Federal

Panel Finds Few Learning Gains From Testing Movement

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 26, 2011 6 min read

Includes updates and/or revisions.

Nearly a decade of America’s test-based accountability systems, from “adequate yearly progress” to high school exit exams, has shown little to no positive effect overall on learning and insufficient safeguards against gaming the system, a blue-ribbon committee of the National Academies of Science concludes in a new report.

“Too often it’s taken for granted that the test being used for the incentive is itself the marker of progress, and what we’re trying to say here is you need an independent assessment of progress,” said Michael Hout, the sociology chair at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the chairman of the 17-member committee, a veritable who’s who of national experts in education law, economics and social sciences that was launched in 2002 by the National Academies, a private, nonprofit quartet of institutions chartered by Congress to provide science, technology and health-policy advice. During the last 10 years, the committee has been tracking the implementation and effectiveness of 15 test-based incentive programs, including:

• National school improvement programs under the No Child Left Behind Act and prior iterations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act;

• Test-based teacher incentive-pay systems in Texas, Chicago, Nashville, Tenn., and elsewhere;

• High school exit exams adopted by about half of states;

• Pay-for-scores programs for students in New York City and Coshocton, Ohio and;

• Experiments in teacher incentive-pay in India and student and teacher test incentives in Israel and Kenya.

On the whole, the panel found the accountability programs often used assessments too narrow to accurately measure progress on program goals and used rewards or sanctions not directly tied to the people whose behavior the programs wanted to change. Moreover, the programs often had insufficient safeguards and monitoring to prevent students or staff from simply gaming the system to produce high test scores disconnected from the learning the tests were meant to inspire.

“I think there are some real messages for school districts on accountability systems” in the report, said Kevin Lang, an economics professor at Boston University who, during his time on the committee, also served as a district school board member in Brookline, Mass.

“School boards need to have a means for monitoring the progress of their school systems, and they tend to do it by looking at test scores,” he said. “It’s not that there’s no information in the objective performance measures, but they are imperfect, and including the subjective performance measures is also very important. Incentives can be powerful, but not necessarily in the way you would like them to be powerful.”

Gaming the System

Among the most common problems the report identifies is that most test-based accountability programs use the same test to apply sanctions and rewards as to evaluate objectively whether the system works. As a result, staff and students facing accountability sanctions tend to focus on behavior that improves the test score alone, such as teaching test-taking strategies or drilling students who are closest to meeting the proficiency cut-score, rather than improving the overall learning that the test score is expected to measure. This undercuts the validity of the test itself.

Committee on Incentives and Test-Based Accountability

Michael Hout (Chair)*
Sociology Chairman
University of California; Berkley

Dan Ariely
Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics
Duke University; Durham, N.C.

George P. Baker III
Professor of Business Administration
Harvard Business School; Boston

Henry Braun
Professor of Education and Public Policy; Director of the Center for the Student of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy
Boston College; Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Anthony S. Bryk (until 2008)
President
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Stanford, Calif.

Edward L. Deci
Professor of Psychology and Social Sciences; Director of the Human Motivation Program
University of Rochester; Rochester, N.Y.

Christopher Edley Jr.
Professor and Dean of Law
University of California; Berkeley

Geno J. Flores
Former Chief Deputy, Superintendent of Public Instruction
California Department of Education

Carolyn J. Heinrich
Professor and Director of Public Affairs; Affiliated Professor of Economics
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Paul T. Hill
Research Professor; Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education
University of Washington Bothell

Thomas J. Kane**
Professor of Education and Economics; Director of the Center for Education Policy Research
Harvard University; Cambridge, Mass.

Daniel M. Koretz
Professor of Education
Harvard University; Cambridge, Mass.

Kevin Lang
Professor of Economics
Boston University; Boston

Susanna Loeb
Professor of Education
Stanford University; Stanford, Calif.

Michael Lovaglia
Professor of Sociology; Director of the Center for the Study of Group Processes
University of Iowa; Iowa City

Lorrie A. Shepard
Dean and Professor of Education
University of Colorado at Boulder

Brian M. Stecher
Associate Director for Education
Rand Corp.; Santa Monica, Calif.

* Member, National Academy of Sciences
** Was not able to participate in the final committee deliberations due to scheduling conflict.

SOURCE: National Academies

For example, New York’s requirement that all high school seniors pass the Regents exam before graduating high school led to more students passing the Regents tests, but scores on the lower-stakes National Assessment of Educational Progress, which was testing the same subjects, didn’t budge during the same time period, the report found.

