Guest Post by Barton Keeler

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Modern Scantron test sheet; photo by Josh Davis, used under CC license.

Leaving the debate about the validity of standardized testing aside because, let’s face it–it makes things better for everyone if the test scores are higher–I want to share what our ELA department did to improve test scores literally overnight.

Give the Students a meaningful Incentive

I am convinced that the single biggest wildcard regarding standardized testing results has to do with student effort and motivation. The schools with higher test scores are generally the ones who are better able to compel their students to give a better effort during testing. Of course curriculum and instruction are key factors as well but they can be rendered meaningless if a student doesn’t want to fully apply what they have learned in class all year because, let’s face it– sitting down in front of a test for three plus every day is agonizing for many students.

Three years ago the English Department at my small, country high school was under some pressure to raise test scores and we changed a variety of things–we tried everything from adopting a new curriculum to creating a benchmark assessment system and everything in between. We even made strategic adjustments to the way we proctored the test. However, we noticed that all of these factors have to do with the teacher/admin side and have little to do with student buy-in and motivation during the actual test. They all fail to address the issue of what’s in it for the kid who subjects himself to several weeks of sitting in front of a test for hours at a time.

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Creative Commons credit: J. Paxon Reyes http://www.flickr.com/photos/jpaxonreyes/6238548941/

I have found that most kids will actually try their best at first. However, on the second half of the test, when they get to yet another extensive reading passage they breathe a heavy sigh and just want it to be over. Some students trudge through giving something less than their best effort and others will just mark the last few answers without reading a thing.

The Incentive should be Big, Tangible and Immediate

As a department we agreed that we wanted to give the students a real incentive for doing their best. We didn’t want to do the typical pizza party or anything that would have to wait until next year. We wanted to give them the biggest incentive possible that would take effect as soon as the test results were available (in our case it turned out to be less than a month after the test)!

We gave every student an “A”

We decided to give the students a grade change incentive–the biggest one we could think of. If any student simply reached the “Met Standard” level (Third out of Four) of the test they would receive an “A” in their english class without having to turn in another assignment or take the final. We reasoned that if “Met Standard” isn’t an appropriate definition of an A then we don’t know what is.

Administration supported this Idea and we went with it–advertising it to our classes every chance we had leading up to the test.

A few people balked at the idea. What about the student who did nothing all year, has an F and then earns a “Met Standard” on the state test? Yep and there are always a group of those students. But, how would they have performed on the test without the incentive? Probably the same way they had done all year in class.

Creative Commons Image by Mike Overall https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/d03fb8de-653c-4d50-8b73-f858e40ef506

The Results were Staggering!

So what happened to our scores? That very year the number of students who exceeded or met standards rose by 17%–a district record! The next year that number rose another 8%.

25% percent growth over two years!

I’m sure that all of the changes and improvements we made as a department and school site played a role in the rise of our scores. So how do we know what the key determining factor was? Some will point to benchmark testing, others will point to our new curriculum and others will say it was just a “smarter” or “better” class than last year.

I had my students complete an anonymous, post-test survey and the results were staggering. 88% of the students indicated that they gave either maximum or near maximum effort. Then, when asked how strong the grade incentive was 72% rated the incentive 4 or higher on a scale of 1 to 5. That means three quarters of the test takers attributed their high level of effort to the grade incentive!

I wonder what our test scores would have been without the grade incentive? We will never know of course but it does cause us to question just exactly what the test is really measuring.

About Barton Keeler

Barton Keeler is a high school history and English teacher.

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