Why the Tests Must Be Kept Secret

I’ll be giving my third-graders the state test in another week, which means I had to read this year’s testing manual and something called an “Assessment Integrity Guide.” That’s the one that explains how vital it is that the contents of the tests are kept secret. It’s 44 pages of rules, justifications, warnings, and procedures, all with the aim of helping to “establish, develop, and implement a state assessment system that fairly, accurately, and with validity measures Michigan’s content standards.”

Which, as someone who’s given the test many times and knows the reality, is kind of funny, but I’ll get to that later.

Because states want to ensure the validity of the results (or at least, that’s what they claim), they go to great lengths to keep test items from escaping the classroom walls. Ideally, the items are known only to those who designed them and the students who are subjected to them.

That’s a problem.

Right now, the Texas legislature is considering a flurry of legislation introduced in the wake of a Texas Monthly article that reported on a study that found wild inconsistencies in readability levels on STAAR tests, with some passages at least one grade level higher than the grade they were meant to assess. The report echoes findings done by the same researchers in 2012. It’s led to a backlash against the test and questions about its validity, with defenders claiming there’s more to reading than Lexile levels and detractors pointing to the tests’ use in high-stakes decisions such as teacher evaluations and student retention.

There was an easy way to prevent the controversy: release the entire test to the public every year once testing had been completed. Let parents, education officials, and legislators see exactly what we’re asking students to know and be able to do. You can bet it would not have taken seven years to come to a head had the tests been available all along. As it stands in Texas right now, the debate is centered around an analysis done by a couple of researchers rather than the contents of the actual tests. Those remain a secret.

So why don’t states simply release the tests each year? Why not get everything out in the open?

According to the Michigan Assessment Integrity Guide,

“The primary goal of assessment security is to protect the integrity of the assessment and to assure that results are accurate and meaningful. To ensure that trends in achievement results can be calculated across years in order to provide longitudinal data, a certain number of test questions must be repeated from year to year. If any of these questions are made public, the validity of the test may be compromised.”

Color me skeptical.

First, let’s use simple language: States don’t want items out in the public because students, parents, and teachers could cheat, which would artificially inflate test scores. False positives, they might be called.

But states seem far less concerned about false negatives. There are few directives in the Assessment Integrity Guide regarding what must be done if a student decides to distract his entire class during testing (he’s supposed to be redirected and then removed, but there are no consequences for administrators who don’t do so).

There is nothing built into the testing system to prevent students from blazing through the tests as fast as they want by just clicking stuff. If a student’s father died the week before testing, she will not receive an exemption from that year’s test because the state is concerned about the integrity of the results. Technology issues are embarrassing, but no state has ever invalidated its results over them, even when they’re widespread. You can be sure their response would be different if those irregularities resulted in potentially higher scores instead of lower ones.

It's hard to take validity claims seriously when states seem far more concerned with artificially inflated scores but not at all worried about artificially deflated ones. Click To Tweet

Second, the claim that test items can’t be released so longitudinal data can be compared is specious. If you want the most valid longitudinal data, you’d use the exact same test every year, but states don’t do that because they’re afraid of cheating. Also, state tests change with the political winds; in my state, the M-STEP replaced the MEAP and now the M-STEP is on its last legs. There’s also the issue of changing cut scores, which makes it challenging to accurately compare year-to-year data.

If you’re going to keep tests secret, it’s nice to have what seems like a legitimate reason to keep people in the dark, and test validity fits that bill. But since that reason is less than convincing, it’s possible there are other reasons states want the tests shielded from public view. Here are three possibilities.

Money

It costs money to create tests, so one way to spend less is to reuse reading passages and test items. Once items are released, they can’t be used again, so one reason to keep them a secret is to save time and money, something Michigan at least admits (in one sentence) in their lengthy Integrity Assessment Guide (page 5).

