Significant--Yet Invisible--Report Flunks High-Stakes Testing

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, September 2011

Given decades of investment in high-stakes testing, wouldn’t it be valuable if a respected, independent panel of scientists looked at the evidence to determine if such policies have helped make schools better? Actually, that’s already been done -- but the resulting report, Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education, received so little attention that few people know it exists or what it concluded.

The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the accumulated evidence on test-based policies, including the federal No Child Left Behind law, state graduation tests, and policies that give teachers bonuses if their students’ scores go up, as well as other test-based rewards and punishments. Are they worth the investment? In a word, no.

“The available evidence does not give strong support for the use of test-based incentives to improve education,” their report, issued just before the Memorial Day weekend, concludes. Thus, the NRC report largely supports FairTest’s positions on high-stakes testing.

Not only have test-based incentives failed to improve education, the report documents that they have caused demonstrable harm. For example, graduation tests have increased dropout rates by 2 percent, on average, without increasing achievement. (For more on this, see FairTest fact sheet, Why Graduation Tests/Exit Exams Fail to Add Value to High School Diplomas.)

Teachers and researchers have long reported that high-stakes testing creates pressure to “teach to the test,” which can inflate and distort results without actually deepening and broadening students’ knowledge. The study supports these claims, finding that test-based incentives increase teaching to the test and give an inflated and inaccurate picture of what students actually know.

One member of the NRC panel expressed dismay at the reductive thinking that has gone into the perpetuation of these policies. "It raises a red flag for education," said Dan Ariely,  Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. "These policies are treating humans like rats in a maze. We keep thinking about how to reorganize the cheese to get the rats to do what we want. People do so much more than that."

This thinking, Ariely said, is also responsible for spreading the notion that teachers are in the profession for the money. "That's one of the worst ideas out there," he said. "In the process of creating No Child Left Behind, as people thought about these strategies and rewards, they actually undermined teachers' motivations. They got teachers to care less, rather than more," he added, because "they took away a sense of personal achievement and autonomy."

The panel concluded that despite decades of experience, policymakers do not know how to use test-based incentives to improve outcomes. Therefore, they should proceed with caution, careful documentation and research. Given the evidence, investment in these policies should not displace investments in other critical aspects of education. But recent policies like the Administration’s waiver plan (see story, this issue) as well as Race to the Top have only increased stakes by linking teacher evaluations to student test scores. There is little sign that policymakers are heeding the report’s advice. For that to happen, there needs to be more exposure and public pressure on policymakers, particularly Congress.