National Research Council Gives High-Stakes Testing an F

The long experiment with incentives and test-based accountability has so far failed to boost student achievement.

That’s the conclusion of a comprehensive examination of education research by the National Research Council , an arm of the National Academies of Science.

“The available evidence does not give strong support for the use of test-based incentives to improve education,” the NRC concluded. The benefits of these incentives, the group said, have been “small or nonexistent.”

The NRC report is the latest of a long series of research summaries by eminent, mainstream test experts concluding that there is no scientific basis for the current heavy reliance on high-stakes tests for measuring student achievement, teacher quality, and school performance.

The NRC panel of scientists looked at testing imposed by the so-called “No Child Left Behind” law. The panel also examined the effects of graduation tests introduced by some states, bonuses offered by school districts for teachers whose students raise their scores, and other ways in which rewards or punishments have been used in an effort to lift scores.

None has worked.

In fact, the NRC panel said one form of test-based incentive has made things worse. The high school graduation tests that high school students must pass before they can walk across the stage and get their high school diplomas—these tests have done nothing to lift student achievement, but they have raised the drop-out rate an average of two percent.

If education planners want to keep trying to use test-based incentives, they should start with research to see whether there’s some other way to use incentives to boost achievement, some approach that hasn’t yet failed.

The NRC panel noted that they did not look at the use of test scores simply as information that may lead educators and the public to take action. Basic psychological research suggests that “purely informational uses of test results may be more effective than incentives that attach explicit consequences to those results,” the panel wrote.

The panel said attaching incentives or punishments (“high stakes”) to test scores pushes teachers to focus on the material that is tested, and leads them to leave out material or entire subjects that are not tested. “Current tests do not measure such important characteristics as creativity, curiosity, persistence, values, collaboration, and socialization,” they pointed out.

Even when test scores do go up, that doesn’t mean students are learning more of the subject that’s tested. They may just have learned the specific material or patterns of questions of the specific test. Because of this, the success or failure of high-stakes testing “must be determined by looking at other indicators of performance.”

Critics of No Child Left Behind have long pointed out that while scores on some state tests have risen, the law has had no effect on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national series of tests that measure the same subjects with different questions.

Meanwhile, the Education Writers Association, whose members include education writers who work for newspapers and other media, recently sent out guidance to its members summarizing the findings of scientific research on teacher effectiveness.

Like the NRC report, the EWA guidance said research shows that paying teachers extra for higher student test scores has not worked. EWA also said test scores are not a reliable way to find out who’s a quality teacher and who is not.