The United States educational policy requires that K-12 students participate in annual standardized tests. As a result, school districts that have traditionally utilized ongoing “formative" assessments of student progress, are increasingly relying on additional, costly “interim" assessments. In addition, some districts are experimenting with merit-based incentives that tie teachers' bonuses to student performance on state tests. We examine the relationship between information on student performance and monetary incentives for teachers using a two-period principal-agent model. In our model, the school district (principal) chooses whether to invest in interim assessments, and, also, how much merit-based compensation to offer to teachers, while the teachers (agents) decide on the level of effort to exert in each period.
We use two-state (“proficient” vs. “not proficient") Markovian dynamics to describe the evolution of student readiness for the tests, and assume the presence of information asymmetry between the teachers and the school district regarding the student readiness level. Our analysis shows that, for schools that are not proficient at the beginning of the year, the return from merit-based incentives is always greater than the return from information derived from interim assessments. For schools that begin the year on track to achieve proficiency, there exist settings where investing in the interim assessment is optimal, such as when the district has a low budget and the formative assessment is reasonably accurate. However, we also establish that there are settings where the provision of additional information about the student mid-year performance has a demotivating effect on teachers.