But is that a good enough reason? Given how much the results impact students, teachers, schools, and the public’s perception of the education system, it seems legislators should be eager to commit the money necessary to develop a high-quality test each year, while also promoting transparency with the aim of assuring the public that the tests are what they’re purported to be (a valid measure of student learning). The only way to do both is to release the tests in their entirety and create new ones each year.

When states claim they have to keep the tests secret because of validity, what they’re really saying is that they’re keeping the tests secret because they’re cheap.

Or maybe it’s because they’re afraid of what the public will think of their tests.

To Perpetuate the Failure Narrative

Every year around test time, someone calls for legislators to take the test. And they should. So should every parent. If states are going to require schools to rate teachers, and if they’re going to release “report cards” for schools, all with the idea that parents should be informed about their child’s education, then why shouldn’t they also release the tests so that parents can see the tool used to determine the other ratings?

Perhaps it’s because states fear that adults might look at the tests and wonder, “What the hell?”

And if they question the tests, then they might question the results of the tests. If they question the results, then they may start to question the rankings of schools and the ratings of teachers that are based on those results. They might even be skeptical about the whole “American education sucks” thing. And if they question that, well… there are a lot of people who have a lot of power and make a lot of money off the “American education sucks” thing.

In fact, we know this is exactly what happens when adults take the tests, or at least the test items that states do release. From just one of many articles written on the subject:

“The first argument arose over a question about how the first paragraph of the reading selection affected “the plot.” The directions said to choose two answers from six choices. We all agreed on one, but three panelists selected three different choices as the second answer.

All were surprised when others didn’t pick the same response, so they advocated for their answers – attempting to sway consensus to their side. A similar scenario played out in two questions that asked test takers to identify the “best” supporting evidence for a conclusion.

In one case only four choices were given, and we picked three different answers. Then we explained and argued and maybe even raised our voices – it got animated a couple of times – and no one changed answers, though we could see the legitimacy of each other’s reasoning.”

For now, this happens in small pockets with people who have a vested interest in how the state uses the results. Were entire tests released to the public en masse, you’d soon have Facebook challenges called “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grade Texan?” that would result in widespread ridicule of the exams.

If these tests could be googled, or if they showed up on your timeline, there is a real risk that the failure narrative would fall apart. Every time a journalist lazily wrote that “45% of third-graders can’t read,” she’d be met by an avalanche of online editors who would correctly point out that not reaching an arbitrary cut score on a test designed to separate students into four bands of performance is not the same as saying someone can’t read, especially when the things they’re being asked to read are on esoteric topics or written at an inappropriately high grade level.

You’d have English teachers with Master’s degrees explaining how many questions they missed, how the test determined they were “partially proficient”, and how the tests we’re using to determine students’ language skills don’t themselves use proper grammar.

You’d have mathematicians pointing out mistakes on math tests.

You’d have successful people who do poorly realizing that maybe the tests aren’t predictive of life outcomes.

If the general public could actually see the exams, they might realize that the reading tests aren’t actually testing whether students can read at all. Even assuming the tests are on grade-level and the questions are age- appropriate and not deliberately confusing, the tests actually assess whether or not students: 

  1. Care enough to carefully read the texts and try their best to answer the questions.
  2. Know enough about test-taking to successfully navigate the many twists, turns, and traps test makers lay for them.
  3. Have the stamina to try just as hard at the end of the test as at the beginning.
  4. Have background knowledge on the topic they’re reading about.
  5. Can answer complicated questions about what they’ve read.
  6. Whether they’ve had the opportunity to learn the skills being tested, since tests are usually taken before the conclusion of the school year and students may have missed instruction due to attendance.
  7. Can focus in a potentially less-than-ideal testing environment.

I try not to be being conspiratorial, but when there is big money on the side of school choice and those with that money are using it to buy politicians and write legislation that harms public schools, it’s hard not to consider the idea that many in state government have a personal interest in perpetuating the failure narrative and that they see test results as the surest way to do it.

But that only works if the tests yield results that portray schools negatively. And those portrayals only stick if the general public accepts the results as valid.

