Motivation and Standardized Tests


Because it’s challenged from time to time, I’ll restate my position on using standardized tests as a significant tool within the public school system:  Government schools are not doing well, and part of the reason is that the lack of accountability removes incentive (i.e., pressure) for innovation and exertion on the part of everybody involved.  Ideally, market forces would be brought to bear through school choice in order to put teachers and administrators on notice that their students could leave, to give real consequence to students’ performance in the near term, and to create a culture of engagement among parents.  If we are blocked from modifying our education system in this way, then families and taxpayers need some form of measurement and accountability, and that means standardized tests that can’t be gamed in the way grades and school-based projects can.

However, because standardized tests can make the system look bad, the people whose comfy livings depend on people’s not understanding just how bad things have gotten strive to minimize their effect.  In Rhode Island, teachers’ unions drove the last education commissioner, Deborah Gist, out of the state, largely because she saw a need for accountability and wanted tests to count toward graduation.

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On National Review Online, Robert Verbruggen highlights some research suggesting that taking weight off the tests may have the effect of making schools’ performance seem even worse.  Unsurprisingly, it appears that when American students have some reason to take a test seriously, they do better on it:

In the U.S., the incentives boosted scores across the spectrum — the high scores were higher and the low scores weren’t so low. Kids answered more questions and got more questions right. But in Shanghai, which dominates on international tests, the money made no measurable difference. The authors “estimate that increasing student effort on the test itself would improve U.S. mathematics performance by 22–24 points, equivalent to moving the U.S. from 36th to 19th in the 2012 international mathematics rankings.” (Though it’s possible that kids in some other countries would respond to incentives too, even if kids in Shanghai didn’t, which throws off this comparison a little.)

Anybody who would respond to these findings by speculating that it proves American schools aren’t doing as badly as we might currently think should ask: What else are these students taught not to take seriously?  After all, there’s a reason the kids in Shanghai are self-motivated even when the rewards of performance aren’t so immediate and obvious.

Throughout, our education system is much more focused on affirmation than accountability.  We present graduation more as a right than an achievement.  College admission is pretty much universal, and easy loans make it seem so affordable that trade-offs needn’t be considered.  In the adult world, we increasingly present a job with a “living wage” as an entitlement that somebody else is supposed to provide for us regardless of merit or effort.

One needn’t be an irredeemable cynic to think this cancerous attitude has the potential to drag the United States — the greatest civilization in the history of the planet — to the ground, and sooner than might seem possible.