Expert Commentary

Incentives and test-based accountability in education

2011 report by a federal policy advisory group on the movement toward large-scale testing with consequences attached and educational results.

As accountability-based classroom testing came into favor in the United States over the past two decades, culminating with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, questions have been raised about its effectiveness. Some say such testing, which attaches consequences to student results, is the only way to ensure children get a quality education. Others assert that it’s inappropriate and ineffective.

A 2011 report from the National Research Council of the National Academies, “Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education,” is the product of a nearly decade-long effort to understand the overall effectiveness of accountability-based classroom testing. The report is meant to stand as an authoritative policy document that provides guidance to the federal government as it considers further reform.

The report’s major findings are:

  • Educational programs that emphasize test-based incentives “have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries. When evaluated using relevant low-stakes tests, which are less likely to be inflated by the incentives themselves, the overall effects on achievement tend to be small and are effectively zero for a number of programs.”
  • Overall, the evidence suggests that “high school exit exam programs, as currently implemented in the United States, decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement. The best available estimate suggests a decrease of 2 percentage points when averaged over the population.”
  • As teachers increasingly tailor their classes to ensure better scores on the test, student scores often improve. But this does not necessarily constitute success: “Score inflation that results from teaching to the test is a problem with attaching incentives to performance measures that do not fully reflect desired outcomes in a domain that is broader than the test.”
  • Classroom teachers cannot be blamed for “teaching to the test” and the narrowness it often implies: “It is unreasonable to implement incentives with narrow tests and then criticize teachers for narrowing their instruction to match the tests. When incentives are used, the performance measures need to be broad enough to adequately align with desired outcomes.”
  • Though policymakers should “support the development and evaluation of promising new models that use test-based incentives in more sophisticated ways,” they should not “displace investment in the development of other aspects of the education system that are important complements to the incentives themselves.”

Tags: children, school, campaign issue

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