students and teachers? Studies cite the anxiety associated with test time on the part of the students and teachers (Afflerbach, 2007, p. 151). As well as anxiety, behavioral problems of students, teacher breakdown, and student disillusionment are often associated with high-stakes testing. In a brief from the National Reading Conference, Afflerbach examines the phenomenon of popular support of high-stakes testing, in contrast to the realities. Student effects include the label placed on a student through “public disclosures of their failures, as they struggle through hours of high-stakes testing” (Afflerbach, 207, p. 155). Perhaps the most inappropriate use of a test is in the labeling of the youngest children after their first test-taking experience by placing certain children in differential instruction based on their test scores. Teachers are increasingly alienated as testing concerns override teacher professionalism, and the narrow view of reading presented by a test leads to “decreased teacher motivation and enthusiasm” (Smith, 1991). High-quality teaching and learning is also disrupted by high-stakes tests, forcing teachers to forfeit years of experience in the most effective teaching methods in exchange for test preparation.
The National Writing Project
The importance of high-quality teachers is expressed in the NCLB teacher-quality provision, which has allowed for large numbers of emergency certifications to ensure there is a teacher at every blackboard in the fall. Fostering these talented educators to meet the demands of an outer high-stakes testing environment, and the inner demands of individual students as a goal, is emphasized in the NWP. Studies on the NWP convey an ideal environment to foster professional growth, creativity, political involvement, and communication of effective teaching practices (Deblase, 2007; Lieberman, & Mace, 2008; Lieberman & Wood, 2002).
Gina Deblase was the first-year director of a NWP site in the metro Detroit area. In her observations of the 15 teachers in the institute, she recognized the creation of a community of teachers in which stories were shared to aid fellow teachers. Although this informal mode of professional development is not new, the NWP provided the environment for teachers to voice their concerns. The dialogue was also freed in the sense that the conversations could move beyond “griping” toward a collective understanding of the values at work in current educational policy (Lieberman & Wood, 2002, 30). At the Detroit NWP site, these conversations led to greater ones: “They have elected to (re)claim their expertise and to be heard in the arena of public education… They are coming to know themselves as teachers who have informed perspectives and valuable experiences worthy of influencing policy and practice at the local and regional level” (Deblase, 2007). Beyond the formulation of a valuable political self-identity, rivaling the disenfranchisement of teachers that had unfortunately permeated the current attitudes of some politicians toward them, Deblase cited the actions of the summer institute teachers after the project including reporting back to other teachers, school meetings, submission of proposals to education conferences, letters to the Detroit newspapers, and attending Board of Education meetings. In this way, the conversation that is nurtured in the safe environment of the NWP grows in strength through research and sharing of knowledge to extend outward into the community and the political arena.
Ann Lieberman and Diane Wood examined the NWP at two project sites in urban Los Angeles and rural Oklahoma through observation and interviews. The authors were interested in discovering how teachers brought the NWP back to their classrooms. By examining a background of NWP principles and studying the activities of the institutes, the authors fleshed out the conception behind the NWP in theory and in action. In theory, the authors identified several key social practices, including training colleagues with respect, creating public forums, turning ownership of learners over to learners, situating human learning in practice, sharing leadership, promoting inquiry, and linking professional identity to professional community (Leiberman and Wood, 2002, p. 22). With this theoretical framework, the authors observed and interviewed NWP participants, following several back to their classrooms. They found that all six teachers they shadowed brought their learning in the NWP directly back into their classrooms. Their common convictions about learning, forged in the NWP, helped each teacher uniquely overcome individual challenges in implementation and build the same learning communities from the institute in their classrooms.
Although there are studies citing the effects of high-stakes testing and the effects of the NWP, the leap has not yet been made examining the relationship between the two. By establishing a relationship between the unique educational values of the NWP and the demands of rigorous testing, the professional development of the NWP might serve as a solution to the negative effects of high-stakes testing. Beyond this most basic solution, contrasting the values underlying testing and the NWP would present differences and similarities, as well as suggestions for how test-based accountability can be viewed in a more healthy way for teachers and students. These theoretical underpinnings are subtly operating in our school systems, often without the explicit knowledge of those in the system. This knowledge is key to fostering the growth of high-quality teachers unafraid to make changes to a faulty school system. The knowledge is important to parents and communities, who deserve to know the key values operating in their public school so that they can evaluate these rigorously in the same way their children are evaluated. Finally, the students deserve an explanation for these values that affect them so greatly. Even if this knowledge is basic, when a student’s confidence and perceived measure of intelligence is influenced by these tests, students deserve this information. The following findings go into depth about the perceived effects of high-stakes testing and the influence the NWP has on these circumstances.
