Incentives for Test-Takers Run the Gamut

By Bess Keller — May 03, 2000 9 min read

What if the schools gave a test and nobody—or at least not many of the students taking it—cared?

That’s the situation educators and policymakers around the country believe they face as new state-mandated tests arrive in classrooms without built-in consequences for students.

Too often, educators complain, many older students, especially high school sophomores or juniors, find little to motivate them on the tests, even though their scores may determine whether a school looks good in the local press, keeps its accreditation, or qualifies for financial rewards.

“The pass rate reflects on the school and the school district, and while students recognize the importance of that, for many individual students, if it doesn’t have a direct effect on them, they won’t take it as seriously,” said Wayne D. Lett, the superintendent of the Newport News, Va., schools.

To address the problem, educators and others are trying a host of strategies to capture students’ interest and keep them focused on the exams.

The approaches span the spectrum from high-minded to nearly comical, and the material inducements range from candy bars during the tests to college scholarships for those who score well.

Some states and districts see academic honors as the most suitable rewards, while others favor weaving the state tests into the requirements of the high school classroom, the workplace, or higher education.

But many observers inside and outside schools point out that not all incentives are created equal.

There is a big difference between rewarding students with trinkets and convincing them that test-taking is a helpful life skill, they note. And the less closely the incentives are linked to real educational advantage, critics say, the more they cheapen schools and ultimately shortchange students.

No to Prizes

Kevin J. McCarthy, the assistant principal for curriculum at King High School in Tampa, Fla., says he firmly opposes the practice of giving out prizes—whether savings bonds or pizza parties—at the secondary school level.

“I heavily disagree with the idea,” he said. “Our philosophy is: We are a school. We’re not a shopping mall or a bingo hall.”

Mr. McCarthy argues that a serious-minded approach can work just fine, as long as educators take the time to talk with students. He said more than 99 percent of King sophomores showed up for state tests in February—up from 89 percent last year—without gimmicks.

Alfie Kohn, a former teacher and the author the 1993 book Punished by Rewards, goes even further in his criticism.

“There’s an enormous amount of research that demonstrates the more you reward people to do something, the more people lose interest in what they had to do to get the rewards,” he said. “It’s not only manipulative, it’s powerfully counterproductive.”

Such criticisms notwithstanding, many educators say that in the real world, a variety of inducements may be needed because students are motivated by different things. Around the country, material rewards may well outnumber all other kinds of incentives.

Laptop computers, sports-event tickets, coupons for fast-food meals, U.S. Savings Bonds—all have been dangled before high schoolers. And that’s not counting truckloads of pizzas, candy, and doughnuts that have been expended on fueling or rewarding test-takers.

A high school in Sunrise, Fla., this year lavished a one-day paid trip to the Universal Studios theme park on students who passed all three segments of the Florida tests, and a Houston high school has for three years given away a used Ford to a randomly selected student who passed the Texas exams.

Money Matters

Gregory S. Paulson, an assistant principal of Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyo., said it was hard cash that got the attention of this year’s juniors, who took state tests in March. For each rating of “proficient” or better they earn on the tests, students win a chance in a drawing for 10 awards of $100 each.

“When they realized we were talking about real money, everybody perked right up,” he said.

Elizabeth M. Bouzis, a junior at Natrona County High, agreed with Mr. Paulson’s assessment. “I think the raffle is a good thing,” she said. “They’ll want to try on the test for the money.”

In general, she added, incentives like the $100 awards, coupled with messages from teachers that the tests are a serious business, can prompt students to try harder—although not as hard as they do on college-entrance exams, for instance.

Many educators seem to be finding a middle course: offering enticements, but also emphasizing the long-term significance of the test for student learning and the work of the school.

Samuel R. Ison, the principal of Lebanon High School in Lebanon, Ohio, said that free parking for seniors who passed the state tests didn’t turn out to be the motivator he might have thought.

“It first got them excited, but then they went beyond that,” he said. “Not one student said to me, ‘Where’s my $25 [parking rebate]?’ They said: ‘I can’t wait to see if I passed.’”

The Lebanon city district also offered exemptions from final exams for those who passed the state tests. But Mr. Ison said that ultimately the most important factor in significantly increasing his school’s pass rate this year was “raising the level of awareness” about the assessments.

