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NCLB Outrages

Take a Test, Get a Prize: NCLB Turns Exam Time into a Bribe Time

Ohanian Comment: It isn't enough that they let the Feds steal their curriculum, now they're letting it steal their ethical values. What does such bribery teach children?

Some day soon, teams of Case High School sophomores could be sitting in a Racine movie theater and thanking President Bush.


Even if higher test scores were a good idea, you don't treat children like pets by dangling the equivalent of doggie biscuits before them when they perform to your liking.

- Alfie Kohn,
author of the book, 'Punished by Rewards.'

We never want to fall into the category where the school's 'in need of improvement' " just because students didn't take the test seriously.

- David Lodes,
Arrowhead High School superintendent

In an attempt to boost the number of students taking the state's standardized test this week, Case High School will be handing out movie passes to every 10th-grader who completes the battery of exams.

It's just one of many efforts, which include a TV giveaway at another school, to improve student performance and participation on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examinations, or WKCEs.

In many Wisconsin schools, the testing began for fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders last week and will continue until Nov. 21. The tests cover reading, language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.

If nothing else, the new incentives show the growing importance that President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act has placed on annual state testing.

If students slip up, they could cause their school to be labeled as needing improvement and sent on a path to escalating sanctions imposed by the federal law. If, for example, fewer than 95% of students take the tests two years in a row, a schoolmay have to allow students to transfer elsewhere.

But the students themselves have little incentive to put forward an effort. The exam doesn't count toward a grade or graduation and won't appear on any transcript.

As Larry Black, principal of Big Foot High School in Walworth, puts it: "For schools, they're high-stakes tests. For students, they're low stakes. . . . And that's a bad match."

Rolling out the rewards
To help surmount that obstacle and hopefully avoid being labeled for improvement, two Racine high schools are rolling out the rewards just to get students to take the tests.

In addition to free movie passes, Case students can qualify for $10 cash awards, Regency Mall gift certificates, school-spirit wear and other prizes - simply by showing up this week and answering the exam's questions.

At Racine's Horlick High School, the goodies are even bigger. The school is planning several raffles for each of the two days of testing this week, at which students can win a television set, DVD player and CDs, Principal Nola Starling-Ratliff said.

The incentives are geared to increase both schools' test participation rates, which last year fell below the required 95% of students.

Miss that goal for a second year and both schools would have to allow students to transfer to other district schools under the federal law. A third year of missing their target would force the schools to offer extra tutoring in math and reading.

The high schools facing the threat of sanctions aren't the only ones proffering perks this year, however.

Gifford Elementary School in Racine also dangled the prospect of an extra recess, movie privileges and anonymous treats before any fourth-grade class that had perfect attendance during the week of testing.

"It's made a huge difference," Gifford Principal Steve Russo said. "Every morning we talk about testing with the kids. We encourage them to do the best job, to take pride in their work."

Critic pans reward system
But Alfie Kohn, a national opponent of high-stakes testing, called such rewards "coercive" and "disrespectful" toward students. "Even if higher test scores were a good idea, you don't treat children like pets by dangling the equivalent of doggie biscuits before them when they perform to your liking," said Kohn, a Massachusetts-based author of the book, "Punished by Rewards."

School officials, however, say there's nothing wrong with giving students a little push.

Five years ago at Arrowhead High School in Waukesha County, test scores took a serious dip when about 80 sophomores refused to complete the exams, instead turning in blank forms in protest of a test they felt was meaningless. If a school's students were to do the same today, their action could have more serious consequences for their school in addition to giving it a public black eye.

"We never want to fall into the category where the school's 'in need of improvement' " just because students didn't take the test seriously, said Arrowhead Superintendent David Lodes.

A reason to try
So this year, Arrowhead will give its students a reason not only to take the test but also to try.

The school is offering its students a chance to skip final semester examinations in their regular classes if they do well on their WKCEs - scoring at least at the proficient or advanced level in the subject area that corresponds with the class exam they want to avoid.

It's the first year Arrowhead High School has made such an offer, which has been announced to students but is still waiting for formal approval from the School Board.

Arrowhead students who do exceptionally well on the WKCE - scoring at the advanced level on all the tests - also will be allowed to spend their junior-year study hall classes in the senior commons in the pilot effort.

Other schools in the state offering exam exemptions include Big Foot High School, Hartford Union High School and Pulaski High School near Green Bay. Bay Port High School in the Howard-Suamico School District gives students a chance to drop a low-scoring test with a proficient score in the subject area.

"I think we should be able to come up with a way where we can get our students to give their best effort," Lodes said. "Everybody needs to do as best as they possibly can. Yet everybody wants to be rewarded."

Arrowhead students say they can see a difference.

"I'm actually trying a little harder now," said Zack Olson, a 15-year-old sophomore at Arrowhead, where testing began last week.

Previously, Olson said he might not have studied for the test at all. But with the lure of getting out of final exams and a nicer study hall environment, he said he's been doing the practice work that teachers have offered.

Another Arrowhead sophomore, Adam Moir, said he was even a little nervous the night before testing began because he wasn't sure what to expect.

He said a lot of students will be motivated to try to get out of their final exams. "But, in the same way, there are some students that could care less about school," Moir said. "I'm not one of them."

— Amy Hetzner
Take a test, get a prize
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


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