Saturday, May 28, 2011

National Research Council Report Casts Doubt on Incentives and Test-based Accountability Results

For years now, many of our leading educators have been touting school management by results. We use data to drive decision-making, to provide incentives and to punish. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation along with the Department of Education's Race to the Top programs are all focused on creating more elaborate schemes for using test data to drive instruction - in many cases, we hear, the same way a mule team driver uses a whip.

But what if these leaders are wrong?

The National Academies' Board on Testing and Assessment just released a report titled, Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education, which examines the effects of test-based incentive programs like No Child Left Behind, high school exit exams, teacher performance pay, and direct student rewards. In recent decades, federal and state governments have increasingly relied on these types of programs as a way to raise accountability in public education and improve achievement. And, it is fair to say that Kentucky has been at the forefront of many of these efforts. Though these programs differ from each other in many ways, they all use the same strategy of adding consequences to students’ test performance as a way of improving education.

This report looks across all the rigorous studies of these different incentive programs and concludes that they have not consistently generated positive effects on student achievement.

In recent years there have been increasing efforts to use accountability systems based on large-scale tests of students as a mechanism for improving student achievement. The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is a prominent example of such an effort, but it is only the continuation of a steady trend toward greater test-based accountability in education that has been going on for decades. Over time, such accountability systems included ever-stronger incentives to motivate school administrators, teachers, and students to perform better.

The report helps identify circumstances in which test-based incentives may have a positive or a negative impact on student learning and offers recommendations for how to improve current test-based accountability policies. The most important directions for further research are also highlighted.

For the first time, research and theory on incentives from the fields of economics, psychology, and educational measurement have all been pulled together and synthesized. Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education will inform people about the motivation of educators and students and inform policy discussions about NCLB and state accountability systems.

School-level incentives – like those of No Child Left Behind – produce some of the larger effects among the programs studied, but the gains are concentrated in elementary grade mathematics and are small in comparison with the improvements the nation hopes to achieve. Evidence also suggests that high school exit exam programs, as implemented in many states, decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing student achievement - a particularly troubling finding, as Kentucky is poised to begin a series of high school exit exams.

The report urges policymakers to support the development and evaluation of promising new models that use-test based incentives in more sophisticated ways as one aspect of a richer accountability and improvement process. However, given the modest success of incentive programs to date, it is essential that all use of test-based incentives should be carefully studied to help determine which forms of incentives are successful. In addition, continued experimentation with test-based incentives should not displace investment in the development of other aspects of the education system.

Sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Flora Hewlett Foundation, the report reviews and synthesizes relevant research from economics, psychology, education, and related fields about how incentives work in educational accountability systems. The report offers recommendations for how to improve current test-based accountability policies and highlights directions for further research.

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