Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Rewarding & punishing students for test scores

An Orange County High School was using a student ID colour-coding scheme to visibly rank and sort students according to their scores on standardized tests. The Orange Country Register reports:
Kennedy High School in La Palma is requiring students to carry school ID cards in one of three colors based on their performance on the California Standards Tests – black, gold or white – plus a spiral-bound homework planner with a cover of a matching color. The black card, which is the highest level, and the gold card give students a range of special campus privileges and discounts, while the white card gives students no privileges and forces them to stand in a separate cafeteria lunch line.
There is so much wrong with this that I'm not sure where to start... but here goes:
  • Students should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information. Psychological research tells us that there are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Not only are there two different kinds of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic, but they also tend to be inversely related. That is, when one grows, the other tends to shrink. Because of this, adults have no business ever prying on their children's extrinsic motivation to learn. Also keep in mind that this was both a reward and punishment system; the absence of the reward is the punishment (the stick is hidden in the carrot). If we wanted to extinguish a student's love for learning, I could not devise a better program than this.
  • Sometimes with the best intentions, schools end up doing questionable things in the name of raising achievement. When achievement is code for high scores and increasing achievement means nothing more than test scores are low make them go up, reward and punishment schemes like this are as predictable as they are destructive. Ultimately there are two problems with tests: right answers don't necessarily signal understanding and wrong answers don't necessarily signal its absence.  Because tests measure what matters least and often encourage a narrowing of the curriculum and test preparation, low scores on tests is nothing to be ashamed of and high scores are nothing to be proud of. So even if this colour-coded caste system scheme did increase test scores, this at best provides us with no useful information about the school and at worst tells us the school's priorities are about raising scores not raising children. In other words, the goal is as flawed as the method.
  • The trouble with this approach is that it intensifies the damage our obsession with testing is doing. Anthony Cody writes about this on his blog where he explains that through branding and labelling a student's worth is literally defined by testsandgrades in such a way that the majority of the children are relegated to a subclass. Cody explains that the quality of a student's learning should never be reduced to a few test scores because the tests can't tell us what we ask of them. Real learning is messy - standardized tests are nothing if not infinitely tidy. See the problem? Or as Alfie Kohn puts it, "I've come to realize that standardized tests serve mostly to make dreadful forms of teaching appear successful."
  • Those who decided on this policy may not know anything about eugenics or believe in eugenic principles, but this policy is what a eugenicist would do, under conditions a eugenicist would have endorsed. This is what David B. Cohen wrote about in his post Eugenic Legacies Still Influence Education where he makes the point that this ranking and ordering of students served absolutely no useful educational value. The stratification and segregation of students does nothing but endorse a caste system. While I can see why schools might want to educate student's on what a caste system is - this is not even remotely the same as suggesting we should immerse children in one.
  • Campbell's Law tells us that the more any one indicator (such as test scores) are used for decision making, the more that indicator will suffer from corruption, therefore, bastardizing the very processes it was meant to monitor. We can bemoan this inconvenience all we want. We can play the blame game until we are blue in the face, but it won't change a damn thing. We can no more successfully ignore this social science law than we could ignore a law like gravity. 
Since this story broke, the California school district has chosen to discontinue some elements of the incentive plan including the removal of the colour-coded binders and student IDs. They also noted that the incentives of a public nature, such as different lunch lines, would be no longer used. While some may see this as a victory, I don't. The school district has already pledged to create a similar but less public way of rewarding and punishing their students via test scores. This tells me that the only thing they deemed inappropriate about their incentive program was that it was too public and they got caught.

I guess what I'm really saying is that bad stuff will return if it isn't rejected for being bad... and this is bad.


  1. I know that I, for one, would disintegrate in such a system. I am a perfectionist, and I would punish myself for not doing well enough anyway, so this added pressure would just push me over the edge.

    My English teacher ripped up my standardised test results for me. I salute him.

  2. We are supposed to be creating life time learners and leaders of our future. In order to achieve this goal we need to help build their self esteem. Focus on their strengths and notice that each and every individual student brings "something special to the table" and focus on that strength and "something special" when it comes to their learning. Categorizing the students is detrimental to their learning and to their psyche. Schools are supposed to be the one environment the students can go to and feel a place of belonging and feel that they can be successful. Reading about the card system instantly made me mad but also sad.


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