Accountability: How and Why a Boring Report Made Me Weep

The National Research Council, a part of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, has just put out its report on "Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education". It is hard to believe that such a boring sounding report could be of the "read it and weep" sort. But for anyone who cares about children, teachers, schools, and our country, it is an emotional read.

We all know that the federal government and the states have, for years now, used large-scale tests to hold teachers, principals, and schools accountable for how much students learn. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) and high school exit exams are two examples with which the report deals. The National Research Council established a Committee on Incentives and Test-based Accountability "to review and synthesize research about how incentives affect behavior and to consider the implications of that research for educational accountability systems that attach incentives to test results" (Summary, p. S1).

The report makes many disturbing points; here is but one of them from a summary of the report that anyone can downloaded free:

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 (Summary, p. S3).

When one looks at progress on tests that are "low stakes," in the sense that teachers will not be punished based on the test scores and, thus, have no incentive to inflate those scores, the accountably regime is a failure. It is failure for obvious commonsense reasons: on any high stakes test given to every student, many teachers will teach to the test, attempt to cheat or "game" the test, ignore subjects (like civics) and dispositions (like creativity) that are not tested, and leave the profession in disgust. A teacher's goal in Monday morning's math class is not to make Susie just better at math for some "drop out of the sky" test, but to make her a better life-long learner of math, prepared for future learning in math and related subjects, and, at the same time, an emotionally healthy, ethical, collaborative, and savvy citizen and member of society.

But here is why I weep. There is nothing in the report we did not already know. Furthermore, next to no one will pay much attention to it. NCLB was one of the few things Republicans and Democrats agreed on, though it is, at best, a well-intentioned boondoggle. Good parents, good teachers, and the good nuns that taught me decades ago could have told us such an incentive structure would not work. They could have thought of better ones, and do every day. Why do we, in education, at a policy level, so often do what even commonsense tells us is wrong? Why will we ignore a prestigious national panel when they reiterate and demonstrate this commonsense in scientific terms? Perhaps, politically, we are not really interested in learning, at least in any deep sense. What then are we really interested in?