Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bill bets prizes would get kids to pass tests

By Jim Sanders - Sacramento (CA) Bee with lots of reader comments
July 21, 2008; MAIN NEWS section, Page A1

Want kids to score well on statewide tests?

Reward them.

Before they ask, "What's in it for me?" offer a prize for performance.

That's the thrust of a proposed state law passed this month by the Legislature and sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"What we're really looking at is recognition and motivation and incentive to achieve," said Sen. Elaine Alquist, a Santa Clara Democrat who proposed the measure.

Senate Bill 1709 would authorize and encourage school districts to provide nonmonetary incentives to middle and high school students for achievement or improvement on standardized tests.

Critics wonder if the concept feeds a selfish, me-first attitude.

"At some point, students need to be taught that every good deed does not require reward," said Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Coupal, whose group has taken no formal position on SB 1709, said he is leery of rewarding children simply for doing their duty.

"It reminds me of providing incentive pay for police officers to stay in physical shape – I mean, that should be part of the package, shouldn't it?" Coupal said.

Alquist characterized the incentives as recognition, not compensation.

"It's a way to help kids do better in school," she said. "Isn't that what we all want?"

SB 1709 initially proposed a special mark on a student's diploma and a mini-vacation from classes – up to three days – at the end of the school year.

Alquist later dropped the three-day break. Her bill now encourages school districts to develop nonmonetary incentives by soliciting ideas from students.

Local businesses could be asked to donate prizes, such as tickets to movies, concerts, restaurants or sporting events.

"I think the possibilities are endless," Alquist said.

SB 1709 passed the Legislature largely along party lines, with most Republicans opposed.

Schwarzenegger has not taken a position, nor have state teacher, administrator or school board groups.

Alquist's bill, sparked by a suggestion from a statewide student council group, presumes that many pupils don't take Standardized Testing and Reporting exams seriously because their grades and graduation are not affected.

Campuses and districts are ranked and judged by STAR scores, but not students.

Teenagers interviewed at McClatchy High School applauded the notion of prizes.

"That would be cool," said John Franz, 15.

"I think that most kids would rather be rewarded for doing something good than punished if they don't do good," said Emma DeAmicis, 15.

But Roger Fotuiaka, 14, said that offering prizes sounds like an attempt to "buy" cooperation.

Bob Wells, director of the Association of California School Administrators, noted that years ago the state offered cash prizes to schools that excelled in testing.

The plan backfired at some campuses, however, because pupils began demanding that bonus money be committed to a student activity in return for top effort, Wells said.

"They came up with the bright idea of holding out for a good deal," he said.

A legislative analysis of SB 1709 said current state law does not specifically ban nonmonetary incentives, so districts conceivably can offer them now – and some do, with medals, homework passes, yearbook discounts, student-store dollars or other prizes.

But Alquist said districts do not routinely offer rewards. Her legislation would remove any ambiguity and provide clear support, though no public funding.

Dave Gordon, head of the Sacramento County Office of Education, said that tangible prizes are "not inconsequential," but a better incentive might be to tie STAR scores to students' futures.

"Whatever we can do to make the tests more meaningful and have more consequences, I think that's a plus," Gordon said.

California State University uses scores from an ancillary exam, linked to STAR, to exempt high school students from remedial classes. Gordon said the concept should be expanded to community colleges.

State schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell would like to see STAR scores used as college entrance exams, spokeswoman Hilary McLean said.

O'Connell has taken no position on SB 1709, however. He believes that school districts know students well and are best-equipped to decide whether to offer prizes, McLean said.

"We think there are upsides and downsides," she said.

A system that rewards improvement and achievement, for example, might leave out students who try very hard but have little success, she said.

John Montgomery, assistant superintendent of the Roseville Joint Union High School District, said he would like to see STAR testing occur toward the end of courses and count toward grades.

Montgomery is wary of awarding prizes, however, calling them "artificial motivations."

"They've worked, I've seen them work," he said. "But in terms of integrity, I'm not so certain that that's where we want to be."

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said offering prizes does nothing to address social or economic reasons for poor test scores.

For teenagers who purposely fail, gifts don't necessarily change attitudes, he said.

"I think a lot of it is a breakdown in the popular authority that teachers represent," he said. "Building that back up is going to require more than just handing out M&Ms."

But Associate Superintendent Christina Penna said some campuses in her Elk Grove district use STAR rewards as a vehicle for teaching about accountability and goal-setting.

Before testing, students evaluate past scores, set a performance goal and discuss strategies for improvement, she said.

"We try to make it a self-reflective exercise for students to do better," she said.

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