Methods of Data Collection
This research is designed around qualitative methods of interviewing and participant observation that will provide the in-depth clarification necessary to understand a teacher’s experience with high-stakes testing and the NWP. The interviews were open-ended and semi-structured: a set of questions designed to elicit explanations of teachers’ experiences and views. The interview questions were separated into three blocks with the subject areas of impressions of the NWP, effects of high-stakes testing, and the relationship between the two. Observations took place at NWP sessions, writing workshop classes, and public hearings on education issues. The length of the interview was 30 to 60 minutes. With explicit permission, the interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. The audio recordings were used to facilitate accurate understanding and recall of the subject’s responses to interview questions. The recordings were also made with a digital recorder and the file was burned onto a data disc.
Methods of Data Analysis
The recordings were transcribed and coded to show thematic patterns in the data. During note taking, letters A, B, C and so forth were used in place of the subject’s name to preserve the participant’s anonymity. Post-interview, I compiled the subject’s responses for each question. I used the Atlas TI hermeneutic software to code the data and sort the thematic patterns I will be analyzing.
The subjects are representative of NWP participants in the North Star Writing Program. The subjects are educators at the elementary, secondary, or university levels who have taught for any amount of time in the Texas public school system. The teachers interviewed were of varying experience levels from a first-year teacher, a veteran teacher in the field for 24 years, and professors in teacher education at the university level. The teachers were also of varying education levels from bachelor of arts degrees, brought into teaching through emergency certification, through to doctoral candidates and teachers with full doctorate degrees. The teachers also taught at different levels: four teachers taught at the elementary school level and the rest taught at the high school level. Although the elementary school teachers were responsible for all subject areas, the high school teachers specifically taught in a variety of subject areas including reading, writing, theatre arts, and English as a Second Language (ESL). The unifying theme in their demographics is the fact that they all participated in the NWP summer institute in different capacities, sometimes for multiple sessions. Following are their experiences with the NWP and teaching in a high-stakes environment.
Similar to other findings on the NWP, subject participants often cited the core values of the Writing Project as written in the NWP mission: “of the NWP is to improve student achievement by improving the teaching of writing and improving learning in the nation’s schools.” “To improve writing and learning, recognize teacher knowledge, expertise, and leadership… [and] diversity” (NWP, n.d.). In Lieberman and Wood’s (2002) study on the NWP, they found these goals exemplified as the teachers brought their NWP skills back into the classroom. However, the classroom environment was not examined in terms of high-stakes testing. High-stakes testing research details the disruptiveness, teacher/student alienation, and misuse of test scores (Afflerbach, 2007, p. 154). Solutions were presented in the form of amendments to the use of test-based accountability. However, the concept of professional development for teachers was left out. The interviews presented several subject patterns, which a majority number of teachers cited in their answers. Within each block of questions, teachers brought up their individual impressions of the NWP, high-stakes testing, and the relationship between the two. For this reason, I have divided the analysis into these three subject areas, mirroring the interview questions.
