In (Perpetual) search of lost time: How high stakes testing consumes time, teachers and learning

Year: 2012

Author: Tan, Sze Yin, Kwek, Dennis, Hogan, David, Towndrow, Philip

Type of paper: Abstract refereed



In this paper, we explore how teachers experience and view their work through time in a high stakes system. Drawing from a postmodern conceptualization of time (Slattery, 1995), we examine how teachers' narratives about time constraints reveal their mindsets about instruction and assessment, their beliefs about their roles as teachers and their professional identities, and how these are repercussions from the intensification of teachers' work in an era of high stakes accountability. We argue that, in such a lethal combination, time is forever lost, and the search, perpetual.


This paper, drawn from a qualitative study that explored teachers' beliefs and attitudes towards teaching, learning, assessment and reform policies, was part of a large-scale study which involves measuring and modeling pedagogical and assessment practices from Mathematics and English classrooms across Singapore.

We conducted semi-structured interviews with 114 teachers from 14 primary and 16 secondary schools. Interview transcripts were coded using a grounded theory approach and the issue of time constraints emerged as a key theme. Analysis is framed by Hargreave's (1994) intensification theory and issues of accountability.


In their discussions about the instructional and assessment strategies, time constraint acts like a wall to prevent more authenticity, connectedness, exploration, inter-disciplinarity and engaged learning in the classrooms.  This revealed dominant pedagogical and assessment modes - largely teacher-centred, drill and practice, worksheets and exam preparation - as well as the ubiquitous belief that a teacher's foremost role is to prepare students for high stakes examinations. It also showed a lack of engaged professional identities, in the absence of collaborative cultures and activism.


Teachers view handling instructional time as a deliberate and conscientious tradeoff between learning and instrumental mastery. We want to suggest therefore that the teachers' discourse about time constraint is but a mask for the preoccupation with high stakes testing. It is not time constraints which have made teachers prisoners of time in both thought and action and rendered them incapable of achieving more in their classrooms; rather it is their unwillingness, inability or powerlessness, to break off from the chains of high stakes testing that devoured their ability to view time in the light of possibilities and to use time differently and arguably more meaningfully. Suggestions are given as to how teachers and schools can better appropriate time given a proleptic, process-oriented, integrated, and cyclical understanding of time in education.