‘High-Stakes’ Testing and What Education ‘Reformers’ Need to Learn

Yesterday, I described how education reform, which implies (or overtly states) that teachers need better incentives to improve outcomes, makes no sense when Massachusetts is considered. Yves Smith, in a post about the widespread failure of performance pay incentives, makes a very relevant observation to education reform efforts:

Other factors can thwart an organization’s meritocratic efforts (many of these observations derive from a 1992 paper by Patrick D. Larkey and Jonathan P. Caulkin, “All Above Average and Other Unintended Consequences of Performance Appraisal Systems”). Many people, for instance, run up against conflicts between individual and organizational interests. Implicitly, any employee’s job is to serve his boss, when his check is actually being cut by the company. If the employee views his role as being different than his boss sees it, the boss’s view prevails, whether or not it is correct. In an extreme case, if the boss wants the employee to run personal errands, and the employee refuses, he runs the risk of getting a negative review….

The education reform movement needs to understand this.


While teachers are supposed to serve the students (and their parents), an incentive structure based on testing replaces the students’ needs with the demands of meeting the test. Not only will this lead to outright fraud (as has been repeatedly observed), but it warps the purpose of education. Teachers become less concerned with educating students and more concerned with having them pass annual tests–something our Education Reformer in Chief has publicly stated he wouldn’t want his own daughters to experience.
Teachers will adapt and meet these standards. They will want to keep their jobs. But will it serve most students well? Especially when we consider that most U.S. schools, other than those with high levels of poverty, do exceptionally well when compared to other countries. It seems, in many schools, the incentives are already adequately aligned.

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1 Response to ‘High-Stakes’ Testing and What Education ‘Reformers’ Need to Learn

  1. CC says:

    Thank you.
    Now if only anyone that writes policy would take note.

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