The quality of standardized tests should be improved

American students are spending growing amounts of time preparing for and taking high-stakes standardized tests.

The quality of standardized tests should be improved

But a recent study suggests that they should be used with caution and carefully evaluated.

A Standardized Test's Assessment Mission

In their efforts to improve K education, U. For example, the No Child Left Behind NCLB law, which has governed public education for more than 10 years, sanctions schools whose students do not perform well on standardized tests.

Twenty-five states target the incentives to students themselves by requiring them to pass an exit exam before receiving their diploma. All of these policies share a fundamental principle: They reward or sanction students, teachers, or schools based on how well students score on standardized tests.

Policymakers hope that by holding various players in the education system accountable for how much students learn, they will be motivated to improve student performance.

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But do test-based incentives actually drive improvements in student learning? In an effort to answer that question, a recent study by the National Research Council took a comprehensive look at the available research on how incentives affect student learning.

The study committee, composed of experts in education, economics, and psychology, examined a range of studies on the effects of many types of incentive programs.

What it found was not encouraging: The incentive systems that have been carefully studied have had only small effects, and in many cases no effect, on student learning. These limitations take on greater significance when incentives are tied to the test results.

Because there is no incentive that would motivate teachers to narrow their instruction to the materials tested on low-stakes tests, the scores on those tests, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress NAEPare less likely to be inflated and can give a more reliable picture of student learning in a subject area.

What's in a Name?

In conducting its review of the research, the committee focused mainly on studies that based their assessment on low-stakes tests. The committee also limited its evaluation to studies that allowed researchers to draw causal conclusions about the effects of test-based incentives. This means that studies had to have a comparison group of students, teachers, or schools that were not subject to incentives or rewards, and that individuals or groups could not self-select into the comparison group.

In addition, the committee looked only at studies of programs that had existed long enough to supply meaningful results, which means that some programs, particularly many involving performance pay for teachers, were too new to evaluate.

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Effects small, variable The committee examined research on 15 programs with a range of configurations to assess the effects when incentives are given to schools, teachers, and students.

Findings on some of these incentive programs are summarized below, and the effect sizes of all of them are shown in Figure 1. Many state programs, as well as NCLB, reward or sanction schools based on the improvements made by their students.

Under NCLB, for example, schools that do not show adequate yearly progress in improving student test scores face escalating consequences.

Schools must first file improvement plans, make curriculum changes, and offer students school choice or tutoring; if progress is not shown, they are required to restructure in various ways.

The quality of standardized tests should be improved

Some programs tie incentives to test score gains among students at all scoring levels, whereas others tie the incentive to the number of students who move from nonproficient to proficient levels in a subject area. To understand how these types of incentives affect student learning, the committee looked at a synthesis of 14 studies of state-level incentive programs for schools before NCLB, as well as two studies on the impact of NCLB itself.Standardized tests feature multiple-choice or open-ended questions; some tests combine both.

Because answers are scored by machine, multiple-choice tests generally have high reliability.

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Open-ended questions ask students to write a short answer or an extended response. Proponents of standardized testing say that it is the best means of comparing data from a diverse population, allowing educators to digest large amounts of information quickly.

In their efforts to improve K education, U.S. policymakers have increasingly turned to offering incentives—either to schools, to teachers, or to students themselves—to increase students’ standardized test scores. Parents who oppose standardized testing have become increasingly vocal in the past few years, especially after Common Core state .

The heaviest testing load falls on the nation’s eighth-graders, who spend an average of hours during the school year taking standardized tests, uniform exams required of all students in a.

Most standardized tests have sample exams, test blueprints, and curriculum frameworks that break down the material covered on the test. These documents can be used as a .

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