With spring comes heightened concerns about public school students facing high-stakes standardized tests and the troubling focus on testing rewards, testing pep rallies, and test prep boot camps. It makes schooling and a student’s worth all about the test.
Testing is a serious business. Test results have been used to rate teacher performance unfairly, and to close public schools, often pushing charter schools and vouchers, schools that may not have to administer high-stakes standardized tests.
What’s most troubling about tests in schools today is that they falsely connect a child’s worth to one test (same skills for all), and children can feel like losers if they do poorly on the tests.
This has been the argument for years surrounding high-stakes standardized testing, yet the tests continue to drive public schools and how students and teachers are treated.
It’s not that testing isn’t essential. Professional teachers need to assess student achievement to see how they’re progressing. Still, tests shouldn’t be the focal point of school, and there should be a wide range of subjects and activities where students can thrive and find their passion, along with getting support in the skills they need to do well in life.
The current standardized testing has narrowed the curriculum and what students can learn, and it wastes student and teacher time to focus on gimmicks to elevate the tests.
In 2012, the University of Chicago found that by giving students extrinsic awards, just the right kind, their achievement improved by six months beyond what would be expected. High school students got monetary awards, and elementary students got trophies.
This research led the NEA to ask If Rewards Improve Test Scores, What’s Really Being Tested?
Other studies found little impact surrounding awards (Fryer, 2010).
Also, the more students are rewarded for tasks; they might increasingly rely on rewards for what they do (Kohn, 1999, p. 83). Kohn has a book about this, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A;s, Praise, and Other Bribes.
The New York Times reported: Which Is Better, Rewards or Punishments? Neither. Rewards they say, are punishment’s sneaky twin.
They include a study, A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation showing:
The picture that emerged from these meta-analyses of 128 well-controlled experiments exploring the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation is clear and consistent. In general, tangible rewards had a significant negative effect on intrinsic motivation for interesting tasks, and this effect showed up with participants ranging from preschool to college, with exciting activities ranging from word games to construction puzzles, and with various rewards ranging from dollar bills to marshmallows.
Testing Pep Rallies
Holding pep rallies to raise student morale does little to increase test scores (Hollingworth, Dude & Shepherd 2010).
Promoting pep rallies in honor of the test has been around for years, and cheering for the test for students is a waste of time. It falsely implies students have control over test results, and it highlights the testing company and its program.
Students might go into the testing with high morale and still do poorly. This could lead to low self-esteem or the inability to be positive about other life events.
Some parents opt their child out of the tests, and over focusing on the test can make students anxious, the opposite of what it’s designed to do.
Test Prep Boot Camps
Teaching students how to test, or drilling the material that might be on the test, is not always effective; and teaching students how to endure the tests, sitting still for long periods of time, should raise questions as to what tests are supposed to do. Why put students through this and what’s the purpose?
Here’s how one testing boot camp is conducted:
Dressed in battle fatigues, she had students marching, chanting slogans, and dropping to the ground to do push-ups for not completing assignments as part of a four-week math boot camp to get seventh graders ready for Mississippi is high-stakes tests.
Eight teachers were put through their own boot camp, complete with a drill sergeant barking orders at them.
Boot camps sound eerily like the military.
Isn’t it time to end high-stakes standardized tests, President Biden?
It’s worth repeating, President Biden campaigned with the promise he would get rid of high-stakes standardized tests, but his administration has not kept that promise.
From Valerie Strauss and 2021 The Washington Post Answer Sheet:
High-stakes testing is still a prominent feature of the Biden administration.
The President had the perfect opportunity to end high-stakes testing after the pandemic, instead testing began immediately with the start of his presidency, when children were Covid-19-weary and expected to be behind.
Such testing has served nothing more than to blame teachers for school closures and their attempts to keep students and families safe, and as a result, many great teachers have left the classroom.
The President’s push for testing surprised and disappointed those who took Biden, married to a teacher, at his word.
Let’s hope the President will return to his initial promise and end high-stakes standardized testing in America’s public schools. Public schools should provide a broad range of skills to help individuals with learning differences to find their strengths instead of a one-size-fits-all system.
When students are provided opportunities to learn and find their passions they won’t need attention getting schemes that focus on assessment and the companies that make the test.
Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, As, praise, and other bribes. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Turgeon, H. (2018, August 21). Which is better, rewards or punishments? Neither. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/21/well/family/which-is-better-rewards-or-punishments-neither.html#commentsContainer.
Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627–668. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.125.6.627
Hollingworth, L., Dude, D. J., & Shepherd, J. K. (2010). Pizza parties, pep rallies, and practice tests: Strategies used by high school principals to raise percent proficient. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 9(4), 462–478. https://doi.org/10.1080/15700760903342376
Strauss, V. (2021, February 26). One month in, Biden angers supporters who wanted him to curb standardized testing. The Washington Post, Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/02/26/biden-angers-critics-of-standardized-testing/
Susan Norwood says
You know there’s something wrong with the whole system when you’ve got to bribe kids to even come to school. At my large urban high school and another school in my district, principals were bribing kids with gift cards and Beats headphones just for showing up and coming to school. We were under intense pressure to have 95% of students take the end of course exams. This is crazy. Whoever thought we would offer monetary rewards for just showing up? I don’t blame my admin. The blame goes higher-up the pay ladder.
Nancy Bailey says
It doesn’t seem to be getting better either.
