Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Proposal To Raise Standardized Test Scores

Here's what we do: Pay some students $500 to "pass" their standardized tests.

I'm not joking this time. I haven't been joking about this particular point for years now. Today I spent some time going over standardized test scores (the ones that end up in the newspaper) for individual students at my school. I paid particular attention to students who scored within a few points of passing or "proficient". I also looked at students who scored just above the cut-off for proficiency.

The number of those right around the magical proficiency line was substantial. Enough that if every one of those just below the line crept a tad bit higher our school might have "made AYP" (Adequate Yearly Progress) in every area, instead of not having our "Students with Disabilities" make it.

And that got me thinking about the $500.

"No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) is extremely political, contentious and I think I remember calling it "stupid" on at least five occasions here at Babble. Probably closer to ten times. But for purposes here today I'm disregarding all the NCLB mess, from the President whose Administration hatched it, all the way to the newspapers who, I feel, superficially cover test results. We're just gonna forgot all that this time around.

Instead, I want to think about the kids. Kids have no real buy-in for these standardized tests. Speaking honestly, in past years many kids and their parents haven't even been told their test scores. It is as if schools/teachers were ashamed of the testing, and just preferred the whole thing go away. I know some still feel that way, hoping a new President will wash away these assessment sins and end what they see as a pernicious chapter in American education.

Despite this ostrich/sand approach to the actual individuals numbers, everybody BUT the kids is incredibly bought in because of the notoriety the tests have. Schools districts, principals, teachers, parents, newspapers, etc. care a great deal. Just today I watched our principal explain to folks on the school Parent Teacher Organization board just why my school "didn't make AYP". It was painful to watch.

Meanwhile, kids just take the damn tests. Most of them hate the testing, a few like it because it gets them out of regular classes for weeks on end, includes orange juice breaks, half-days and all other sorts of lame-ass attempts to "maximize scores". Almost every kid I see tries to some extent, but the grinding multiplicity of testing subjects and drudgery takes a toll on even the biggest test-lovers.

Then the scores come back months later, 5th graders have moved on to middle school, 8th graders to high school, a few people see the test scores, everybody reads the newspaper about who did and didn't make AYP, and we just try not to think about it until March of the next school year.

So let's change it. Let's pay some students $500 to pass the test.

Yes, I know there are arguments against paying students to pass this test. Kicking aside the more, for lack of a better term, "anti-American" arguments, such as "the kids should want to pass without us paying the money", let's first understand that the number of teachers and school administrators who would continue to work if they stopped getting paid is right at zero. Okay, it's exactly zero. So let's just kick anti-remunerative arguments aside and move on.

Many would argue that paying students would invalidate the tests, especially if some schools paid and others didn't. This argument overlooks the fact that students are fighting to become "proficient" on these tests, not competing with each other.

Yes, I know it's more complicated than that, but just taking "proficient" at face value, what the hell is wrong with paying kids to help them become "proficient"? "Proficient" is good. Getting students to proficient, regardless of one's thoughts about NCLB, is good.

So let's take those students who last year scored just below "proficiency" and offer them $500 a kid to pass in all subject areas. To be safer, let's make the same offer to those who scored just above the magic number. Of course: no cheating, no kickbacks to teachers, no principal "consulting" fees. No bully "lunch money-style" extortion allowed.

I dare anybody to tell me scores wouldn't go up.

Other impacts: these students would PAY more attention in class, Homework Club would be standing-room only everyday, testing days would go from near-coma drudgery to sports playoff intensity. Referees and instant-replay might have to be introduced to deal with questionable calls.

These are good problems to have. The only real downsides would be funding, and what to do with the kids not being offered $500. I won't get too particular on the overall funding question, but can tell you that every school invests many thousands of dollars in trying to pass these tests. Many thousands. A bit of personnel reassignment here and there, and we'd have plenty of money available for such a plan.

As for the kids not being offered money, that's trickier. We might have to extend the program to every kid in school. That's a bummer because I was really into the idea of 500 DOLLARS as a figure impressive enough to make just about any student learn how to spot Sri Lanka on a map. We wouldn't have enough money to go around at $500 per kid.

Okay, Plan B: Offer every kid in school $200 to pass the standardized tests.

Heck, let's have a fundraiser, and make it $250. Anybody wanna subscribe to some magazines?

P.S.: I eagerly await somebody to go to the trouble of compiling all the wacky, crazy and semi-legal things schools/districts around the country are doing in order to make AYP scores. Trust me, many of these antics are far more elaborate, expensive and morally reprehensible than simply giving kids money. There's a book out there that desperately needs to be written and read. Maybe it will be available by the time of the new Administration, and we can read about the sordid recent past as NCLB is finally swept into the dustbin of educational history.


Kelsey Atherton said...

great post.

I've more to say, but I have NCLB class homework to do...

Anonymous said...

Great Idea! Now if NCLB were a funded mandate we would have the $500 for every kid! Maybe Niel Bush could donate some of the profits from his testing company? Or better yet, have APS's middle management "coffee club brigade" get their butts back in the classroom which would bring down PTR and really help with learning as every study since Moses has shown!

Anonymous said...

$500 only for some kids? And the kids who who worked hard for the right reasons get.... the satisfaction of passing a pointless test? One more way in which, hey kids, it just doesn't pay to be smart. Oh well.

Laura said...

Have you gathered the list of strategies that districts and schools are using to motivate students? If so, I would be interested in seeing that! I could be reached at