Testing, incentives, and low-achieving students, redux

Last week, a few kind words from a friend turned into an extended conversation about testing structures and incentives for teachers to help low-achieving students. Mark’s organization is unique and very cool because it targets the lowest achievers, students Mark posited are the least likely to benefit from the incentives provided by standardized testing to maximize the pass rate. Brett Keller responded with a link to a discussion of an article from the Review of Economics and Statistics that basically confirmed Mark’s thinking.

Below is a quick summary of a long, dense paper and lessons learned. In short, Mark, yes, research backs up your intuition. From “Left Behind by Design: Proficiency Counts and Test-based Accountability” by Derek Neal and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach:

The use of proficiency counts as performance measures provides strong incentives for schools to focus on students who are near the proficiency standard but weak incentives to devote extra attention to students who are already proficient or have little chance of becoming proficient in the near term.

Students who might just need a little extra push to get to the passing mark are going to get any extra teaching effort that is encouraged by the testing system itself, and even may draw effort that might have gone to students at the ends of the distribution. It seems that this problem at least would unite parents of the highest and lowest achievers in protest. Low achieving students are left behind and high-ability students make no gains either. This system is clearly not beneficial to anyone except the marginal passers and ensures that low-achieving students never have an opportunity to catch up.

The continual process of raising the standards only makes worse the distribution problem. In their model, an increase in the proficiency standard necessarily increases the number of high-ability students receiving extra attention, thus decreasing the number of low-achieving students receiving extra attention.

The study was also repeated with low-stakes testing, where the individual student may have had something to gain by passing (not going to summer school), but the school had little to gain. The lopsided distribution of effort didn’t appear in these cases.

Derek Neal and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach. 2010 “Left Behind by Design: Proficiency Counts and Test-based Accountability.” Review of Economics and Statistics 92(2); 263-283.