October 2002 | Number 31
High-Stakes Accountability Strategies
What Do We Know About Sanctions and Rewards?
The belief that U.S. students have not kept pace academically with their peers in other countries and concern about the continued
existence of an achievement gap between different groups of students in the U.S. have led education policymakers to adopt a variety of
strategies to boost student achievement. One strategy, high-stakes accountability, has come to dominate the educational landscape.
This approach involves rewarding or sanctioning students, teachers, and schools on the basis of changes in student test scores.
Arguing that this dramatic approach is necessary to bring about long-overdue improvements in teaching and learning, advocates point
to data showing that high-stakes strategies are effective in producing changes. However, some researchers, teachers, parents, and
students argue that high-stakes strategies are detrimental to the educational process and exacerbate educational inequalities.
Twenty-seven states now rate schools primarily or solely on the basis of student test scores. Almost half of the states use test scores to
determine whether students will be promoted to the next grade level or receive a high school diploma. Twenty states reward schools
with money for high or improved test scores; in 15 states, the state has the authority to replace individual teachers or administrators, or
to close, reconstitute, or take over schools deemed failing on the basis of test scores. Recent federal policy extends the use of the high-
stakes accountability strategy to all states. No Child Left Behind, the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary
Education Act (ESEA), requires that, beginning with the 2005–06 school year, all states administer annual tests in math and reading to
all students in grades 3–8. Schools that fail to show sufficient improvement in student test scores will be subject to serious sanctions
(see box on p. 3 for more details).
Given the widespread endorsement of high-stakes accountability, it is essential that educators, the public, and policymakers critically
examine its underlying assumptions and arguments as well as the data on the effects that high-stakes accountability policies have on
teaching and learning.
The Arguments and the Evidence
To support their position that a high-stakes strategy can be very effective in boosting student achievement and narrowing the
achievement gap, advocates point to states that have adopted high-stakes strategies. Texas is one such state. There, increases in
student test scores for both majority and minority students have been so dramatic that the phenomenon has been dubbed the Texas
miracle. Lauded as an example of what is possible with high-stakes accountability, the Texas experience is cited as justification for
extending this strategy from state to federal policy (Klein, Hamilton, McCaffrey, & Stecher, 2000).
On the other hand, critics argue that increases in test scores in states like Texas are not sufficient reason to justify adoption of high-
stakes policies. They assert that increases in test scores do not necessarily indicate improvement in educational practice, pointing out
that behind these scores lies a complex story. They also assert that many of the assumptions made by high-stakes advocates are
erroneous and that some data suggest that high-stakes policies actually hurt those they are most meant to help.
High-stakes accountability policies are only one element of a larger standards-based strategy to improve student achievement. This
strategy involves clearly identifying the specific subject knowledge and skills that all students should be expected to learn at each grade
level, specifying the level of performance students are expected to demonstrate, administering assessments aligned with the content
standards, publicly reporting student and school performance, and targeting interventions to improve student and school performance
(Elmore & Rothman, 1999). Advocates argue that this systemic alignment of all elements of the educational process provides the
coherence and direction necessary to produce broad and sustained improvements in educational practice (O'Day & Smith, 1993).
Advocates of high-stakes policies argue further that some kind of lever is necessary to compel educators, administrators, and students
to focus their efforts on achieving high standards; they contend that improvement will take place and that students and teachers will be
motivated to achieve demanding standards only by the threat of punishment or promise of reward (Gandal, Rothman, Vranek, &
Weedon, 2001). For example, Achieve, a national association of political and business leaders, asserts that “without consequences tied
to test results, there would be little incentive for schools to deal with the current gaps in achievement” (Gandal et al., 2001, p. 5).
Chronically low-performing schools, particularly those serving children of color and children from low-income families, receive particular
attention from high-stakes advocates. They argue that continuing to pour money into these school—when years of efforts to improve
them have been fruitless—is ineffective because “the real problem in American education is the fact that too many students suffer from
low expectations” (Gandal et al., 2001). Scheurich, Skrla, and Johnson (2000), commenting on the persistent achievement gap, reach a
similar conclusion: “Many educators, not wanting to conclude that it is we who may have failed, have simply settled for not being
successful with low-income children and children of color” (p. 294). Rewarding or sanctioning educators and schools based on student
performance, high-stakes advocates believe, will force educators to raise their expectations for these children, and consequently
narrow the achievement gap (Paige, 2001).