And that only happens as long as the tests remain locked away and kept from prying eyes. Because as someone who sees these tests every year, I can tell you that you would be appalled. You would question the very thing states claim they’re trying to preserve. And some of you would not surpass the cut score.

 

 

 

The Tests Don’t Test What They Purport to Test

test

My third graders (they’re eight or nine years old — keep that in mind) have finished their state testing for the year. They got off easy — just two tests, ELA and Math. The State of Michigan, a few weeks before the testing window opened, sent a letter to parents explaining the purpose of the tests:

“[The tests] are designed to provide information on student knowledge and ability to be career- and college-ready upon graduation. Schools and districts use the results for curriculum planning and school improvement initiatives that benefit all students.” [Source]

Let’s ignore for the moment the dubious claim that any test can predict how “career- and college-ready” a person will be nine years later and focus on what the tests are supposedly designed to do: “provide information on student knowledge.”

If that were true, most teachers would be fine with them. Want to find out if kids can read? Give them something to read and ask them a handful of questions about it. Need to determine if teachers are teaching kids math? Give them 20 math problems that they might someday encounter in the real world and see if they can figure them out.

Confucious said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

The same is true of those who make these tests.

Because instead of assessing whether or not my third-graders can read or do math, here is what they were really tested on:

Stamina

It took my best student nearly three hours to finish the ELA test and almost two to complete the math test. Let me state this as clearly as I can: You don’t need three hours to find out if a kid can read or do math. A three-hour test doesn’t assess ability; it tests stamina.

How to Navigate Foreign Formats

The state of Michigan provides a way for students to practice using the tools they will encounter on the tests. And, in fairness, it does a decent job. However, of the 30 questions provided, not one of them required students to click on the tool necessary to enter a fraction for an answer. So I’ll give you one guess what happened when my third-graders had to enter a fraction on the actual exam.

Intrinsic Motivation

There are, as yet, no stakes attached to these tests for the students. And they know this. The state of Michigan makes sure of it. From the same letter as the one referenced above:

“State assessment results do not impact student grades.”

They don’t impact anything else, either, as far as the students are concerned. Which means that there are really only two reasons for them to try their best. Either they’ve learned to always give their all, or they want to please adults. No wonder, then, that a handful of students breeze through the test every year. I can’t say I don’t understand why.

In an earlier article, I suggested a potential remedy: bribery. That’s because studies show that it works. In one, researchers concluded that if the U.S. had used financial incentives during the 2012 PISA test, the country’s math ranking would have risen from 36th to 19th. In another, the impact of incentives had an effective size similar to a one standard deviation increase in teacher quality or a 20% reduction in class size.

Grit

For the record, I have no problem with these tests assessing student perseverance. Persistence, grit, or whatever you want to call it is a trait that serves people well in school and in life. The tests do an excellent job of assessing it with long reading passages lined up one after another and multistep story problems embedded in a test that students know will take more than two hours.

But if grit is what we’re testing, then be honest about it. Don’t say it’s a reading test or a math test, when it’s really a test of character. School districts use these results to make curricular decisions and journalists report the results to inform the public on the status of our schools. So when a test doesn’t test what it purports to test, it leaves districts fixing a problem that may not exist while ignoring those that do, and newspapers describing the wrong deficiencies.

Reading Ability

You have to be a good reader to do well on the ELA test. That’s good, to a certain extent. But what the test doesn’t do a good job of doing is determining what reading skills students have.  If you want to find out if students understand cause and effect relationships, you can do that with a fairly simple text. Same goes for every other skill students are supposed to learn K-3. But the test doesn’t include below grade level passages, which means that if you can’t read the text, it doesn’t matter how well you can find the main idea, or understand the organizational structure of a non-fiction article, or differentiate between your and the author’s point of view,  or literally any other thing your teacher did an excellent job teaching you.

