Education Opinion

By All Measures: ‘Standards, Assessments, and Incentives’

By Robert D. Kennedy — June 17, 1992 2 min read

A national system of education standards and assessments will accelerate the pace of educational improvement nationwide. Standards and assessments are powerful tools for compelling change. Standards define success; assessments measure progress. Together, they enable us to reward performance that moves the system in the desired direction. A national system of standards and assessments--reinforced with sound incentives--is the prerequisite for making change happen and for meeting our national education goals.

In business, “quality management’’ teaches that:

  • You cannot improve what you cannot manage.
  • You cannot manage what you cannot measure.
  • You cannot measure what you cannot define.

When it comes to improving the education system--or a system of any kind--there are definite things to do and a logical sequence in which to do them. It’s hard to talk about “progress’’ until the goal has been identified. It’s difficult to manage a solution to a problem until it’s clear which practices work and which don’t.

A system of standards and assessments is the starting point for improving education. Standards would define what we as a nation are trying to achieve, and enable us to determine the gap between where we are today and where we want to be. With the size of the job clear, it would be easier to evaluate the means of achieving our education goals.

A national system of assessments would enable us to monitor the pace of progress for students from Portland, Me., to Portland, Ore. A good assessment system yields information about which policies and practices are moving student achievement in the direction of the standards and which are not.

With standards and assessments in place, a third component should be introduced. This is a system of incentives that reward successful education practices. Incentives deliver the impetus to overcome resistance to change and to propel the system forward.

Incentives could take a number of different forms and vary from place to place. The concept of “choice’’ is one alternative. When families vote with their feet, there are natural consequences for schools that measure up and for those that don’t. Another example is to reward educators with cash bonuses in schools that succeed and to intervene when schools are failing. Whatever form incentives take, the common denominator is that they must provide consequences based on a school’s ability to increase student achievement.

Most of society’s institutions have built-in mechanisms that drive change. Companies that don’t meet their customers’ needs go out of business. Politicians who don’t serve their constituencies are in danger of not being elected. Currently, there is no “self-correcting’’ mechanism to drive change in the public-school system. Perhaps this partially explains why we deliver education today in about the same way as we did 100 years ago.

There is surprising agreement about what needs to be done to improve education and that it is a national issue. The dominant question today is not “what do we need to do to improve education,’' but “how do we make the change happen.’' We can begin to answer that question by understanding the linkage between standards, assessments, and incentives.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as By All Measures: ‘Standards, Assessments, and Incentives’