George Lucas Educational Foundation

Incorporating Standardized Test Scores Into Course Grades As A Student Incentive or Cutting Down the Christmas Tree

Incorporating Standardized Test Scores Into Course Grades As A Student Incentive or Cutting Down the Christmas Tree

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There are those at my institution, single high school district, not counting our 2 alternative ed sites, who believe a significant number of students have so little motivation and interest in the state testing that they bubble figures on their answer sheets, put their heads down and take advantage of a the time to nap. We are one of those institution where the administration does focus on test performance. There are teachers who have gained the support of the administrators who would like to reward the students who make their best effort on the standard assessment with an increase in their course grade. Any comments on this as a practice?

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David Wees's picture
David Wees
Formative Assessment Specialist for New Visions for Public Schools

I recommend that everyone here watch Daniel Pink's TED talk on motivation. To sum it up, children aren't going to see increased motivation to do well on their state exams for extrinsic rewards. "Doing well" on those requires a high level of cognitive sophistication, and as you push yourself too hard for an external reward, your ability to complete the task actually diminishes.


As for the data wall, I'm horrified. Spend less time teaching to the test, and more time focusing on literacy and numeracy, and experiential learning, and your students will do better on the state exam. My recommendation is to ignore the exam completely and focus on improving student engagement in learning.

Vicki Caruana's picture

When I taught 8th grade, and the lowest 25%, I did my best to talk to students prior to testing about their options if they show gains from the previous year and if they didn't. For many that meant they would not either progress to high school OR if they did, they wouldn't get any elective courses and have to take remedial courses instead. That was an external motivator to be sure. But no one really tells them what this all means. Including test scores in their course grades is similar to what states like NY used to do with their Regents exams. You had to have the course grades AND Regents' scores to be promoted.

Peg Cain's picture
Peg Cain
Early Childhood Coordinator

Totally agree with David Wees! Early childhood children HAVE, are born with intrinsic motivation, we are killing it in our school systems. And a GREAT breakfast for "mind food" would not include pancakes (unless they are whole wheat)and syrup (empty hollow mind blowing carbs, that only last for 1 hour, then drop) stick to protein and whole wheat or oatmeal and a fruit (real ones, not canned)!!

MandybFlora's picture

To David Wees,

I agree about not teaching to the test, but I do think with all other stakeholders focused so much on the test, we should be honest with our students about their results. Whether I like it or not (and I don't), the results matter.

Other than our test talks, which are also focused on goals that will help them academically overall- not just on the test, the instrcution is not about THE TEST. It is about literacy, numeracy, experiential learning, etc.

If it were up to me, I would put less importance on the test. But when the state department comes in and says, if your
test scores don't raise- you'll lose your jobs. I don't know the balance between too much assessment and not enough accountability, but we haven't reached it.

If you get the time, check out Freakonomics. It talks about how we do work for extrinsic motivators.

Jason McKinney's picture

I have to say I agree with MandybFlora. I am curious to see if David Wees has a response.

So many of my students have family units (or lack thereof) where they are struggling just to keep themselves from falling apart. They are not intrinsically motivated to do anything but fall apart. In a edutopian world we would explain to them how important these test scores are for their future and for themselves as an intellectual...but at our 7th grade level there really is no importance other than whether our school passes AYP and whether or not teachers get criticized. Great extrinsic motivation for teachers to try and "intrinsically" motivate our students.

And pancakes....why not....better than the energy drinks they bring with them in the mornings from home! ha! :)

Students aren't allowed to chew gum at our school and of course they love gum. So at the start of every testing session I give them some gum. Such a simple thing and it seems to put them in good spirits at least, before starting the test!

Howard Kellogg's picture

I'm most influenced by David Wees' post and the video by Daniel Pink. While the "test" may represent the "bar" we have to clear, it is not the "bar" that must occupy our total attention. We must focus on "clearing the bar." In that sense, and in the context of my students, who are not those you would find in IB courses, but are the ones "not to be left behind," in addition to content for the test, skills of numeracy, literacy and critical thinking are as important. I will also incorporate some free-thinking, open ended pieces for my students that represent what Daniel Pink advocates. I'll take a look at Freakonomics. My son is a fan of that. I appreciate the information about the New York Regents. The state of California is perfectly willing to hold administrators and teachers accountable, but not the students. It's the state's test, they ought to provide the motivator. At one time they did and my son earned some cash for college.

David Wees's picture
David Wees
Formative Assessment Specialist for New Visions for Public Schools

I think the analogy of clearing the bar is a good one for a number of reasons.

Imagine you are back in school at a track meet (which by the way don't happen anymore in a lot of schools) and you have a high jump set up. The bar for the high jump is initially set so that every student has an opportunity to jump over the bar. Students who cannot jump, for whatever reason, do not participate. Over time, the bar is raised until only a few top students manage to make it over, and eventually a tie occurs, or there is a winner of the competition declared. Every child gets to experience some level of success, although for many children this success will still be a relative success as they will naturally compare their ability.

If the high jump was like how we run standardized tests, every child would be expected to be able to jump over the same bar and labelled a failure if they don't succeed. For some children the bar would be set too low, and they would set lower expectations for themselves in the future. For other children the bar is set too high, and they will label themselves a future. Many of them would not participate in future competitions simply by dropping out of the track and field event. For some children, the entire exercise would be ridiculous because they couldn't possibly jump over. Further, we would judge schools and teachers based on their ability to make kids jump over the bar, without concern about who they are working with. As an aside, some school districts (like NYC for example) would be using a special rubber bar that they can flex to ensure that the "right" number of kids are able to pass it.

David Wees's picture
David Wees
Formative Assessment Specialist for New Visions for Public Schools

I worked in an inner city school in Brooklyn where we struggled with student motivation as you suggest. Our students were 95% Title 1, and our school was easily one of the worst managed schools in Brooklyn (we had 4 principals in 3 years, and the last of those ended up being fired for cheating on state exams).

Focus on making what you do fun, rather than on ensuring you meet absolutely every criteria of the state exam. Focus on mastery of a particular topic.

For example, my colleague taught physics, and one year he made sure he covered every topic. The next year he focused on kinematics and made sure that every kid really understood the concepts from that one (fairly large) unit. He took about 6 weeks to cover all of the other topics before the exam. He went from his first year where 2 kids barely passing the Regents exam to nearly every single student in his class passing for the following two years.

In other words, he ignored trying to cover all of the requirements of the state exam, focused in on what his kids needed to be able to do on a particular area of the assessment, and looked for mastery in that area.

Howard Kellogg's picture

It's encouraging to read that David has experience in the urban setting. I too teach a physics class, and yes, I end up doing deep mastery in kinematics and a survey of the energy topics. I also have suitable success on the state test. It is a practice that evidences the value of numeracy and scientific literacy in the curriculum.

Howard Kellogg's picture

I like David's interpretation of the "bar." My own interpretation is related to my "action" sports of snowboarding, whitewater sports, some cycling and equestrian trail riding. You travel where you look. If you fix your visual attention on a hazard, you run into it. So much for fixing attention on what could be content questions on the test. Be equipped to do more than recite. This is where numeracy and literacy comes into play, and how students have a better chance to clear the bar.

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