There is some evidence to support this claim. According to research by the Center for Policy Research in Education, “consequences
help motivate [teachers] to work in more focused ways to produce improved student achievement” (Fuhrman, 1999, p. 6). The research
of David, Humphrey, and Young (2001) produced the same conclusion: “High-stakes accountability does motivate educators to avoid
sanctions” (p. 2). As Furhman (1999) explains, monetary rewards “are valued by teachers and can be motivating, and sanctions such
as school reconstitution or identification as a school in decline are also valued (though negatively) and can function to motivate. Both
get teachers' attention” (p. 7).
At the same time, researchers qualify these findings: Not all teachers are equally motivated by high stakes, and the way that teachers
respond to high-stakes systems varies greatly depending on factors such as the nature of the stakes, the capacity of a particular school
to change, and, most importantly, teachers' perceptions about the possibility of change.
Moreover, some researchers have found that while high-stakes policies may motivate some teachers to make changes in their practice,
the types of changes that they make are not those intended by policymakers. Faced with the threat of sanctions and pressure from
district and school administrators and the public, the immediate goal for some teachers becomes one of raising test scores. There is an
understandable temptation to teach to the test. One recent poll of teachers found that 66 percent now concentrate on tested information
at the expense of other important areas of learning, and 79 percent say that they have spent instructional time teaching test-taking skills
such as pacing and filling in bubbles on multiple-choice questions (Doherty, 2001). David, Humphrey, and Young (2001) found that,
given the pressure to teach to the test within high-stakes environments, it is only when the assessments themselves “encourage more
ambitious teaching—for example, by asking for written arguments or applications of knowledge”—that teachers “attempt changes
beyond practicing test-like multiple-choice items” (p. 2). Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of the tests used by states in their
high-stakes accountability systems still “consist of multiple-choice items only or multiple-choice items supplemented with a few open-
response items (e.g., essays). It is difficult for large-scale, multiple-choice tests to address important curriculum goals that require
generative thinking, sustained effort over time, and effective collaboration” (WestEd, 2000, pp. 2–3). Skills such as critical thinking,
problem solving, and working with others are better assessed by performance-based assessments.
Other researchers rebut the argument made by some high-stakes accountability advocates that improving student achievement is
primarily a matter of forcing teachers to increase their expectations, not providing additional money or more equitable access to
resources. After reviewing the research on the effect of school funding on education outcomes, Biddle and Berliner (2002) conclude
that school funding does have a sizable effect on student achievement. According to their analysis across the 50 states, annual per
pupil school funding ranges from less than $4,000 in some low-income communities to more than $15,000 in more affluent districts.
These funding inequities leave many schools without the resources and capacity necessary to produce significant and sustained
Proponents of high-stakes accountability policies also assert that it is only fair that schools and teachers, like businesses and their
employees, should be held accountable and rewarded or punished on the basis of performance. They argue that it is because
businesses and their employees are evaluated in light of outcomes produced that they function efficiently and effectively, and that
implementation of a performance-based accountability system in schools would likewise compel educators to focus their attention and
resources on producing measurable improvements in student achievement.
However, opponents argue that public schools are essentially different types of organizations than businesses and that it is
inappropriate—even, in some cases, potentially damaging—to apply business ways of thinking to educational contexts. Unlike the
typical employee of a business, for example, teachers do not control the outcomes that result from their efforts, nor are students mere
consumers of a product that is created by the teacher. “Teachers cannot predict the outcome of their endeavors because students, not
they, are the primary architects of those outcomes” (O'Day, 1996, p. 3). Opponents argue further that a business-like focus on rewards
and punishments undermines the nurturing and caring relationship between educators and students, a relationship that is the
foundation of student growth and learning. They also argue that the moral obligation of the educator is different from that of a business
employee; the educator has a moral responsibility to promote the overall growth of the student, a goal that may sometimes conflict with
the goal of promoting gains in student test scores.
