NRC Study Raises Questions About Test-Based Incentives

By Erik W. Robelen — June 03, 2011 2 min read
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I’m a little behind the curve in blogging about this, but wanted to be sure readers were aware of a significant new report from the National Research Council that takes a close look at the test-based accountability practices that are now so central to education in the United States. It draws some sobering conclusions.

The core finding? The panel of prominent experts from the congressionally chartered NRC says “the research to date suggests that the benefits of test-based incentive programs over the past two decades have been quite small.” It notes that “the guidance offered by this body of evidence is not encouraging about the ability of incentive programs to reliably produce meaningful increases in student achievement.”

One exception it singled out, however, was mathematics in elementary schools, where it did see some promise. However, even in this case, the report concludes that the academic benefits “are small compared to the improvements the nation hopes to achieve.”

The report suggests that policymakers should support the development and evaluation of new models that use test-based incentives “in more sophisticated ways as one aspect of a richer accountability and improvement process.”

My colleague Sarah D. Sparks wrote about the study last week, offering a nice overview. She writes that one of the most common problems the report identifies is that most test-based accountability programs use the same test to apply sanctions and rewards as they do to evaluate whether the effort is working. As a result, staff and students facing accountability demands tend to focus on behavior that improves the test scores alone, such as teaching test-taking strategies or drilling students who are closest to meeting the proficiency cut-score, rather than improving overall learning. This, the report suggests, undercuts the validity of the tests.

At the end of Sarah’s piece, she quotes Jon Baron, the chairman of the National Board for Education Sciences and the president of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy. He praised the quality of the study’s research.

He did caution that incorporating diverse types of studies typically reduces the overall effects found, noting that in many cases the academic effects of the programs studied were minimal but a few had larger effects.

In any case, he suggested the study is indeed an important caution for policymakers.

“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,” he said. “That was basically accepted without evidence or support in [the No Child Left Behind Act] and other government and private sector efforts to increase performance.”

Of course, this blog post can only give you a hint of the study’s findings. It’s definitely worth a closer read.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.