Paul Bonner says
I have to confess, that as a Principal I once had a pep rally before the test. I didn’t believe it would have a positive result beyond helping students feel good about being a part of the school. We would send out our usual pleas to parents to make sure their students got rest etc., but we would also try to assure parents that our results were not the only driver when it came to instructional practice. The age of high stakes tests took up my entire tenure as an assistant principal and principal. My universal conclusion became that the students who took tests seriously tried, while the ones who didn’t would get through the assessment as quickly as possible with little concern about the result. Our cultural focus on independent thinking established student attitudes driven by what they wanted to do, not what they wanted to achieve. This became worse as we spent less time on engaging learning and more time on phonemic awareness and math facts. I too am disappointed that Biden has not formally advocated an end to high stakes test, but that would only have limited result. Most of the testing is promoted at the state and local level by companies more interested in the bottom line and superintendents who want to insure communities that they are trying. In my last eight years I served in Alabama where the state department of education changed the tests four times, all with different companies. Meanwhile, in Huntsville, we used two additional instruments that never aligned with the state tests and meant students had up to six testing periods in a year. All of the tests, state and local, were promoted by private testing companies. Students basically dismissed these efforts so we never got a good feel for where they were with their reading or math. My first school in Huntsville was a high poverty school that we were charged to make an IB school. In my last year there we had our first fifth grade exhibition that the students worked on diligently. We invited many from the city who were blown away by how articulate and knowledgeable the students were. We had at least a 95% participation rate with the fifth graders in this activity. This showed me that the reading and math scores reveal little in regard to actual student intellectual capacity. Yet, the district was more focused on our state grade. The tentacles of the testing industry have gotten hold of local entities and these private firms will do everything they can to keep the money flowing. Pandora’s box is a thing.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks for your informative comment, Paul. It’s hard not to be involved in cheering on students for the test, and teaching how to take a test, and I certainly got caught up in it too as a teacher.
I also agree about the state’s role in the push for testing and it is why I argue with conservatives who want to get rid of the USDOE that it wouldn’t make a lot of difference. Still, I think if Biden, with the help of Dr. Jill, were to push for a return to kinder assessment, which is within our grasp, states might back off and schooling would be better for students. But that would mean his support on many other issues connected to the test, and he has already shown by those hired to be in his educational administration that he’s on board for school privatization. I wish I was wrong, but I don’t think so.
My main concern is the push for online programs which means a whole lot of data collected on children and the loss of university well-prepared teachers. He has alluded to the data issue but I’m not sure what’s being done about it on his watch.
Paul Bonner says
Perhaps our greatest challenge is that politicians and policy makers simply don’t know enough about public schools. I too, was more optimistic that President Biden would be more receptive to the needs of public schools since Jill is so engaged, but I think the recent history of school policy is driven by a profound ignorance in political leadership that promotes this privatized grasping for straws. Thank you for working so hard to get the word out.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank YOU, Paul.
Testing Rewards, Pep Rallies, and Boot Camps, Oh my!
Makes one wonder why schools have had to literally beg and cajole young students to try their best on federally mandated math and language arts assessments?
Could it be the general apathy produced by “high stakes” tests that are in fact, “no-stakes” tests for students? Tests that fail the, “Does this count?” rule that is at the heart of student motivation.
Could it be the cognitive dissonance produced by a system that stresses the important these tests but fails to provide scores to the test takers. (Just ask any kid how they did)
Could it be that the “threaten-test-and punish” model in place since the inception of NCLB in 2001 asks students to work for their schools and teachers, instead of the other way around?
Could it be the apathy produced by testing fatigue, especially by the time a student reaches 8th grade (See above)? Six years of taking important tests with no personal accountability and scores they never receive.
Could it be the small handful of brain deadening, Common Core language arts standards that are tested.? Standards that literally destroy the potential joy and importance of reading and writing. Standards that produce brain deadening tests that even fail to make kids want to become life-long test takers (/s)..
Nancy Bailey says
I’d say yes to all of the above. Thank you, Rick. This is so good it could stand alone as a post.
I forgot one other important factor:
Could it be the negative impact on test taking morale fomented by the Opt-Out option/movement? That very confusing realization that you don’t even have to take this really important test. Or for any student to be left wondering. “Why do i have to take these really important tests but most of my friends don’t?”.
Christine Langhoff says
Your mention of Roland (Two-Tier) Fryer’s work on rewarding students by paying them reminded me of remarks he made about testing. His own children, who attended schools in a leafy Boston suburb, could not waste time on test prep because they needed to study Shakespeare. He opined that kids in cities with the lower scores we see for Black and Brown kids, kids living in poverty and kids whose home language isn’t English needed to be tested every day. Fryer, of course, isn’t an educator, but an economist. Here’s a clip from C-SPAN, beginning about 48:00.
Disgracefully, he was appointed to MA’s state Board of Education for a time. He resigned from that position shortly after he was accused of sexual harassment at the Ed Labs at Harvard he had set up. Harvard reinstated him after a two year suspension.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you for this, Christine. Wow! I am surprised how many economists are parading as educators with little understanding of what teachers face or the dynamics of teaching.
Fryer also has advocated high-dosage tutoring.
Harvard seems to be all about school privatization, as I’m sure you know, and I don’t see them advocating to let go of high-stakes testing anytime soon.
Christine Langhoff says
Ah, yes, that high dosage tutoring touted in the woefully misbegotten WaPo editorial on May 5. Small class sizes across the board would improve student outcomes far more effectively, but then how would all these non-profits, many seeded by HGSE folks, proliferate?
Nancy Bailey says
I had not seen this, so thanks again, but this is another way to push out teachers for tech. At least, that’s what I worry about. Smaller classes would help so much with so many issues, but only it they wanted to keep public schools and teachers.