Waiving Final Exams

School officials in Newport News, though, believe that exemption from final exams was exactly the motivator their high schoolers needed to take state tests seriously. Virginia is phasing in a series of end-of-course tests that will be required for high school graduation in 2004, but students currently taking the exams tend to see them as irrelevant, said Mr. Lett, who leads the 32,000-student district.

In discussions with a student advisory group, Mr. Lett came up with the idea of exemptions, which the school board approved last year. Under the policy, which has drawn attention from other districts in the state, students who pass the state test for the course need not take the final exam, though they may do so in order to raise their overall grade. In addition, passing at the “advanced” level earns a student an automatic A on the final.

Mr. Lett credits the policy with raising scores on the state tests and helping put two of the district’s high schools on the state’s “most improved” list. He said he would like to keep the policy in place even when the exams begin to count for graduation.

Valla Olliver, a junior at Heritage High School in Newport News, said the policy simply made sense to students, who are flooded with exams toward the end of the year. In his chemistry class, “a lot of us passed [the state exam], and most of us did not take the teacher exam,” he said, noting that the teacher’s midterm had been a considerably harder test.

William V. B. Damon, the director of the Center on Adolescence and a professor of education at Stanford University, said he has mixed feelings about such exemption policies. Educators should be sure that the state test is a good match for the curriculum, he said. “If you compromise on that,” he said, “it’s smoke and mirrors, and it’s cheating the kids.’'

A bolder effort to mesh tests already important to students with those required by the state is now under way in Illinois, which expects to give its new 11th grade exam in the spring of next year. The Illinois plan requires the test to address state academic standards in part through incorporating elements of one of the two major college-entrance exams and a test of workplace skills, such as the ACT’s Work Keys test.

“It’s a win-win-win situation” for students and their parents, colleges, and employers, said Kim E. Knauer, the associate superintendent for communication in the state education department. “We think we’ll sort of be blazing a trail for other states.”

Scholarships Up the Ante

While Illinois blazes a trail with a new test, Michigan educators say that a 2-year-old state scholarship program has all but saved its existing high school exams.

Some observers had predicted that the exams were headed for the junk heap because in recent years thousands of parents had pulled their children from the tests—as the law allows—rather than have them spend the time on something they regarded as pointless or possibly even detrimental. The scores do not count toward high school graduation, but they are part of the state’s school accreditation system.

Among those parents was Brian J. McFalone, himself a high school principal. Two years ago, he and his wife, also an educator, kept their own daughter out of the Michigan high school tests, which they saw “as a total waste of time.”

She’s a college freshman now, but if she were back in high school today, “we’d have her take the test,” said Mr. McFalone, the principal of Lee High School in the Grand Rapids area. “You can’t turn your nose up at $2,500.”

In his own school, Mr. McFalone is seeing the scholarships make a difference. While five juniors took the test last year, he said, “I’m going to guess 50 juniors will take it this year in a class of about 72 kids.”

Even better, he added, the college-application rate has risen thanks to the $2,500 scholarship offer, which is linked to performance on the state’s reading, writing, mathematics, and science exams.

Many of his students don’t grow up with the idea that they are college-bound, he said, but with the scholarship money, “they are seeing a window of opportunity.”

Still, the Michigan program has been criticized for heaping scholarships on the already well-to-do, since students at all income levels are eligible.

In California, where lawmakers and Gov. Gray Davis are trying to devise a test-linked scholarship bill, one version under consideration would award scholarships to top performers on the test, both in the state and at every high school. The idea is to spread the money more widely among low-income students.

Other Ideas Eyed

In Washington state, lawmakers are also considering college scholarships as rewards for performance on state tests. To help weigh the possibilities, state leaders have convened the Academic Achievement and Accountability Commission to take a look at, among other topics, test incentives.

Unlike in other states where high school tests will soon be linked to graduation, in the Evergreen State that day is still six years off.

One idea being floated would require high school juniors and seniors to have passed the tests in order to take advantage of a popular program allowing them to enroll in community college courses.

Others incentives on the list so far include reducing the period that teenage drivers must be accompanied by an adult, providing a break on car insurance, and awarding “honor cords” to wear at the graduation ceremony.

“At the high school level, we need to provide incentives, while at the 4th grade level, too many students are taking the tests too seriously,” lamented Robert Butts, the commission’s executive director. “I wish we could find a balance.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2000 edition of Education Week as Incentives for Test-Takers Run the Gamut


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