Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Feeling Yucky About Rewarding Test Scores

I know this post is going to ruffle some feathers because I personally know of some fantastic teachers who truly believe this system works, but this is my blog and it is here that I get to rant.

It's the time of year that makes me cringe just a little.

It's that time when state-testing classroom rewards are doled out. The promises of going to the movies, being a part of a school party, riding in a limo, being teacher for the day, etc. are now handed out to students who meet the criteria set forth by teachers and schools where the pressure is huge.

, shares the story of one school where all of the fourth grade students WHO SCORED A 4 OR ABOVE (this year's passing score), enjoyed the reward of walking to a local pizza restaurant and enjoying lunch. I have to assume this means those who did not pass, did not get to do this.

I'm sure all of these students (who passed) had a great time and I would never begrudge any student the benefit of a reward based on hard work, however I argue that this type of reward actually becomes public humiliation for others. Using food as a reward is a whole other issue in itself that I won't even get into here.

 that was named in the article, I see that 81% of the students achieved the passing grade. I don't know how many students are in the grade level there (let's say 100, which is probably high), but I will guess that approximately 20 students did not pass the test and so they sat together in the cafeteria, eating their regular lunch, while their peers were off on their FCAT Writes field trip. I can only imagine how those students felt. I can guess that some of those students' parents may have even kept them home to avoid them having to deal with the embarrassment. It was only this school that was mentioned in this article, but keep in mind that most of our schools engage in these types of events in some form or another.

Is there a difference between this and posting a list student names who passed and who did not on the cafeteria wall?

Will the students who enjoyed the pizza today, really remember later on why they were eating pizza? I bet they will not. Will the students who were left behind remember? I bet they will.

I would love to see some hard evidence that these types of rewards are truly connected. I will venture to guess that those students who scored well did so because their teachers motivated them, practiced with them, made writing interesting and relevant and their parents reinforced their daily skills; not because they were striving for a pizza party.

Is there evidence that a student who struggles with writing all year, will suddenly make gains if promised a pizza party at the end?

I'm all for rewards, but this just feels yucky to me.


Stephanie said...

I'm right with you on feeling yucky about this. The school where I teach, had a rewards party with cookies, punch and medals for students who attended all the OAA (Ohio Achievement Assessments), weren't late for any of them, and tried their hardest. In third grade, one student had strep throat, another pink eye, and one broke his arm on the way to school. Fourth grade, one with strep throat and one that missed because he was adjusting to a new does of ADHD meds. Fifth grade, one with strep throat who was sent home because he was so sick. These students all missed a test, for valid reasons. All the students made up the tests, once they returned to school healthy, but none of them were allowed to participate in the awards celebration. I let my principal know that I have serious issues with this. I have issues with the test, but those aside, if we want students to score their best, don't we want them to take the when they are healthy? Not my building, the students get punished for waiting to take the test when they are healthy.


Right on! You were kind enough to temper your remarks, but I will put it more bluntly. There is no place for such meaningless, unrelated rewards attached to performance on a test like this. To teachers who approve of this approach, I would argue that if the test matters at all, you're sending the wrong message, and you need to help students recognize the value of effort and results. And if the test doesn't really matter that much, you should be doing something to thank all the students who go through the waste of time together, rather than humiliating those who are less successful at it. I do not have a problem with children experiencing winning and losing - at games, at sports - but not at a task like this. If it were happening at the school where I teach, I'd be resisting it. If it happened at my sons' school, I'd pull them out of the test and encourage other parents to do the same.

Anonymous said...

I hate this. How do you reward the student who improved over the year and then bombed the test due to crippling nervousness? (It's happened in my classes). How do you reward the student who improved over the year enough to get to one year below grade level, but still can't read the test because it is written on grade level? (Ditto).

So, what I did last year, which was a rousing success with the kids was as follows. (Keep in mind, I did this in response to our school awards night, where only approximately 10 of my 28 students would receive academic or citizenship recognition).

I came up with a meaningful award for each child and we had our own awards ceremony! They loved it. I tailored each award to the recipient - how wonderful to have an award fit them, rather than fit themselves to an award. They had a blast trying to figure out the recipients as I talked each kid up. It was a special day. I never saw such genuine smiles on my students. It definitely lessened the blow for the kids who didn't get the coveted invitation to awards night. Try it - you'll have fun!


Well said. When I taught 4th grade in Ohio my school gave rewards for effort. We watched for students using strategies and for time spent working on the test. Students earned tickets to be used in a drawing for some amazing donated prizes such as video games, gift cards, etc. All students could participate and the reward wasnt based on outcome, it was strictly on effort and focus.


felt so sad reading your blog and the comments of the contributors. Testing children, we should acknowledge, assesses only a fraction of what children learn and experience. How can a test assess curiosity, the excitement of learning, the awareness of mystery? How can a test measure enjoyment in the classroom? How can a test measure growth in the child's sense of self? As teachers who understand and value children and childhood, we should, on mass, speak out against the tests as elements that do more harm than good. And how can we justify the pain caused to those children who are humiliated?


Lee, I'll be more blunt than David. This is beyond yucky, it's sick. You've used the word brainwashed before here, talking about new teachers buying into the testing/data edreform rubbish. What truly, truly saddens me is that the young kids now going through elementary school are also being brainwashed - into believing in the importance of test scores above all else. I've been teaching elementary school for 30 years. What is happening now is a tragedy.