“It’s human nature: Give me a number, I’ll hit it,” Mr. Hout said. “Consequently, something that was a really good indicator before there were incentives on it, be it test scores or the stock price, becomes useless because people are messing with it.”

In fact, the report found that, rather than leading to higher academic achievement, high school exit exams so far have decreased high school graduation rates nationwide by an average of about 2 percentage points.

The study found a growing body of evidence of schools and districts tinkering with how and when students took the test to boost scores on paper for students who did not know the material—or to prevent those students from taking the test at all.

Recent changes to federal requirements for reporting graduation rates, which require that schools count as dropouts students who “transfer” to a school that does not award diplomas, may help safeguard against schools pushing out students to improve test scores or graduation rates. Still, the National Academies researchers warned that state and federal officials do not provide enough outside monitoring and evaluations to ensure the programs work as intended.

AYP and Academics

For similar reasons, school-based accountability mechanisms under NCLB have generated minimal improvement in academic learning, the study found. When the systems are evaluated—not using the high-stakes tests subject to inflation, but using instead outside comparison tests, such as the NAEP—student achievement gains dwindle to about .08 of a standard deviation on average, mostly clustered in elementary-grade mathematics.

To give some perspective, an intervention considered to have a small effect size is usually about .1 standard deviations; a 2010 federal study of reading-comprehension programs found a moderately successful program had an effect size of .22 standard deviations.

Moreover, “as disappointing as a .08 standard deviation might be, that’s bigger than any effect we saw for incentives on individual students,” Mr. Hout said, noting that NCLB accountability measures school performance, not that of individual students

Committee members see some hopeful signs in the 2008 federal requirement that NAEP scores be used as an outside check on achievement results reported by districts and states, as well as the broader political push to incorporate more diverse measures of student achievement in the next iteration of ESEA.

“We need to look seriously at the costs and benefits of these programs,” said Daniel M. Koretz, a committee member and an education professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. “We have put a lot into these programs over a period of many years, and the positive effects when we can find them have been pretty disappointing.”

Jon Baron, the president of the Washington-based Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy and the chairman of the National Board for Education Sciences, which advises the Education Department’s research arm, said he was impressed by the quality of the committee’s research review but unsurprised at minimal results for the various incentive programs.

Incorporating diverse types of studies typically reduces the overall effects found for them, he noted, adding that the study also addresses a broader issue. “One of the contributions that this makes is that it shows that looking across all these different studies with different methodologies and populations, some in different countries, there are very minimal effects in many cases and in a few cases larger effects. It makes the argument that details matter,” Mr. Baron said.

“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,” Mr. Baron said. “That was basically accepted without evidence or support in NCLB and other government and private sector efforts to increase performance.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2011 edition of Education Week

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal How Political Backlash to Critical Race Theory Reached School Reopening Guidance
A lawmaker wants Miguel Cardona to repudiate the Abolitionist Teaching Network after federal COVID-19 documents referenced the group's work.
6 min read
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., is seen at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 9, 2021 in Washington.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., is seen at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 9, 2021 in Washington.<br/>
Graeme Sloan/SIPA USA via AP
Federal Biden Team: Schools Can Go Beyond Trump Rules in Response to Alleged Sexual Misconduct
The Education Department's guidance, released July 20, states that Title IX rules from 2020 lay out "minimum steps" for educators.
3 min read
Symbols of gender.
iStock/Getty
Federal Fact Check: After Furor Over 1619 Project, Feds Adjust History and Civics Grant Plans
A previously obscure history and civics program has weathered a political storm, but what exactly has changed?
4 min read
Education secretary nominee Miguel Cardona speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on his nomination on Feb. 3, 2021, in Washington.
Education secretary nominee Miguel Cardona speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on his nomination on Feb. 3, 2021, in Washington.
Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times via AP
Federal 'Stop CRT' Bill, Votes in Congress Add to Political Drama Over Critical Race Theory
Sen. Tom Cotton's legislation and votes about critical race theory in the House underscore the issue's potency in Washington.
5 min read
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks during a hearing to examine United States Special Operations Command and United States Cyber Command in review of the Defense Authorization Request for fiscal year 2022 and the Future Years Defense Program, on Capitol Hill, Thursday, March 25, 2021, in Washington.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill March 25 in Washington.
Andrew Harnik/AP