The Testing Bribe

Many schools give various rewards to students for their performance and/or hard work on a high-stakes test.  Young people like to have a reward for working hard, and I can’t say I blame them.  I like to have a reward myself for working hard and doing a good job!  Many high-stakes tests have no impact on a student’s life beyond the internal satisfaction of doing well.  Grades aren’t attached to the test, the performance level many times doesn’t affect the student’s promotion to the next grade, and typically the students won’t even learn about their score until the beginning of the next school year.  By that time, even if the student is still in the same school, he has forgotten the test.

So discussing appropriate methods of rewarding students for work on the test is important.  What do we offer them?  When do we offer it to them?  And why do we give the reward?

The What.  Rewards fall into three categories: Trips/Parties, Privileges, and Things/Awards.  Trips might be to the local bowling alley, movie theater, or YMCA, while parties can run the gamut from a celebration dance to making a sundae out of the principal.  Privileges can be such things as prime parking spaces for high schoolers to picking food a la carte from the cafeteria or having lunch with a previous teacher for elementary students.  Things could be t-shirts, gas cards, a note mailed home, or olympic-style medals.

The When and the Why.  Schools might give rewards at three primary times: immediately before the testing session, immediately after the testing session, or much later when the test results come back to the school.  All three times have their advantages, but when we give the reward relates closely to why we are giving the reward.  In other words, what is the basis of the reward?

After the results come back.  When you give the test in the spring and a reward when the results come back in September, you most likely will be giving a reward based on performance.  Many times they include things and rewards.  Rewarding those who achieve proficiency for you is a great idea, but what about the student who may never achieve proficiency although she works her heart out and show improvement?  If your reward is based solely on test performance, it might be a good idea to include growth as a measure.  The growth can be based on a pre-determined rubric, or it might be growth that the student has determined for herself.

Immediately before the test.  A reward given at the first of the school  year might be forgotten by April when the next test comes around.  The student has the satisfaction of receiving an incentive, but we have to ask ourselves what direct impact that has on overall effort by the end of the year.  Delaying the reward until immediately before the testing session might help students sense a relation between effort and performance.  Ideal rewards at that time include privileges such as going to specials with a best friend, going to lunch early, or allowing a few tardies.

Immediately after the test.  Rewards given immediately after the testing session generally take the form of trips and parties.  However, when everyone gets to participate in the party, we’ve diluted the sense of a reward.

If you don’t have a system on which to base the reward, the whoopla is just a reason to celebrate that the test is over, and you’re missing an opportunity to motivate kids.

We most likely can’t base the after-test party on performance because we don’t have those results.  In addition, not all children can control the level at which they can perform, but all children can control the effort they put forth.  Many schools use an Effort Passport Rubric as the basis for a reward given immediately after the test.  An example appears below.

Effort Rubric Passport 





Use of Time





















Note: The scoring could be either a scaled score such as 0 – 5, or an “all or nothing” system of scoring, such as  a + or Δ. 

I know from experience that using an effort rubric of this sort will drive students to perform better in any setting. You can have discussions in your school regarding the categories. Attendance, for example, is open for debate. Test makers tell us that the evidence is clear that students who take the test with their peers score higher than if they take a make-up test. On the other hand, it’s not the kids’ fault if they have a dentist appointment on the day of the test; they didn’t make the appointment. My heart says not to include attendance, but my head says I should. Have that discussion in your school.

How do you measure effort, or preparedness, or use of time, or whether they answered all the questions? You need to have those clearly defined and the students need to know your scoring scale before the test begins. One idea is to simply have the students fill out their own passport and have the teacher sign off on it. Maybe before turning the test in, students know they must put their fingers on each question to ensure they have answered all of them.

 What about the student who misses one day? Does she have to go to the principal’s office and miss the party? If so, does that punish the student or the parent? Or the principal! Next year she might have a poor attitude about the test. On the other hand, it’s meaningless if everyone gets the reward. Here are some ideas:

Party Tips

  • If the party is making an ice cream sundae, the number of stamps might equal the number of scoops or the number of toppings. Coming across the top of the passport, one may represent the ice cream, another the flavor, another the toppings, etc. This year a student may get only vanilla and the sprinkles, but next year he will say, “I want it all. I want the chocolate, the strawberries, the bananas, and the whipped cream.
  • If the party is a dance, the kids who get to do the limbo must have all their stamps.
  • If the party is a movie, everyone gets to go to the movie, but the popcorn goes to the students with 10 stamps while the sodas go to the ones with 15 stamps.

You get the idea. I’ve seen this work as a motivator over and over. Students aren’t sitting in the office, but you do have rewards based on individual effort. Not every child is going to achieve, but every child can put forth effort. It’s a very powerful concept.

I’ve picked up tons of motivational ideas from teachers as I travel across the country. Here is an idea one teacher shares with us.


About mprater

I'm a recently retired school teacher/administrator continuing to help people grow through personal learning. When not blogging, I do consulting work for schools and organizations, make presentations at conferences, and research for publication. At the same time, I have to set aside enough time to enjoy the "good life" of retirement!
This entry was posted in Administrators' Corner, Student Motivation, Teaching Tips, Testing, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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