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Bribes for Tests
I t starts out small. Kids get “magic” test-taking pencils with affirmational messages from their principal. A pizza party. A bowling party. Rollerskating. A trip to a theme park. An elementary school uses a points reward system to “motivate” students to have “appropriate test-taking behavior.” This means: attendance, positive attitude, re-reading test questions, answering all parts of the question, and leaving no blanks. A child can earn 100 points each testing day, and if they accumulate between 700 and 800 points, they will be rewarded with a school trip to a theme park. The “appropriate test- taking behavior” being rewarded is presumed to increase the likelihood of better test performance.
In Florida, middle school students have been paid up to $150 each for scoring in the highest level on the state reading, writing and math tests. High school students are bribed with college scholarships for good test performance. Six states give scholarships to students for high performance on state tests— California, Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, and Ohio. These scholarships are meant to provide incentives for all students, especially for low performing and minority students to go to college, but that isn’t what happens. Scholarship money goes to students who would have attended college anyway—they maintain the status quo with regard to access to a college education. Michigan’s Merit Scholarship Program gives one in three white, one in five Native American, one in five Hispanic, and one in fourteen African American students scholarships. In the Detroit area, 80 percent of students in affluent suburban districts, compared to 6 percent of students in the Detroit city schools, receive scholarships.
It is not surprising a behaviorist strategy such as this is being used. It remains common nonsense that extrinsic rewards lead to internal motivation. Indeed much research has demonstrated the deleterious effects of extrinsic rewards on motivation. Over the years, psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have repeatedly demonstrated this and recently their work points to the likelihood that using state tests for motivational purposes will likely lead to poorer education overall.
In many states, the winners and losers in the testing game are teachers, principals, schools. The bribes for kids are a reflection of the cash bonuses available to schools (14 states provide such cash “incentives”), depending on test performance. In the warmer days of spring (indeed throughout the school year) too much opportunity for teaching and learning has been given over to preparation for testing. For tests to be fair, students must have had an “opportunity to learn” what is tested. One presumes that teachers, schools, and the district would have sufficient confidence in their professional judgments about curricular content to trust students will have had an opportunity to learn the content. Nevertheless, such relentless test prep (lessons that look like the test, homework, scrimmage testing, other practice testing, prep rallies, and so on) is overkill and has taken too much time from students’ opportunity to learn in a broader, more meaningful sense.
Teachers are drawn into practices they do not see as appropriate or in the best interests of the students. They try valiantly to balance accountability demands (even those they don’t agree with) with the educational needs of their students. Very often they feel as if they have to make too many concessions and compromises and have to engage in pedagogical strategies that run counter to their professional judgment. As a consequence, many kids lose out on what teachers have to offer and teachers feel de-pro- fessionalized, often unhappy and sometimes leave the profession altogether. Worse still, some bribers are not even able to fulfill their obligation. Current fiscal crises in many states have meant an inability to make good on their promise of cash for test scores. In California, Kerry Mazzoni, secretary for education, wrote to schools that qualified for cash, “in these very difficult budget times, it is not possible to provide monetary rewards to schools qualifying for Governor’s Performance Awards. Governor Davis is hopeful that in the future, financial rewards will return.”
Not everyone takes the bribes and many understand the disconnection between the bribes and quality teaching and learning. Local teacher unions object to the bribes, not because teachers are undeserving, but because the cash payments single out individuals rather than addressing systemic, collective problems like upgrading school facilities, reducing class size, and purchasing new text books. Unions and some local school administrators worry about the potential negative fallout of a de facto and unfair merit pay system—one that may well put cash before children and diminish the overall quality of education, promote cheating on testing, pit teachers and other school workers against one another, and leave the schools most in need still ailing and, as the new provisions of No Child Left Behind would have it, to eventually die.
The practice of giving students, teachers, and schools cash or material bonuses based on test taking or test performance is not needed and unjustifiable. Rewards for test scores that are based on educational practices that shortchange students, deprofessionalize teachers, and do nothing to help communities most in need are a degradation, not a reform, of schooling.
Sandra Mathison is professor of Education at the University of Louisville. Her research examines the effects of state mandated testing on teaching, learning, and schooling.
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