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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.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.