National testing data in Norwegian Class rooms: used to improve student performance or a deadlock for teachers work?

Project owner

Western Norway University of Applied Sciences

Project categories

Basic Research

In-house Project

Project period

June 2016 - October 2017

Project summary

In the Norwegian school system national school tests are part of top-down test-based accountability (Werler & Volckmar 2015). According to the Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training the purpose of those tests is to provide “information to students, teachers, school administrators, parents, school owners, the regional authorities and the national level” (Udir 2010:5) to improve students learning outcomes. The authorities expect that work with test results is a natural part of schools daily work (Udir 2013).

Evaluation of the national school tests found that the further people stand from teaching, the more they supported the system and vice versa (Allerup, Kovac, Kvåle, Langeldt & Skov 2009). Seland, Vibe & Hovdhaugen (2013) emphasize that such tests are valued as tool for improvement efforts by school leaders. Mausethagen (2013, 67) finds that it is difficult for teachers to accept these tests when they experience that central aspects of teaching are challenged by accountability pressure. Aasebøe (2015, 69) concludes, that teachers feel threatened in their autonomy whilst they have accepted the idea of testing itself.

In line with the central idea of education accountability (Müller & Hernández 2010, Sahlberg 2010), the test system provides descriptive data on student’s achievement of educational standards (Linn 2013). In accordance with the intention of the test system, teachers shall use test data to improve students learning (Udir 2010). In order to be able to develop improvement initiatives teachers need to know reasons for results achieved. Further, the system is not designed for explaining causes for measured achievement.

This creates a paradoxical situation. Teachers shall improve results they have little impact on. Furthermore, they cannot develop evidence-based measures leading to improved learning outcomes since they do not know variables they could change. Based on this, it is reasonable to argue that teacher have to guess causes in order to improve students learning outcomes. A guidance brochure of the Norwegian authorities (Udir 2014, 6) recommends this strategy too.

This paradox is reflected in Norwegian empirical data. Chavannes, Engesveen & Strand, (2011, 36) identify that school owners as well as school leaders have developed structures they judge as valuable to improve results (concentrate teacher resources, strengthening of staffing, provision of materials that to improve teaching and learning). Beyond that, they find that schools have mainly discussions about causes explaining test results (ibid, 39). Waters (2013) demonstrated that that this strategy causes negative test results in the future. Overall, Isaksen & Hjelm Solli (2014) investigating school owners, school leaders and teachers work with test results show that routines and plans for follow-up initiatives are missing. It is also evident that one is unsure of how to use the results (ibid, 42). Here, Johansen (2015) finds that teachers use test results for ability streaming. The national evaluation of national testing system revealed (Seland, Vibe & Hovdhaugen 2013, 101) that teachers are frustrated about the information outcome of the test and that they are not suitable to give students feedback.

The focus of the paper is to look for how teachers use information from national tests to drive improvement and development work aimed at individual students. We expect to gain insight in how teachers cope with education accountability to elude from a deadlock putting their professionalism at risk. To operationalize the research problem we ask what teachers tell about their improvement and developmental work. 


We emphasize mainly two periods. First, we collect data for processes regarding the time right after they have carried out the tests. Second, we ask for processes and actions taken after the publication of the test results. 

In the analytical work, qualitative content analysis (Mayring, 2002, 2014) is applied.

Data based on individual semi structured interviews was collected from 18 informants representing six schools. All informants are experienced teachers, and they have several times carried out national test. We have chosen teachers working mainly in 5th grade since Seland, Vibe & Hovdhaugen (2013, 101) pointed out that those teachers are most malcontent with the situation. Sites selected for data collection represent various rural, sub-urban and urban schools.

In working with the analysis of the data, we see that teachers work with the test results is characterized by several moments of uncertainty. Teachers express on one hand that they are uncertain about what to do with the results; on the other hand, they indicate that they would like to do something to help students, if only they knew how.