Early in the life of No Child Left Behind, one amateur but insightful futurist on the Shanker Institute Board remarked to me: "Well, if you tie teacher pay, labeling failing schools, and evaluations of teachers and principals all to student test results—guess what?—you’ll get student test results. But some 20, years down the road when these kids get out of high school, we may discover they don’t know anything."
The quip did not necessarily suggest that we were headed for massive cheating scandals. Nor did it mean that students should never be assessed to find out how well they were learning what had been taught. It was just a warning that the incentives to produce score results would produce them —one way or another—and whether or not they stood for any true reflection on learning. Meaning, in this case, that a system that defines success narrowly in terms of test score gains will, at minimum, invite exaggerated claims and, at worst, encourage corruption.
An important report was released this spring that should bring some U. S. education "reformers" up short as they pursue policies based on test-based incentives. Instead, Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education, by the National Research Council (NRC), was received as a blip on their screens. A serious research review, the report looked at "15 test-based incentive programs, including large scale policies of NCLB, its predecessors, and state high school exit exams as well as a number of experiments and programs carried out in the United States and other countries." Its conclusion: "Despite using them [test-based incentives] for several decades, policymakers and educators do not yet know how to consistently generate positive effects on achievement and to improve education."
In other words, given the methods we are now using to grant performance pay, design evaluation plans, or fix low performing schools, these incentives don’t work. Moreover, looking at recent education history, they haven’t worked for quite a long time.