Assessment blues: Bad news on test-based incentives

The new report from the National Research Council (with its come-hither title, Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education) is sure to add fuel to the anti-accountability fires. It concludes, pretty shockingly, that all these tests haven't made kids any smarter.? Though I worry that the study will enable a system that has successfully avoided accountability for too long, those of us in the curriculum first movement should gather some welcome I told you so chits from the report, which concludes that:

Test-based incentive programs, as designed and implemented in the programs that have been carefully studied, have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries.

And:

The evidence we have reviewed suggests that high school exit exam programs, as currently implemented in the United States, decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement.

No doubt there will be much parsing and gnashing of policy teeth over the meaning of the report. Education Week's Sarah Sparks does a good job gathering some early opinions. They range from that of Jon Baron of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy -- ?It's an antidote to what has been the accepted wisdom in this country, the belief that performance-based accountability and incentive systems are the answer to improving education,? ? to a ?stunned? Eric Hanushek -- ?What we've done to date hasn't been perfect; there are lots of obvious flaws in either results or program structure to date. As we go into the future, we should learn from our results? -- to Jim Bradshaw at the Education Department, who said the report proved that ?the accountability system in No Child Left Behind is broken.?

The heart of the problem could be, as Michael Hout, a sociologist at Berkley and chair of the high-powered, blue-ribbon panel, told Sparks, that we need to understand that tests used for incentives and tests used to monitor progress are different animals. ?What we're trying to say here is that you need an independent assessment of progress.?

I have not read the report yet, but in scanning it (e.g. a search for ?curriculum?), I was impressed that it found that incentive models have different effects on different people and that some teachers react with a "greater focus on the full curriculum" and others with "extra time in test preparation.?? The report also finds "strong evidence of random year-to-year fluctuations in student performance," and speculates that it could be caused by a "test [that] happens to ask more questions that were covered in the school's curriculum or because of common environmental factors, such as whether there was an important school basketball game the night before the exam.?? That is the shocking reality of our current assessment-based system: that a basketball game has the same weight as a curriculum.

I was disappointed that the recommendations seem a bit weak.? But at least they know it: ??Our call for more research may seem like a hackneyed response, but we believe it is essential with regard to incentives.? I only hope that, in the meantime, the findings will spur more policymakers and educators to put assessments where they belong: after the curriculum. There is nothing wrong with incentives, but as the study seems to suggest, an incentive without the basic tools for achieving what the incentive is built for doesn't work.? Anyone who has coached a little league team knows that no amount of pizza and hot dog promises for ?winning? do you any good if you haven't taught the kids how to hit and catch the ball. For years we have been incentivizing (more hotdogs and pizza) without teaching the basics; it's a cruel game, making teachers and students guess what's on the test -- or matching them against teams that have been practicing for months -- without telling them what they are supposed to know.? I surely wouldn't oppose more research on incentives and assessments, but I would prefer that this new report incentivize us to finally put the curriculum horse before the assessment cart.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

More By Author

Related Articles