And if you aren’t reading at grade level come test time, you’re really screwed on the math test. Because the math test only sort of tests math knowledge. Mostly, it’s another reading test. So when the state of Michigan claims that schools “use the results for curriculum planning” and the results show that your students aren’t very good at math, you might want to think twice before throwing out your math curriculum, because you may have a reading problem.

Don’t Trust the Results

The tests don’t test what they purport to test, which makes the results confusing and not very useful. Schools believe they have a problem here when they may actually have a problem there. Journalists write stories with headlines like:

Less than half of 12th-graders can read or do math proficiently

65 Percent of Public School 8th Graders Not Proficient in Reading 

Only 25% of Nashville elementary, middle school students on grade level in reading, math

 

Those are misleading, and they are the gift that keeps giving to those who want to dismantle public schools.  If you set out to design a system to undermine public education, you could do a lot worse than designing tests that are harder than they used to be, longer than they need to be, and have no stakes for the people who take them.

There’s a saying, “Don’t believe the hype,” which suggests people ignore the marketing and media buzz around a phenomenon. When it comes to the standardized tests students are taking today, I suggest people “not believe the tripe.” Because the tests just don’t test what they claim to test.

 

Whole-Grain Pancakes and Courageous Teachers

.

The headline jumped at me from my Facebook feed.

Middle School teacher says he was suspended for making pancakes during PSSAs

My first reaction was, “Clickbait. There must be more to the story.” So I read it. And there was more to the story. By the time I got to the end of it, I said, “You have to be (expletive) kidding me.” I had to repress a very strong impulse to fire off a fusillade of emails to the many moronic adults involved in this, um… incident(?).

Here’s what happened: It was testing day. An eighth-grade social studies teacher in Pennsylvania named Kyle Byler decided to make whole-grain pancakes for his students so they could eat during the test. The assistant principal, a woman with the perfectly villainous surname of Grill, walked in, and, according to an article on Lancaster Online, “questioned why he was making breakfast for his students.”

(Because, how dare he…?)

Within 24 hours, Byler was pulled into a meeting with administrators. He left that meeting convinced he was going to be fired.

Byler is, of course, exactly the kind of teacher who always seems to pop up in stories like these. He’s effective, dedicated, selfless, and popular. Parents call him “the eighth-grade dad.” Students call him, “an awesome teacher.” He helps out with student council and coaches basketball. So it’s probably not surprising that 30 students spent two hours protesting outside the middle school when Byler wasn’t at work the following day and 100 people showed up at the next school board meeting.

Byler wasn’t sure what he did wrong. Neither is any other thinking person. But Nicole Reigelman, who has the thankless job of being the spokesperson for the Pennsylvania DOE, had an idea. While serving food is not actually a violation of any testing rule, tending to a griddle, according to Reigelman, “would have likely interfered with ‘actively monitoring’ the assessment.”

Let’s think about that. The state tells teachers that they have to “actively monitor” students during a test that teachers don’t want to give in the first place, that will be used to label their schools as failures, that will feed the bullshit narrative that American schools are failing, and that can result in a low evaluation and possibly even their own dismissal.

And the reason teachers have to “actively monitor” students is to ensure that the results are valid. Except that, regardless of how well students are actively monitored, the test results aren’t valid. They’re taken over the course of just a few days out of the whole year and there are no stakes for the students, which means there’s really no reason for students to even try on them.

So, really, teachers are supposed to actively monitor their students to ensure the appearance of validity, so that when the state — results now clutched firmly in its punitive fist — comes back and says, “You guys suck,” everyone can nod their heads and say, “Well, those teachers were really watching those kids. We know they didn’t cheat, so I guess they really do suck.” (And since 95% of students at Byler’s school come from low-income households, you can be pretty sure that’s exactly what the state will say.)

The reason the teacher is asked to ensure this veneer of validity for a test that is likely to be used to harm both teachers and students is because, even though the state claims these tests are so important that they have to pass rules to ensure students are actively monitored, they’re not quite important enough for the state to hire its own proctors to administer the exams. That would cost money, so they dump the job on teachers.

