Sometimes it seems we’ve tried everything in our efforts to reform public education, yet nothing has worked to boost student achievement at scale. And despite all of our reform attempts, we have ignored one of the most promising catalysts for student success.

What is this magical, elusive factor?

Student effort.

As education economists John H. Bishop and Ludger Woessmann have put it, “Student effort is probably the most important input in the education process.”

The principle is simple: When students work harder, they learn more. In the United States, though, we don’t expect most kids to work very hard, and they don’t. For all of the talk about “raising standards” and implementing “high stakes testing,” the United States is an outlier among developed nations when it comes to holding students themselves to account, and linking real-world consequences to academic achievement or the lack thereof.

In this article, we look at the evidence that external motivation—especially via external, curriculum-based exams—can encourage middle school and high school students to work harder and learn more. In a longer article at Education Next, we also consider efforts to experiment with well-designed cash-incentive programs, discuss the importance of maintaining high standards for earning good grades, and contemplate how student accountability and student agency might combine for an even more effective approach in the future.

Students as stakeholders

When even adults debate the payoffs of academic learning, it should be no surprise that many students do not see the “real world” relevance of their schoolwork. But even when they believe in the value of academics, teenagers may still prefer to spend their energy on the more-compelling activities competing for their attention—friends, sports, afterschool jobs, Snapchat, video games, not to mention less wholesome pursuits. Delaying gratification is hard for most anyone, but researchers have shown that young people are especially focused on the present, averse to planning for the longer term, and less able to overcome the impulse to procrastinate.

The question is: What might be done to motivate adolescent students to work harder? The optimistic—one might say unrealistic—answer is to make schools so engaging, and the student-teacher relationship so supportive, that adolescents will be intrinsically motivated to work hard, despite the other demands on their time and attention, and despite the social costs they might pay.

Another approach—one that we believe is more realistic—is to hold students themselves accountable for their performance by ensuring that their work is tied to real consequences. This approach is based in research and used throughout much of the world. By giving students a greater and more immediate stake in their schoolwork and their learning, such student-accountability policies could bridge the gap between effort and reward.

Accountability boosts effort

The case for holding students accountable for their schoolwork and their learning has been undercut by the prevalent belief that incentives and other “extrinsic” motivators actually decrease student effort by eroding students’ intrinsic desire to learn. Psychologists in the 1970s discovered how extrinsic motivators could sometimes undermine intrinsic drive, and this idea has been widely popularized, most famously by Alfie Kohn’s 1993 book Punished by Rewards. Kohn and other education writers demonstrated how incentives can backfire, and they bolstered their cases with memorable anecdotes of daffy incentive initiatives, such as a Denver Planned Parenthood program’s offer to pay teenage girls a dollar a day not to get pregnant.

Yet these writers overstated the case against external motivators. The psychology literature never supported their blanket claims that “incentive plans cannot work,” as Kohn put it in the Harvard Business Review, and the conditions under which external motivators backfire are, according to a 1996 meta-analysis on the topic, “limited and easily remedied.” The evidence that external accountability lowers student motivation is mixed. Researchers found that external exams in Germany caused students to work harder, increased their performance, and made students more likely to want a job involving math, but the researchers also found that exams negatively affected students’ enjoyment of math and feelings of competence. When Bishop examined the effects of high school exit exams, one traditional form of external accountability, on intrinsic motivation by comparing whether students subjected to this approach engaged in less reading for pleasure or were more likely to associate learning with rote memorization, he found no evidence that accountability undermined natural curiosity, and even found some evidence of the opposite. The logic of Bishop’s finding is that systems that incentivize students to master academic material may in fact increase intrinsic drive, an unsurprising result for those of us who see learning as empowering.

Another way accountability can boost intrinsic motivation is by supporting pro-academic norms. As James Coleman observed as early as 1959, students often gang up to pick on the “curve raiser”: When students are graded on a curve relative to one another, those who work hard and raise the class average make things difficult for other students, who must then work harder for their grades. This situation has been explored more recently by other social scientists, who have found that it can lead to social norms under which “nerds” are harassed and studious students of color are accused by their peers of “acting white.”

Smart student-accountability systems can help solve this problem by setting high academic standards and, most crucially, by using external assessments, such as those tied to Advanced Placement courses, to evaluate student progress. This means that policymakers may positively influence intrinsic motivation by optimizing student incentives, resulting in more pro-academic social norms, as well as increased student interest and competence. In more recent years, behavioral economists have used experimental methods to better understand the connections between external motivation and human behavior and avoid the pitfalls Kohn and others have flagged.

Important evidence for the effect of student accountability on effort and achievement comes from the literature on curriculum-based external assessments. Several studies from the late 1990s and early 2000s support a strategy of using such external exams, showing that countries, Canadian provinces, and American and German states using content-based external exams for student accountability outperformed comparison jurisdictions, most likely because increased student stakes led to greater student effort. Yet such external exams have many forms and have not been equally successful in all contexts.

Substantial evidence from around the world has linked high-school exit exams to increased learning, but in the United States, where political pressures to relax graduation requirements have always kept the passing bar low, the evidence for their benefit has been inconclusive. Studies have found small effects or, often, no effects. American researchers have also focused on whether such exams might induce students to drop out, with several studies finding greater dropout rates following the adoption of the exams.

Yet such pass-or-fail exams are not the only way to use external assessments to promote student accountability. In a recent paper, Anne Hyslop makes a case against the use of exit exams but argues that external assessments can be used in other ways to promote student accountability. In the past twenty years, many states have begun to require external end-of-course exams (EOCs) covering core subjects such as algebra, biology, and American history, often with consequences attached to a student’s performance. Some states have made passing the exams a condition for graduation, essentially turning them into exit exams, but others have increased the stakes for students instead by printing the EOC scores on student transcripts or factoring the scores into course grades. As with external exams in many other countries, EOC results here are typically reported in terms of specific performance thresholds (such as advanced, proficient, needs improvement) rather than as simple pass-or-fail grades, enabling clearer signals of academic performance. This more nuanced form of signaling also increases the stakes for students, since it gives college admissions officers and potential employers additional information with which to evaluate candidates—an especially important factor in an era of grade inflation. While such a system is not yet mature in the United States, EOCs could form a powerful mechanism for student accountability if adopted on a broader scale.

The benefits of external assessments are clear for the students enrolling in Advanced Placement and other elite programs that are trusted by colleges, in large part because they are externally validated. AP helps solve the “curve raiser” problem by setting an external standard that is not controlled by the teacher, and one that all students in a given class can potentially meet. AP exams are graded by faraway educators, and high scores can earn students valuable college credit. This turns preparing for AP exams into a team sport, giving the nerds permission to study hard and crush the test. Yet even with the expansion of the AP program in recent years, only about a third of American students take at least one exam, and less than a quarter pass at least one test with a score of three or higher. The promise of high-quality EOCs is to extend the benefits of external assessment, and its virtuous cycle, to many more teenagers.

Students benefit from accountability, and, given the right circumstances, they choose it. As reformers and entrepreneurs seek new applications of technology and innovative models of instruction to revolutionize education systems, schools must reassess their comparative advantages. In their roles as academic-community builders and the gatekeepers of credentials, school leaders should embrace the responsibility of holding students accountable.

Adam Tyner is associate director of research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he helps develop and manage Fordham’s research projects. Prior to joining Fordham, he served as senior education analyst at Hanover Research, where he executed data analysis projects and worked with school districts and other education stakeholders to design custom studies. Adam has also spent several years leading classrooms, teaching…

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Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, executive editor of Education Next, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education Commission of the States. An award-winning writer, he…

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