Impressions of the NWP
One of the first interview questions was: How did you get involved with the NWP? Through this question, teachers relayed the various ways in which they heard about the NWP. A striking pattern is the “snowball effect,” the way in which many teachers got involved, stayed involved, and spread their knowledge to other teachers. This cornerstone of the NWP spreads information about the Project from participant to nonparticipant, and was the main mode by which teachers learned about the program. One teacher relayed this response when she shared her experience after the program: “I’ve had a couple of people say, you know, maybe I’ll start journaling, so I do think it’s contagious” (2nd-career, High School Teacher). Teachers talk about the “fire sparked” by the word-of-mouth suggestion to focus on writing instruction and begin to write themselves. Beyond learning about the program, the snowball effect was the form networking took after the Project. One teacher, the co-director of continuity, worked to keep former participants connected through a newsletter and by bringing these participants back to work with current institute members. Later in the interview, that same teacher professed:
I’ll always be involved in the NWP, that’s a lifelong commitment for me. In what capacity, I’m not sure. I think just being part of that community, I take wherever I go. (5th year, 9th/10th-Grade Teacher)
Beyond keeping these writing teachers connected, the director explained the concept of continuity in the sense of the continual learning process teachers take out of the institute, into their classrooms, to demonstrate the inquiry process for themselves and for their students. The director of the Writing Project described a teacher using a research paper she wrote to implement in her classroom. Not only was this beneficial to the teacher but turning her research into reality was a deeply validating experience: the director had never previously considered herself a writer. Realizing the continuity of learning was a humbling experience, as described by one teacher:
…to realize that you’re never going to stop learning. The first year we had in the institute, I learned so much from them, there’s just a wealth of knowledge and instinct there… There were veterans and everyone in between. (5th year, 9th/10th-Grade Teacher)
Many teachers also described getting back into reading educational research, something they may not have done since entering the profession. A teacher summed up the underlying value of continuity and the networking community with the following:
Another value is the importance of teacher growth and pursuing our own education, continuing to be learners, asking questions, [and] seeking groups of like-minded people interested in learning and support for each other. (6th year, 6th-Grade Teacher)
Almost all the teachers kept closely connected personally and professionally with fellow participants over the years, the strongest evidence of a strong support network for teachers. After asking about whether the NWP fulfilled her professional development needs, one teacher recalled:
Oh yes, and needs we didn’t know we had, the need for community. A lot of us still talk and eat dinner and call each other and e-mail each other and go see others teaching at their schools because we just have kindred spirits I suppose. (Summer 2007 Institute Participant)
Another pattern within the interviews was the idea of the teacher as a writer. Almost every subject cited this cornerstone of the NWP. Most experienced a major shift in thought and self-identity: I am a writer. One teacher described the program as, “everybody has those secrets inside and it seems so trite, but the program is really good at unlocking that potential” (3rd year, 9th-Grade English Teacher). Another in the NWP began to see herself as a “teacher, writer, researcher,” and with this new self-identity could honestly and respectfully pass on this enthusiasm to her students so that they also believe they are writers. Other teachers saw their role as writers themselves as one part of their role in the classroom. Many saw themselves as facilitators, guiding the students as they take ownership of their own learning.
Student confidence in writing is a problem many teachers cited, and by becoming authors themselves, many teachers realized their own lack of confidence in their ability to write, let alone share their writing with their students. As more than one subject explained, students must write to be writers. Multiple subjects also explained the necessity of writing and reading to be learned in tandem. This chain of comprehension beginning in a student’s movement from writing to reading can only be spawned by a teacher’s demonstration of themselves as writers. This missing component, the sharing of the teacher’s writing in the classroom, changed the self-identity of the teacher, as one teacher described:
I didn’t see myself as a writer, and because of that I didn’t express myself well as a writer to my students. And then once I got it, once I realized a tree falling in my front yard in a storm became a funny little story: I found myself modeling it for my kids. (24th year, Elementary School Teacher)
One value the NWP reinforced in the impressions of the participants was the view of each teacher as an expert, with knowledge to contribute and a wealth of teaching instinct and experiences to share. Seven teachers cited their transformation over the course of the institute as validating their gut instincts about the best way to teach children with research-based methodologies from like-minded teachers. One teacher described the “devaluing of the profession” as detrimental to teachers, causing them to question their central beliefs about teaching.
Effects of High-Stakes Testing
The subjects were among the thousands of teachers across the nation dealing with high-stakes testing. Every subject described high-stakes testing as a central intrusion into their classrooms. The widespread anxiety cited by teachers elicited as an effect of high-stakes testing are detailed here.
The director of the North Star NWP site describes the theoretical differences and similarities between high-stakes testing and the NWP:
The goal of both of those programs is to develop student-citizens as they grow and develop to be leaders, of course that’s the goal of NWP, to build those kinds of citizens equipped with those kinds of tools to take into their future. The difference is that within testing and accountability and NCLB, they view it is the only way that can happen is by mandating control and keeping a tight watch on everything. Within NWP, they realize there is a continuum that you have to sometimes control and sometimes let up and keep working back and forth within that control and letting go. I think that accountability, NCLB, is really about product and what WP does is facilitate that process and understanding the process that needs to happen to get to the product.