The ones who better not serve any damn whole-grain pancakes during their precious tests.

But if the surreal stupidity ended with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, that wouldn’t be so egregious. We expect Kafkaesque bureaucracies. Let’s talk about the assistant principal, Marian Grill.

One of Byler’s students is quoted in the article as saying, “The moment she walked in, everybody turned. She was the distraction. Not pancakes. Not Byler.”

Grill is an educator. Or at least, that’s what she’s supposed to be. And the ball was totally in her court in this situation. Not only did she drop that ball, she jammed a screwdriver through it. Here is what Grill should have done upon entering Byler’s room:

–Noticed students quietly working on their tests while eating whole-grain pancakes.
–Thought to herself, “What a dedicated teacher these students have. Not only is he trying to ensure they do their best on this important test by doing exactly what the research says schools should do (feed kids), he’s doing it out of his own pocket.”
–Smiled at Mr. Byler. Gave him a thumbs-up. Maybe asked for a pancake. Left the room.

I don’t know Marian Grill, but I think I know her type. She seems like the kind of administrator who watches you teach a flawless lesson, then criticizes you because the floor was messy or Joey was leaning in his chair. She’s the member of the Homeowner’s Association who has a problem with you flying an Easter flag. She’s the kind of person who, intoxicated by even the smallest amount of power, abuses the hell out of it. And I guarantee you that Marian Grill has no problem with pancakes. She has a problem with teachers doing things without clearing it with her first.

This should have ended with her, if only her ego had allowed it to.

Fortunately, petty tyrants like Marian Grill can be quickly exposed in today’s world. Just ten years ago, assistant principals like Grill could act with impunity. With an obvious imbalance of power and an awful economy, teachers wouldn’t take the risk of antagonizing their bosses. Times have changed, and social media is mistreated teachers’ strongest weapon. It can do what your feckless union can’t or won’t.

You don’t need strength in numbers.

You don’t need t-shirts.

You don’t need a vote.

All you need is a compelling story and to be in the right.

You see the influence of social media across the country, from the West Virginia and Oklahoma walk-outs, organized without union leadership by teachers who put out the call on Facebook and Twitter, to individual teachers like Kyle Byler, who, instead of keeping his mouth shut out of a fear of sabotaging his chances at finding another job after losing this one, had the courage to fight back by simply telling his story and letting the indignant masses do what indignant masses do in the digital age.

Byler kept his job, and the school district, as districts often do when caught with their pants around their ankles, claimed that no, no, no his job was never in any jeopardy at all.

You can believe the embarrassed school district officials who didn’t want this thing getting any bigger than it had, or you can believe the teacher.

Regardless, his district owes him more than his job. He should have never feared for that to start with. They owe him an apology because they’re the ones that lost sight of the purpose of education.  They owe him the money they withheld during his suspension. They might owe him a new assistant principal.

The lessons here are many.

First, state tests make people act like fools. It’s the unintended consequences of these tests that are always the problem. Well-meaning people lose focus on what really matters in their quest to tack a couple of percentage points onto last year’s scores.

Second, we need administrators to rise above misguided state priorities. Just because the state tells them to care about the test, doesn’t mean they have to. Just because the state wants third-graders “college and career-ready,” doesn’t mean educators have to buy into that standard. Policies aren’t made by people in schools. That’s why so many of them stink. But administrators and teachers are in schools. They are the experts. They know better. And sometimes, they need whole-grain pancakes more than they need to be actively monitored.

Third, we need more courageous teachers like Kyle Byler. As he and the teachers who walked-out across this country have proven, courageous teachers — those who stand up and speak out, who call attention to exploitation, unfairness, and plain old human stupidity — improve their own circumstances, but they also make things better for teachers everywhere.

So serve the whole-grain pancakes. Do what’s right for kids. And if someone tries to stop you, plaster their name all over the Internet. They deserve what they get.

Want Better Scores on the State Test? Bribe Your Students!