In the end, say the advocates of high-stakes approaches, the evidence is clear and straightforward: High-stakes accountability policies
produce higher student achievement and narrow the achievement gap. And, according to researchers at WestEd (2000), it is true that
“in many states, high-stakes testing has been accompanied by improved student performance” (p. 2). More than half of teachers, too,
believe that curriculum has become more demanding as a result of the standards and accountability movement (Doherty, 2001).
Nevertheless, even here some disagree, citing evidence to suggest that improvements in achievement as reflected in test scores do not
indicate genuine and transferable student understanding of content and skills. According to McNeil and Valenzuela's (2001) research in
Texas, for example, the pressure to teach to the tests leads teachers to reduce subject matter to isolated collections of facts and
meaningless exercises of skills whose sole purpose is to prepare students to answer questions correctly: “This treatment does not
necessarily enable children to use these components in other contexts. For example, high school teachers report that although practice
tests and classroom drills have raised the rate of passing for the reading section of the [test] at their school, many of their students are
unable to use those same skills for actual reading” (p. 133). And although advocates of high-stakes accountability policies allege that
such policies clearly have narrowed the achievement gap, others argue that high-stakes accountability systems have actually
exacerbated the gap. According to the National Research Council, for example, “much of the existing research shows that the use of
high-stakes tests is associated with higher dropout rates,” perhaps because those who fail high-stakes tests experience an increased
“sense of discouragement” (Heubert & Hauser, 1999, pp. 174–175).
Researchers have also found that the sanctions and rewards associated with the tests have led to disparities in both how and what
children are taught. McNeil and Valenzuela have found that, in Texas, curriculum in nonwhite, poor communities has become
fragmented and incoherent; higher-order thinking skills and problem-solving activities have been cut in favor of test-taking drills; and
funding has been diverted from quality books and laboratory supplies to test preparation booklets, software, and other activities and
supplies of limited instructional value beyond test preparation. Analyzing the effect of Texas' accountability system, McNeil and
Valenzuela (2001) conclude that it “widens the gap between public education provided for poor and minority children and that of
children in traditionally higher-scoring (that is, white and wealthier) schools” (p. 133).
Building a Better Accountability System
So what are educators and policymakers to do? Responding to research findings and their own beliefs about the detrimental impact of
high-stakes accountability systems, some educators, parents, and students have publicly declared their opposition, joining forces with
others to agitate for the abolition of sanctions and rewards in education (see box on p. 4).
Although many have publicly argued against high-stakes accountability, others have remained silent about their doubts. Some fear that
their opposition to high-stakes accountability standards will be mischaracterized as opposition to high standards, equal opportunity for
all children, or accountability in general. Such fears are not unfounded. Earlier this year when Governor Dean of Vermont expressed
reservations about the high-stakes testing system associated with ESEA and whether it would serve students in his state well, U.S.
Secretary of Education Rodney Paige (2002) accused him of throwing away “a lot of children's dreams” because he did not “want to
make [his] public schools accountable to the public.” Yet as Andy Hargreaves (2001), professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in
Education, has argued, there is a difference between supporting the principle of high standards for all students and opposing the
“particular programs of reform in which those principles are often embedded” (p. 47).
Differences in belief about which program of education reform to pursue are by no means new; indeed, such differences are endemic to
the history of education in the United States. When they contribute to the healthy exchange of ideas, these differences can contribute to
the improvement of educational practice. However, they sometimes muddy the water for educators and policymakers, obscuring the
effect of a particular reform on education. Some argue that this is the case with the high-stakes accountability reforms.
Scheurich and Skrla (2001) note that “accountability has become a highly contentious battleground, with most voices either strongly for
or strongly against it. Such polarization makes having a thoughtful, productive dialogue about both equity and accountability—a
dialogue that actually yields a better understanding—very difficult today” (p. 322). They point to those who use “fragments of data,
chosen from a vast array, in order to prove a point,” and those who “cite only research that supports one view, even though good
research that reaches different conclusions also exists” (p. 323).
