The recent book, Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education (2011), from a committee of the prestigious National Research Council of the National Academies provides a synthesis of relevant research on the results of test-based accountability systems tied to incentives to improve student, teacher and administrator performance. This is the first time research on this topic from economics, psychology, other social sciences and education has been reviewed by a panel of leading scholars in several fields to prepare an informed statement to help guide policy makers and represents the culmination of a project originated by the National Academies Board on Testing and Assessment in 2002.
Their findings regarding the basic research on incentives found some interesting results. For instance, incentive systems may increase measured performance, but not the desired outcome. They also affect people in ways that are not predicted, created unexpected costs and have negative overall consequences. In complex organizations like schools, incentives will impact people differently depending on their position, performance and personality. Incentives can have an opposite effect, especially if receiving them is perceived as impossible, unlikely, not based on merit, not moral or not related to reality. They can also erode commitment to institutional goals and create disunity.
This is the situation we seem to find ourselves in at present and which reforms seem to be promoting and exacerbating. Teachers and schools are being rewarded to accomplish goals that are not reasonable while they are having the support and resources they need taken from them, further undermining their possibilities of success. These and other problems have been discussed in other sections, especially in high stake testing, merit pay and demoralization.
Test-based incentives have additional problems in that tests generally do not provide either a rich or reliable measure of a school’s or teacher’s mission. Not only do these tests not measure the most important things about education, they fail to fairly and fully assess the content they purport to measure in many significant and damaging ways. Those receiving the incentives will narrow their efforts to focus only on those parts of the subject or content that is covered on the tests. Therefore, we end up with the contradictory results of students’ test scores increasing while their real learning decreases.
Not only does it result in unequal treatment of the content, it can result in unequal treatment of students as well. For example, when schools or teachers are incentivized to increase the number or percentage of students who meet a performance standard such as proficient, there is a push to put most of the attention on those students near the cut score. Those students who will clearly pass or fail are not taught, as they will not affect the percentage pass rate. Only those students near the cut scores are given attention to assure that they can be added to or kept in the pass column. Also, there will be competition among the teachers for those students who will boost their pass rates.