The charge to the committee pointed out the contradiction between many economists’ optimism and most psychologists’ pessimism about the potential for test-based incentives to alter academic performance. Our review of the literature and our deliberations did not resolve the contradiction. Our review of the evidence uncovered reasons to expect positive results from incentive programs and reasons to be skeptical of apparent gains. Our recommendations, accordingly, call for policy makers to support experimentation with rigorous evaluation and to allow midcourse correction of policies when evaluation suggests such correction is needed.
Our call for more research may seem like a hackneyed response, but we believe it is essential with regard to incentives. In calling for more evaluation, we draw attention to the fact that the frequent question, “Do incentives work?” is too broad and vague to be answerable. Most reforms using test-based incentives attempt to change student performance in many grades and many subjects. When ambitions are so broad, it is not surprising that the results are varied and unclear. Broad and major reforms do not succeed or fail all at once and altogether. Outcomes usually mix small successes and failures that add up to either modest improvements or disappointments. Our call for more focused evaluations is a call to examine the expected successes and failures. We call on researchers, policy makers, and educators to examine the evidence in detail and not to reduce it to a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict. The school reform effort will move forward to the extent that everyone, from policy makers to parents, learns from a thorough and balanced analysis of each success and each failure.