Research leading to opposing conclusions and lack of data have led some to conclude that there currently does not exist sufficient
grounding to justify an all-out implementation of high-stakes accountability strategies. Others counter that the consequences of not
taking immediate action are so serious that the continued erosion of public faith in the public school system and the danger of leaving
many of our nation's children behind leave us with no options: “States simply do not have the luxury of waiting to begin” (Council of
Chief State School Officers, 1995, p. 14).
Still others, however, reject both of these ways of thinking, arguing that the threat of sanctions and rewards is not the only way or even
the best way to improve education. Sirotnik (2002), for example, argues that not only do the assumptions underlying high-stakes
accountability policies imply a “rather low estimation of teachers and students” but “there is evidence to suggest that good teaching and
learning can be made to happen without having a high-stakes testing and accountability system in place” (p. 668). He points to
Connecticut's 15-year effort to improve education through better paid and trained teachers, ongoing professional development, and
continued attention to high-quality curriculum and assessments as proof that it is possible to improve educational outcomes without
punishing students or teachers. Darling-Hammond (1996) also suggests an alternative approach, one that better aligns with what we
know about motivational theory: We should create more personalized school environments where teachers and students come to know
and care about each other's work by working together in small learning communities over a prolonged period.
Darling-Hammond and others believe that today's schools are outdated, that their very organizational structure undermines teaching
and learning and forces us into a position of having no alternative but to rely on coercive structures such as sanctions and rewards.
They believe that to bring about the needed changes, we must remake schools into places where students, teachers, and communities
are accountable to one another, and where teachers and students have numerous opportunities to participate in meaningful and
naturally engaging work. They point to the growing numbers of schools that have managed to combine top-down and bottom-up reform
strategies to overcome serious obstacles and produce higher student achievement, better attendance rates, fewer student disciplinary
problems, and a more engaged student and faculty body—all without resorting to high-stakes accountability policies. These reformers
argue that such schools show us that it is possible to improve schooling and at the same time respect educators and children, to
recognize that there is more to learning than the production of test scores, and to instill in all of our children the complex skills and
understandings necessary to navigate a complex future.
ESEA's Accountability Provisions
High-stakes accountability is a core element of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Under ESEA,
states must establish a single statewide accountability system that aligns with state content standards; beginning in
2005–06, they must administer tests in math and reading or language arts annually in grades 3–8 and once in high
school to determine student proficiency relative to the standards. Science assessments must be developed and
administered by the 2007–08 school year, and students must be assessed in science at least once during each of these
grade spans: 3–5, 6–9, and 10–12. The results of assessments must be publicly reported, and schools that fail to
produce adequate improvements in student achievement will be subject to sanctions.
ESEA makes use of the high-stakes accountability strategy by requiring all schools to demonstrate that students have
made adequate yearly progress toward mastering challenging subject matter as measured by performance on
standardized tests. Each state must set student progress requirements to guarantee substantial and continuous
improvement, and 100 percent of students must achieve proficiency in reading and mathematics no later than the 2013–
14 school year. Test scores for students must be broken out and reported by economic background, race and ethnicity,
English proficiency, and disability. Schools not demonstrating sufficient progress for students overall and for each
subgroup will be subject to sanctions.
Schools that fail to demonstrate that their students are making adequate progress in reaching proficiency for two
consecutive years will be identified as needing improvement. These schools must provide their students with public
school choice and must pay to transport students who choose to transfer to higher-performing schools.
Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress for three consecutive years must continue to provide their students
with public school choice. Additionally, they must offer students from low-income families the opportunity to receive
instruction from a supplemental services provider of their choice.
Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress for four consecutive years will be subject to one or more corrective
actions, including replacement of school staff, implementation of a new curriculum, appointment of an outside expert to
advise the school, extension of the school day or year, or change in the school's internal organizational structure.
Schools that fail to make adequate progress for five consecutive years must be restructured through reopening as a
charter school, replacement of most or all of the school staff, state takeover of school operations, or other major
reorganization of school governance. These schools must also continue to provide their students with public school
choice and supplemental services.
For more information about ESEA's yearly progress requirements and the sanctions applying to low-performing schools,
see the following:
U.S. Department of Education's No Child Left Behind Web site:
Education Commission of the States. (2002, March). No state left behind: The challenges and
opportunities of ESEA 2001. Washington, DC: Author.