Ultimately, the teachers the director describes are extremely talented in their ability to walk the tightrope of teacher control and student freedom of inquiry. The insidious part of this comparison is that teachers and administrators—the experts in the situation—are controlled in the same way children are in the analogy. This theoretical difference between NCLB and the NWP is an example of what happens when educational policies do not come from within, and uninformed decisions are made.
Apart from theoretical differences, high-stakes testing manifests in teacher and student anxiety. Student anxiety in the classroom may be subtle but it is visible to the high school teachers: “They act like they don’t care but they do, they think it’s an indicator of how intelligent they are and how successful they will be.” Student anxiety is not so subtle for younger students. As a teacher described:
If they’re low-achieving students they’re completely 100% plus stressed and their whole life becomes passing the test, their entire curriculum and every course and subject is catered towards passing that test to the fifth grade level, especially if its one of those no-pass grade levels. I think that [repeat question] if you’re a high-achieving student, it’s boring. It’s redundant. And it can also kill their spirit to learn because unfortunately, the stress is so huge that everything is about passing this test, children who don’t need to be stressing over this are still faced with it unless that teacher has the ability to individualize and truly teach them at the level that they need to be. (18-year, Elementary School Teacher)
In the interviews, two elementary school teachers described individual cases of excessive student anxiety and resulting test failure:
I had a student this year who failed [the TAKS test] and barely passed on her third try, fifth grade, low SES, a hard time and her mom died of an asthma attack in March, so this kid is just being hit by a truck, she’s having a rough year, she can’t read, she got her elective taken away, her PE taken away, she still didn’t pass, and your heart just goes out to them. It’s so, so hard on a kid like that to be put through all that and then she still can’t complete, she can’t, it’s really a hard thing for a kid like that to face. (2nd year, 6th-Grade Teacher)
Last year I had a little boy who would’ve scored very well on the test, but that morning, his dog died. He came to school and held it in and held it in, and right before the test, he let it out. He watched the dog die.
He didn’t pass. Now was that fair, to just base that on that one day. So of course he had another opportunity to pass and he did very well. But it was a one-day snapshot of somebody. If they had a bad morning or something is happening in their lives, or if they didn’t sleep the night before, it can affect their performance. I think it’s shallow. (24-year Teacher)
Student anxiety manifests outside of the classroom in the heightened number of incidences: illnesses, chaos, injuries, fighting, and tears on the playground, in the lunchroom, before school, and after school (Elementary School Interviewee). When this same subject was asked about teacher effects, she jokingly replied: “Tears and fighting.” The issue of teacher anxiety is real, as “teachers are leaving the field in droves” (Elementary School Interviewee). Even if a school is not under extreme restructuring, teachers feel the effects as described by this teacher:
This year, I think it was always there but it really just hit me profoundly this year, right around TAKS Feb/Jan, the pressure and the stress was overwhelming, and I was talking with some colleagues about it because we were stressed, we are Acceptable and our principal, his whole point this year is to get to the next level: Recognized. We had to get to Recognized, that was enormous for us, and it wasn’t as high stakes because we didn’t have AYP attached in terms of federal concerns but because the public only has these labels, that’s all they have to evaluate their school system, and it presents what’s going on in schools, that’s why there is a push to become a Recognized school and campus. (5th year, High School Teacher)
Analysis: The Relationship between the NWP and High-Stakes Testing
In essence, the study findings are not unique, with over 135,835 teachers served by NWP Programs knowing the intrinsic values of the Writing Project (Nagin, 2002). Even the most thorough analysis of the effects of NWP fails to explain what NWP participants know, that it changes their lives and the lives of their students. There is a sense that the NWP community transcends the world outside the classroom, the expectations, and the threatening stakes. Instead, the world exists solely between the teacher and student. The teacher brings into the classroom tailored expectations based on research synthesized into a best-practice approach to teaching; the student brings diverse new expectations for educators. NWP teachers create a classroom community in which the teacher can focus solely on the student’s learning because the distractions created by non-educators outside the classroom are absent. It is quieter in a NWP classroom because the dialogue contains the two voices of the teacher and the student. The dialogue is preserved through mutual respect and validation, and that dialogue is what children remember long after their formative years. When test-preparation discourse disrupts this student/teacher dialogue, teachers are often left confused and unmotivated, and students understand this teaching disruption. One teacher described her students’ introduction to high-stakes testing:
And so that is their first experience of the test and yet it’s a high-stakes experience in their first year, and it’s mean. I try to stay very positive, and keep some laughter in the classroom and let them know that it’s okay. But it’s something I struggle with, as much as I try to keep levity in the classroom about it, they know what’s gonna happen if they don’t pass and because they’ve never taken it, they have nothing to compare it to. The pressure that puts on them, I can’t do anything to alleviate it… some of them are eight, others are nine. (24th year, 3rd-Grade Teacher)
These young children underwent indoctrination into the current era of test-based accountability. Not only do the students lack ownership of the direction of test prep, teachers’ voices are also silenced as they watch their children, the key victims in the pressure cooker of high-stakes testing.
