Test-Based Incentive Programs Have Not Consistently Raised Student Achievement in U.S.

ScienceDaily — Despite being used for several decades, test-based incentives have not consistently generated positive effects on student achievement, says a new report from the National Research Council. The report examines evidence on incentive programs, which impose sanctions or offer rewards for students, teachers, or schools on the basis of students’ test performance. Federal and state governments have increasingly relied on incentives in recent decades as a way to raise accountability in public education and in the hope of driving improvements in achievement.

Enough said.  The latest flavor of the day is tying teacher evaluations to student performance on high stakes annual standardized exit exams which don’t work.  What do you think will be the next flavor of the day?

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, the report says. Evidence also suggests that high school exit exam programs, as currently implemented in many states, decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing student achievement.

Incentives’ Effects on Student Achievement

Attaching incentives to test scores can encourage teachers to focus narrowly on the material tested — in other words, to “teach to the test” — the report says. As a result, students’ knowledge of the part of the subject matter that appears on the test may increase while their understanding of the untested portion may stay the same or even decrease, and the test scores may give an inflated picture of what students actually know with respect to the full range of content standards.

To control for any score inflation caused by teaching to the test, it is important to evaluate the effects of incentive programs not by looking at changes in the test scores tied to the incentives, but by looking at students’ scores on “low stakes” tests — such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress — that are not linked to incentives and are therefore less likely to be inflated, the report says.

The study also examined evidence on the effects of high school exit exams, which are currently used by 25 states and typically involve tests in multiple subjects, all of which students must pass in order to graduate. This research suggests that such exams decrease the rate of high school graduation without improvements in student achievement as measured by low-stakes tests.

The study was sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.