.

Way back when “Return of the Mack” was on regular rotation in my off-campus apartment and Randy Quaid saved the planet from aliens, I first learned about Alfie Kohn. I was in an undergraduate teacher prep class and we read an article of Kohn’s (it might have been this one) where he argued that rewarding kids at school for things they did well wasn’t any better than punishing them for things they did poorly. Kohn expands on this idea in his book, Punished By Rewards, which made a big splash in the 90s because, while society had moved away from the draconian punishments of yesteryear and state laws now forbade corporal punishment, rewards were passed out like, well, candy. Or colorful pencils. Or those awesome scratch-and-sniff stickers. Or gold stars. Or promises of ice cream parties. Or erasers. Or, well, you get the point. And now here came Kohn scolding teachers all over again.

And so I started my teaching career as most naive, just-released-from-college kids do. With the proper amount of self-righteousness and arrogance, I marched into my classroom determined to offer no rewards. Students would learn for knowledge’s sake. We would build a community and have respect for each other. We would talk about our problems and address underlying causes of misbehavior.

Then the real world hit and doing all of those things was really, really hard.

Some kids were just plain jerks who needed to be taught a few hard lessons, if only so the rest of the class would see that you can’t go through life treating people like dirt and get nothing harsher than a counseling session, a behavior plan, and rewards for doing the very things every other kid in the class was doing as a matter of course. And so I started rewarding some kids, punishing others, and playing that whole game.

And not long after that, I learned first-hand what I had read in a boring old classroom. Alfie was right. Rewards don’t really work. They’re manipulative, frequently arbitrary, and basically no different than punishments (they just feel nicer).

Fast-forward to 2011 and Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, made many of the same arguments. Citing some of the same research as Kohn, Pink concluded that extrinsic rewards are usually a bad idea. Motivation is largely intrinsic and the way to tap into that motivation is through autonomy, a slow and steady march toward mastery, and by doing meaningful things in service to something larger than the self.

All of that is well and good. I accept that it’s generally a bad idea to reward students for their performance and to bribe them to behave better. Make the work interesting. Offer choice. Don’t be such a dictator. Provide feedback so students understand their progress toward mastery. Assign meaningful work. Do all that.

HOWEVER.

The testing window opened in my state this week. Over the next two months, students from third graders to high school juniors will take The Big Test. And big it is. Schools will be judged on the results. They’ll be labeled on some silly statewide reporting system. Some will face consequences. Teachers will be evaluated based on the results. Some may lose their jobs. The scores will influence public opinion of American education as a whole and either burnish or tarnish the reputations of districts, schools, and even entire state’s education systems and policies.

There are plenty of problems with The Big Test, (one of which might be the questionable timing of asking students to take it after they’ve just had 10 days off for spring break, as my wife’s students did this week) but perhaps none are bigger than this:

There is no reason students should try hard on it.

In my state, students get nothing for doing well (it’s kind of like being a teacher in that regard).

No scholarship money.
No name in the local paper.
Not even a pat on the back.

Students suffer no negative consequences for doing poorly.* Nothing will happen to a student who decides to treat the entire enterprise exactly how it deserves to be treated, as a joke. Their scores won’t be reflected on their report cards. Grade point averages will be unaffected. Graduation is not at risk. Students’ parents won’t even learn the results for a number of months after the test is over (and by then, most won’t care). Students won’t be retained or asked to leave school. The only thing they lose is time, and they lose more of it the harder they try.

Subjecting the exams to Pink’s criteria, the tests offer its takers no autonomy. Because it’s a one-time event for which they receive no useful feedback, students cannot progress toward mastery. As for meaning, there is no purpose that students give a hoot about. It is, for almost every student, the very definition of drudgery. It’s busy work. By the state’s own declared aims, it’s got nothing to do with them.  For students, it’s as low-stakes as you can get.

All of which is why you should unabashedly bribe your students to take their time and do their best.