Perhaps the last part of the writing project, the part that brings teachers back to their classroom and sustains them for the long haul no matter the outside obligations, is the inherent flexibility of the program. Each teacher has the confidence and validation to make the program his or hers. NWP goals and values anchor teachers to the latest in educational research, both qualitative and quantitative, and the teachers are let loose from there. Because teachers own their own learning, they can spread this ownership to their students. A veteran teacher described something gone wrong in the classroom:
Of course the student spark was gone; the students were working in the darkness of a disjointed, impersonal test prep session. If the greatest lovers of learning, our nation’s educators, were bored with the curriculum then how is an eight-year-old to take on this burden? After all, how can one work forever and never see the finished product in all its uniqueness?
Perhaps these study findings seem to polarize high-stakes testing and the NWP by evidence of their effects. Not all teachers view the two in this way. The program director explained her view in one interview:
As teachers, I think you have to learn how to keep careful watch on the goals and objectives that you set for your students, that they’re aligned with whatever your curriculum has told you to do, whatever your accountability system says they have to do, and to you, your process. A lot of people see them as dichotomous, and I really don’t.
All the teachers I interviewed believed in the necessity of testing. All also cited various instances of test scores being misused, overemphasized, and presented as the singular solution to a multifaceted problem. One veteran teacher passed on the phrase, “She don’t get a prize cow by weighing it every day.” The point is that testing, test preparation, test training for teachers, and test scores used for the determination of billions of dollars of school funding is the misuse of only one factor of accountability. Testing does not lead to achievement. In fact, the effects of high-stakes testing are detrimental in their ability to start a chain reaction of disillusionment for teachers and students.
Many newer teachers cited the usefulness of test-based accountability and their desire to see where their students placed with respect to the rest of the nation. A veteran teacher recounted: “I have never seen a child who was a capable reader fail one of those tests, not in Texas, not any student I’ve had tutored.” Yet on the other side of the coin are students “shuffled up the grade levels” by principals caught between meeting annual yearly performance and keeping students moving upward. The remainder, the “lowest common denominator” as described by one teacher, is the focus of NCLB, to the detriment of students with other needs. This same veteran teacher continued:
We’re asked to individualize, we’re asked to differentiate, but the time is taken away, the schedule and curriculum is infringed upon, so they make it more difficult for us to be more encompassing.
All teachers cited the necessity of testing to one degree or another; however, all saw testing as only one part of a greater system of accountability in which teacher input is central. As one teacher described in her dream educational policy: “The conversation must come from within the educational community, teachers, the experts in their field must be the ones to set the standards.”
Furthermore, perhaps the greatest aspect of the NWP that situates it far from scripted test-preparation curricula, is the idea of flexibility. Just as teachers take aspects of the NWP and claim them for use in their own unique way, standards must incorporate more unique methods of accountability. Until outsiders validate the uniqueness of the teaching profession, standards will continue to be based on “one-size-fits-all” approaches. Diverse students deserve diverse approaches to meet their needs. Teachers understand students may bring social and economic baggage in their backpacks right next to their composition books and pencils. Ultimately, every student brings diversity into the classroom for each teacher to validate. Until the teachers are validated, until the teachers are motivated, until the teachers are valued, how can they pass this confidence on to America’s children? Teachers have been forced to survive in a system where these key factors barely exist. However, there is a place where these key factors are the ground rules: respect, equity, continual learning—that is, the National Writing Project, the hopeful blueprint for a new kind of “Nation at Risk.”
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