Learning First Alliance. (2002, January). Major changes to ESEA in the No Child Left Behind Act.
Washington, DC: Author.
Resisting High-Stakes Strategies
Parents, teachers, students, and concerned community members in states across the U.S. have publicly expressed their
opposition to high-stakes testing and accountability policies. In the spring of 2000, for example, students in 30
Massachusetts schools boycotted the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), either refusing to
take the mandated test or deliberately scoring a zero. Joined by their teachers and parents, students also held a rally at
the Massachusetts state house to protest the use of test scores in promotion or graduation decisions.
In Scarsdale, New York, 60 percent of the community's 8th graders boycotted the state tests in the spring of 2001,
encouraged by their parents and local school officials. One parent stated, “Fundamentally, we feel the tests are not a
good measure of what a child learns. Many students do not perform well on standardized tests. These kinds of tests
reduce content, they reduce imagination, they limit complex curriculum, they add stress and cost money” (Hartocollis,
2001). The state education commissioner, Richard Mills, sharply rebuked school officials and ordered them to punish any
future student test boycotts.
Parents have joined their children in boycotting high—stakes testing. In early 2001, 27 busloads of parents—part of a
crowd of more than 1,500 people-marched on the New York State capitol to protest what they believed to be excessive
reliance on state tests to evaluate student learning and make promotion decisions. Similar protests by parents and
students have been held in Arizona, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Illinois, Texas, Virginia, Washington, California, and
Community, state, and national organizations now exist to help individuals share information and resources. In
Massachusetts, parents and others formed a statewide network, the Massachusetts Coalition for Authentic Reform in
Education (CARE), to oppose high-stakes testing and to ensure that all students have a fair chance to receive an
excellent education. A coalition of more than 30 community-level chapters, CARE hosts an electronic discussion list;
engages in outreach to media, legislators, and municipal officials; and holds public meetings and town forums. Students
in Massachusetts developed a similar organization of their own, the Student Coalition for Alternatives to MCAS (SCAM).
At the national level, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (Fairtest) advocates against high-stakes testing
through its Assessment Reform Network, and the organization's leaders have spoken out in opposition to the high-stakes
accountability provisions mandated by ESEA.
Teachers, too, have spoken out against high-stakes accountability. The president of the Massachusetts Teacher
Association (MTA) testified against the MCAS before the state board of education. At the annual meeting of the MTA,
delegates voted in favor of a motion to eliminate the MCAS testing regimen altogether and to replace it with a system of
multiple measures of achievement.
Opposition to high-stakes testing and the belief that it undermines the education process have led some teachers to
leave the classroom altogether. As reported by The Washington Post, Bruce Snyder, a nominee for the Loudoun County,
Virginia, teacher-of-the-year award, opted to leave the classroom, citing the state's emphasis on the mandated Standards
of Learning (SOL) tests as his reason, despite his students' exceptional performance on the Advanced Placement tests.
“It was SOL this, SOL that,” he said. “It was not about ‘How are you doing today?’ or ‘Let's learn something interesting or
exciting.’ It was just not a healthy environment.”
In California, which financially rewards teachers and ranks schools on the basis of student scores on state-mandated
tests, some educators refused their checks, donated them to organizations working against high-stakes tests, or
contributed them to a scholarship fund for students at schools that didn't receive the rewards. Said one teacher, “High-
stakes tests force us to teach in a way in which high scores become the most important goal. Teachers are forced to
cram information into students but not to encourage critical thinking or broader knowledge. Testing really turns us into
worse teachers.” Another teacher added, “I tell my 4th graders that you have to stand up for what you believe in. How
could I face them if I took this money?” (Bacon, 2002).
For more information and resources on groups and individuals opposing high-stakes testing, visit the Assessment
Reform Network at Fairtest: http://www.fairtest.org
ASCD's Position on Accountability, High-Stakes Testing, and Low-Performing Schools
Using one test to measure success or to sanction students, schools, or districts is an inappropriate use of a single
instrument. Only when students, educators, and policymakers have timely access to information from multiple
assessments can they make informed judgments about student learning, student placement, and graduation eligibility.