In the adult world, we offer money. In the classroom, we offer pizza, ice cream,  a dance party, video game time, or anything that will make students think twice before just clicking on answers so they can be done with the thing. When there is no expectation of intrinsic motivation, we have to find other ways to get people to try.

And here’s the thing: Bribery works! I have proof!

Every three years, 15-year-olds from around the world take the PISA exam. The results of this test are reported breathlessly in education circles and often lead to huge policy changes in the countries of the students who struggle. A group of researchers wondered an obvious thing. Did kids actually try on these tests? They had reason to be skeptical. There are no stakes for students who take the PISA; they never even get to see their results. And student effort matters. As I tell a handful of parents every year, it’s hard to report on a student’s abilities when they don’t try on their work.

American students traditionally fall in the middle of the pack on the PISA, but perhaps they underperform because they just don’t see the point in doing their best. The researchers decided to test motivation by paying students for their performance. So they pulled 25 math questions off previous PISA exams and they split students into two groups. One group’s participants received $25 and then handed over a buck for every question they missed. Students in the other group got nothing. Here’s what researchers found:

  • Students from Shanghai, who ranked first on the 2012 PISA, did just as well whether they were paid or not.
  • With the exception of low-ability students, U.S. students did better if they were paid.
  • When paid, U.S. students attempted more questions in the second half of the test and were more likely to answer those which they did attempt correctly.
  • Researchers predicted that if the U.S. had used financial incentives during the 2012 PISA test, the country’s math ranking would have risen to 19th, from 36th. (And to 32nd if all other countries also paid their students.)

Here’s a graph:

And here’s more about the study if you want the dirty deets.

Steven Levitt, the economist famous for co-writing the Freakonomics books, performed similar experiments in three Chicago schools. Bribery worked there, too. While there was some variation, Levitt and colleagues concluded:

“The magnitude of the impact of the incentives on that day’s test are quite large: approximately 0.12−0.22 standard deviations, which is similar to effect sizes achieved through a one-standard deviation increase in teacher quality or 20% reductions in class size.”

“Overall, we conclude that both financial and non-financial incentives can serve as useful tools to increase student effort and motivation on otherwise low-stakes assessment tests.”

To bribe effectively, Levitt’s research suggests you do the following:

Offer immediate rewards

If students have to wait, bribery doesn’t work. So you won’t be able to bribe students for improved performance on the state test because the results take too long. But you can bribe them on their effort, and the research suggests that you should.

Have established credibility

Levitt had the most success bribing students at the school where he had done previous experiments. Students there believed him when he said they would get money for doing well. He had less success at less familiar schools. Levitt surmised that those students, having never been paid to perform in a school setting, probably didn’t believe he would deliver and so the proffered bribe had little impact on motivation.

Leverage the power of loss aversion

Bribery worked better when students were given the reward at the start and knew they would have to give it back if they failed. So if you really want to be effective (and yes, maybe a little cruel), buy your class donuts before the test, place one on the corner of each desk, and threaten to take it away if you think they aren’t trying their hardest. (Hey, quit looking at me like that. I’m just reporting the science.)

Consider the age of your students

Smaller awards work with smaller kids, but you’ll need better stuff for high schoolers. Cheap little trophies worked just as well with elementary students as did the promise of ten bucks. However, it took a larger dollar amount ($20) to get older kids to give a damn.

 

You can read the whole study here. But if you would rather not, I understand. And I’m not going to bribe you to do so.

I will, however, attempt to entice you to join my subscriber list. By signing on to the Teacher Habits blog, you will be the first to know about newly released books. You’ll get discounts on those books. You’ll also get new articles emailed directly to your inbox. And you’ll be the first people I ask for advice on book covers and titles. Now aren’t those things better than a trophy?

SUBSCRIBE ME UP

* I am aware that there are stakes for certain students. Those with third-grade reading laws that require retention (my state of Michigan joined that merry bandwagon last year) and students who have to pay to retake the SAT may have all the motivation they need to try hard.