So I send you a little gift - a ! Print it out and put it in appropriate places. Color it in. Share it. Use it whenever necessary to protect yourself from data driven reform ideologies - to maintain a belief in something besides data as a goal in teaching and learning.


Right with ya! During testing time I get grouchy, short with the students, and just overall annoyed. Hate the Tests! Hate the Tests! Hate the Tests!


I'm a teacher and a parent. As I haven't seen this happen to my kids or students, I'm stunned that it happens at all and common enough.

Naivete aside, I do believe that rewards need to be linked directly to the achievement so on that premise alone, this food reward falls short. Much as we all like to develop intrinsic motivation, I concede that this does not naturally happen to everyone so extrinsic rewards have their place in education and parenting.

Much else of what I want to say have been said above but I do want to end on a good note. Here's a system I learned from one of my daughter's teachers.

Each student was given a celebration (note)book to log everything worth celebrating and that includes, for example, getting a fail grade if you can show you have learned from the experience. It could also mean participating in class discussions (my daughter is so shy).

I've set up a communal/family celebration book at home where everyone gets to log everything worth celebrating. Having something to write appears to be reward enough - possibly a good way to develop intrinsic motivation. We do eventually actually celebrate with a reward - sometimes it is food, sometimes it's a group hug, whatever - celebrant gets to pick, within reason. Anyway, entries become a conversation point to show what we value, that each of us is valued and that in the daily grind, there are celebratory moments. It is a communication tool that will serve as a good memento as well.


I'm not saying I agree or disagree, but for some students, there needs to be some motivation for trying hard on the tests. They don't see the score on a report card, which should change if it's being used as an assessment. I diagree with you on one point, I DO think the ones who ate the pizza will know why. They will know how the test turned out. And they will compare themselves.


I'm just going to be brutally honest and say that this kind of thing is complete garbage. Let's actually strive to help these non-passing students' passions, talents, and abilities- then VALUE them.

We've all had kids in our classes who don't fit the academic mold but excel in other areas. I can spout them off as easy as I know my name. 2nd grader Cody, who could hardly read or write but could take apart a lawn mower and put it back together. 4th grader Seth, who was an average reader but had huge troubles with math, but was always out in nature and could tell you anything you ever wanted to know about any animal you saw. 3rd grader Jarin who always scored lowest on the tests but had the most friends because the kid could charm the pants off anyone and tell the greatest stories...

And on and on. It's just garbage that these kids and thousands more like them have to be humiliated because they don't fit this particular mold.


I'm going to suggest some ideas that will be unpopular:

First, a disclaimer: I recognize that my situation may differ from other teachers for several reasons: (1) I teach high school, (2) I teach untested areas (Spanish & Computer Science), (3) our students consistently blow the test away (100% this year).

I work at a public charter school, so we are in direct competition with other schools for market share and test scores matter--a LOT. It is very important that we get an "exemplary" rating or we lose enrollments and the funding attached. We are honest with ourselves and our stakeholders about that.

We do prepare diligently for the test. Our students take several benchmarks throughout the year (and administration acts accordingly). There are also rewards contingent upon test performance (ours is tomorrow). What's slightly different is that we all get the reward or we all miss out. I agree completely that singling out students is "yucky", but I'm rather unsure about community-wide rewards. I wonder how others feel about this. ?

Having said that, we try not to preach the test. The students know it matters just like we know it matters (you can't deny it in the current state of affairs). However, we would be quite remiss if we let the state minimum define our expectations of our students. I expect my students to become a fluent as possible--not just to learn a few words in Spanish; our English teacher expects students to write elegantly--not just satisfactorily; our Social Studies teacher expects students to create complex and well-informed solutions to complex problems--not just to recite the dates of a couple world conflicts.

Nonetheless, I am unsure at best about whether rewards contingent upon standardized tests are a good thing. I would personally LOVE to see standardized tests move towards representative sampling rather than testing every student. There are some issues with doing so, but it could help stop the sort of silly singling out of students you mention and help us focus on the real, broad-stroke changes we need.

Ultimately it is we as a society who will either enjoy together or endure together the consequences of how we deal with education today.


Well said, Lee.

I think all teachers would be with you here - we want to see children rewarded for trying hard, overcoming adversities, and achieving above their previous best. But to do it in this way just feels so wrong.

As a non-US reader, giving away pizza strikes me as inappropriate in the current environment in which we are concerned about youth obesity - am I right? We have similar issues in Australia.


I'm curious about why my comment I made last night is no longer here. Was it somehow inappropriate or something? It was here last night, but now it's gone.


I apologize for a few comments that apparently went to the SPAM box in Blogger. I need to check that area more often. There's nothing in the post that strikes me as SPAM so who knows why that happened?

There are some excellent suggested in the comments here for better ways to approach this issue of rewarding for test scores.

I appreciate your comments, suggestions and the opportunity to vent with my peers very much. Thank you all for visiting my blog and leaving your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with rewarding food to students that improved the test score. It seems that students today always ask what do I get if I do this, and I like to respond with how about the satisfaction of knowing you improved. On the other hand, what about the student (s) that do work hard all year and do improve the score,should they not be rewarded? As a society we reward salesmen with money or trips for an outstanding sales year. Is there a difference? Go ahead and say kids versus adult, I guess it is do as I say not as I do. Just trying to see the other side of the story.