It is important to note two aspects of the context for our work, although they may seem obvious. First, throughout the report, we focus on one part—the incentives—of a test-based accountability system, which is itself only one part of the larger education system. Our focus was driven by our charge, not because incentives are the only important part of a test-based accountability system or the only important part of the education system. Researchers have proposed a number of elements that are likely to be needed for a test-based accountability system to work effectively in the overall education system (see, e.g., Baker and Linn, 2003; Feuer, 2008; Fuhrman, 2004; Haertel and Herman, 2005; O’Day, 2004). In addition to the role played by incentives themselves, researchers have noted the importance of clear goals, appropriate educational standards, tests aligned to the standards and suitable for accountability purposes, helpful test reporting, available alternative actions and teaching methods to improve student learning, and the capacity of educators to apply those alternative actions and teaching methods. Although we note at some points the importance of these elements in allowing test-based incentives to change behavior in ways that will improve student learning, at many points in the report the importance of these other elements is left unstated and should be inferred by the reader.
Second, this study was conducted at a time of widespread interest in NCLB, which is currently the most visible education accountability system in the United States. As a result, NCLB forms a backdrop for much of the policy interest in the effects of incentives, and readers may at some point view this report as a critique of that law. However, the study was not intended or conducted as a critique or evaluation of NCLB. As noted above, NCLB is a continuation of a broader trend toward the use of stronger test-based incentives that has been going on for decades. This study is focused on evidence related to that broader trend, not on particular aspects of a specific law. In particular, we view our report as a resource for policy makers looking to the future of accountability, not as an evaluation of any particular past practice or program.