Incentives and Test-based Accountability in Education?

Below are conclusions of an influential panel charged with studying the effects of incentives and test-based accountability in Education. A must read, especially for those who carry a strong stance in favour of test-based accountability as an important kernel of education reforms in Pakistan. Read the conclusions/recommendations:


Conclusion 1: Test-based incentive programs, as designed and implemented in the programs that have been carefully studied, have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries. When evaluated using relevant low-stakes tests, which are less likely to be inflated by the incentives themselves, the overall effects on achievement tend to be small and are effectively zero for a number of programs. Even when evaluated using the tests attached to the incentives, a number of programs show only small effects. Programs in foreign countries that show larger effects are not clearly applicable in the U.S. context. School- level incentives like those of NCLB produce some of the larger estimates of achievement effects, with effect sizes around 0.08 standard deviations, but the measured effects to date tend to be concentrated in elementary grade mathematics and the effects are small compared to the improvements the nation hopes to achieve.

Conclusion 2: The evidence we have reviewed suggests that high school exit exam programs, as currently implemented in the United States, decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement. The best available estimate suggests a decrease of 2 percentage points when averaged over the population. In contrast, several experiments with providing incentives for graduation in the form of rewards, while keeping graduation standards constant, suggest that such incentives might be used to increase high school completion.


The modest and variable benefits shown by test-based incentive programs to date suggest that such programs should be used with caution and that substantial further research is required to understand how they can be used successfully.

Recommendation 1: Despite using them for several decades, policymakers and educators do not yet know how to use test-based incentives to consistently generate positive effects on achievement and to improve education. Policymakers should support the development and evaluation of promising new models that use test-based incentives in more sophisticated ways as one aspect of a richer accountability and improvement process. However, the modest success of incentive programs to date means that all use of test-based incentives should be carefully studied to help determine which forms of incentives are successful in education and which are not. Continued experimentation with test-based incentives should not displace investment in the development of other aspects of the education system that are important complements to the incentives themselves and likely to be necessary for incentives to be effective in improving education.

Recommendation 2: Policymakers and researchers should design and evaluate new test-based incentive programs in ways that provide information about alternative approaches to incentives and accountability. This should include exploration of the effects of key features suggested by basic research, such as who is targeted for incentives; what performance measures are used; what consequences are attached to the performance measures and how frequently they are used; what additional support and options are provided to schools, teachers, and students in their efforts to improve; and how incentives are framed and communicated. Choices among the options for some or all of these features are likely to be critical in determining which—if any—incentive programs are successful.

Recommendation 3: Research about the effects of incentive programs should fully document the structure of each program and should evaluate a broad range of outcomes. To avoid having their results determined by the score inflation that occurs in the high-stakes tests attached to the incentives, researchers should use low-stakes tests that do not mimic the high-stakes tests to evaluate how test-based incentives affect achievement. Other outcomes, such as later performance in education or work and dispositions related to education, are also important to study. To help explain why test- based incentives sometimes produce negative effects on achievement, researchers should collect data on changes in educational practice by the people who are affected by the incentives.

Read the full report: Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education-2

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

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