NEW YORK -- Education policies pushing more tests haven't necessarily led to more learning, according to a new National Research Council report.
"We went ahead, implementing this incredibly expensive and elaborate strategy for changing the education system without creating enough ways to test whether what we are doing is useful or not," said Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University and member of the committee that produced the report.
Heavily testing students and relying on their scores in order to hold schools -- and in some cases teachers -- accountable has become the norm in education policy. The No Child Left Behind Act, the largest piece of education legislation on the federal level, for example, uses performance on math and reading exams to gauge whether schools are failing or succeeding -- and which schools are closed or phased out.
"Incentives are powerful, which means they don't always do what they want them to do," said Kevin Lang, a committee member who also chairs Boston University's economics department. "As applied so far, they have not registered the type of improvements that everyone has hoped for despite the fact that it's been a major thrust of education reform for the last 40 years."
The tests educators rely on are often too narrow to measure student progress, according to the study. The testing system also failed to adequately safeguard itself, the study added, providing ways for teachers and students to produce results that seemed to reflect performance without actually teaching much.
"We're relying on some primitive intuition about how to structure the education system without thinking deeply about it," Ariely said.
Increasing test scores do not always correlate to more learning or achievement, the study authors said. For example, Lang mentioned that high school exit test scores have been found to rise while high school graduation rates stagnate.
"None of the studies that we looked at found large effects on learning, anything approaching the rhetoric of being at the top of the international scale," Lang said. He added that the most successful effects the report calculated showed that NCLB programs moved student performance by eight hundredths of the standard deviation, or from the 50th to the 53rd percentile.
The report, released Thursday and sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, recommends more rigorous testing of reforms before their implementation. "Before we did welfare reform, we did a lot of experiments at the state level," Lang said.
"We tried different ways of doing it and we learned a lot, instead of deciding that on the basis of rather casual theorizing that one set of reforms was obviously the way to go," Lang added. "There has not at this point been as much experimentation at the state level in education."
The 17-member committee responsible for the study, according to Education Week, is a "veritable who's who of national experts in education law, economics and sciences." The National Academies -- a group of four institutions chartered by Congress to consult on various issues -- launched the committee in 2002, and since then, it has tracked the effects of 15 programs that use tests as teaching incentives.
The report comes as congress works to reauthorize and overhaul No Child Left Behind, and as states countrywide pass laws that link the hiring and firing of teachers to their students' performance on standardized tests.
"It raises a red flag for education," Ariely said. "These policies are treating humans like rats in a maze. We keep thinking about how to reorganize the cheese to get the rats to do what we want. People do so much more than that."
This reductive thinking, Ariely said, is also responsible for spreading the notion that teachers are in the profession for the money. "That's one of the worst ideas out there," he said. "In the process of creating No Child Left Behind, as people thought about these strategies and rewards, they actually undermined teachers' motivations. They got teachers to care less, rather than more," he added, because "they took away a sense of personal achievement and autonomy."
The report's findings have implications for developing teacher evaluations, said Henry Braun, a committee member who teaches education and public policy at Boston College. When "we're thinking about using test-based accountability for teachers, the particular tests we're using are important," he said. "But just as important is the way it's embedded into the broader framework. The system as a whole, as it plays out, determines whether we end up with better teachers."
WATCH: Daniel Koretz, a professor at Harvard's school of education who sat on the committee that produced the report, discusses skills needed in the 21st century.
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