Every student has the right to attend a high-performing school. School performance and resulting “high” or “low”
designations must be determined by multiple indicators that extend beyond the use of tests. Identification and
intervention strategies should focus on improving, not penalizing, schools. Interventions in low-performing schools should
incorporate coherent strategies that include understanding each school's unique context, strengths, and needs; ongoing
professional development for staff; research-based practices; parent, student, and community involvement; and the
necessary financial resources to support transformation to high-performing status.
Bacon, D. (2002, Spring). Teachers reject testing ‘bribes.’ Rethinking Schools Online, 16(3). Retrieved
September 3, 2002, from http://www.rethinkingschools.org/Archives/16_03/16_03.htm
Biddle, B., & Berliner, D. (2002, May). Unequal school funding in the United States. Educational Leadership,
Council of Chief State School Officers. (1995, Summer). Moving toward accountability for results: A look at
ten states' efforts. Washington, DC: Author.
Darling-Hammond, L. (1996). Restructuring schools for high performance. In S. Fuhrman & J. O'Day (Eds.),
Rewards and reform: Creating educational incentives that work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
David, J., Humphrey, D., & Young, V. (2001, August). When theory hits reality: Standards-based reform in
urban districts. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.
Doherty, K. (2001, January 11). Poll: Teachers support standards—with hesitation. Education Week,
Elmore, R. F., & Rothman, R. (Eds.) (1999). Testing, teaching, and learning: A guide for states and school
districts. Washington, DC: Committee on Title I Testing and Assessment, National Research Council.
Fuhrman, S. (1999, January). The new accountability. [Policy Brief 27]. Philadelpia: Consortium for Policy
Research in Education.
Gandal, M., Rothman, R., Vranek, J., & Weedon, J. (2001, October). National education summit briefing
book. Palisades, NY: Achieve, Inc.
Hargreaves, A. (2001). Beyond subjects and standards: A critical view of educational reform. Charting
pathways to success in education in the new millenium. Ontario, Canada: Ontario Association for
Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Hartocollis, A. (2001, October 31). No more test boycotts, Scarsdale is warned. The New York Times.
Retrieved August 30, 2002, from http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/31/education/31SCAR.html
Heubert, J. P., & Hauser, R. M. (1999). High stakes: Testing for tracking, promotion, and graduation.
Washington, DC: Committee on Appropriate Test Use, Board on Testing and Assessment, National Research
Kelley, C., Odden, A., Milanowski, A., & Heneman, H. (2000, February). The motivational effects of school-
based performance awards. [Policy Brief 29]. Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education.
Klein, S. P., Hamilton, L. S., McCaffrey, D. F., & Stecher, B. M. (2000). What do test scores in Texas tell us?
Santa Monica, CA: RAND. Retrieved September 3, 2002, from http://www.rand.org/publications/IP/IP202
McNeil, L., & Valenzuela, A. (2001). The harmful impact of the TAAS system of testing in Texas. In G.
Orfield & M. L. Kornhaber (Eds.), Raising standards or raising barriers? Inequality and high-stakes testing in
public education. New York: Century.
O'Day, J. A., & Smith, M. S. (1993). Systemic reform and educational opportunity. In S. Fuhrman (Ed.),
Designing coherent education policy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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incentives that work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Paige, R. (2001, March 7). Testimony on No Child Left Behind before the House Committee on Education
and the Workforce. Retrieved September 3, 2002, from http://www.ed.gov/Speeches/03-
Paige, R. (2002, April 27). Remarks at the Education Writers Association Seminar 2002, Washington, DC.
Scheurich, J. J., & Skrla, L. (2001, December). Continuing the conversation on equity and accountability:
Listening appreciatively, responding responsibly. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(4), 322–326.
Scheurich, J. J., Skrla, L., & Johnson, J. F. (2000, April). Thinking carefully about equity and accountability.
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Sirotnik, K. (2002, May). Promoting responsible accountability in schools and education. Phi Delta Kappan,
WestEd. (2000, February). The high stakes of high-stakes testing. Palo Alto, CA: Author.