Accountability for student performance, coupled with standards and assessments, directed at students, teachers, or schools, is a growing part of U.S. school reform. Policies outlining specific accountability plans, with clearly defined consequences tied to student assessments, are typically part of most states’ educational reform strategy. Often, those consequences take the form of high stakes for students, where promotion and graduation from high school is tied directly to students passing state assessment(s). In other cases, there are no explicit stakes for students. Stakes fall on schools, as students’ performances on a test determine how a school is publicly ranked, and whether it is rewarded or penalized. Ultimately, the effects of accountability policies depend on the cooperation of the students. Our findings in this essay raise questions about test measurement and whether many state assessments are capturing what states expect students to know with reliability and validity. Our study also raises questions about student motivation and, consistent with Abelmann and Elmore (1999), questions whether the assessment itself is enough. For example, do students do their best on the test so that it truly reflects what they can do? Stakes in the form of direct sanctions for students may not be enough. Students may be disconnected from what they do in school or believe that they cannot do well on the test, thus decreasing their motivation to do well. At the same time, there are other stakes connected to tests for students that some schools are working to incorporate into their internal accountability structure. These include direct incentives and rewards for students to perform well on the test, connecting test results to
the reputation of their school, and connecting test performance to a sense of school community.