Bribes for Tests


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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.

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.” 

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. 

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.

Mathison is professor of Education at the University of Louisville.
Her research examines the effects of state mandated testing on teaching,
learning, and schooling.