Schools aim to boost key test scores with treats

Joseph Schell/Special to The S.F. Examiner
Joseph Schell/Special to The S.F. Examiner
Two years ago, students at Mission High School 
decided Principal Eric Guthertz should get a tattoo 
of the school’s mascot if their test scores improved. 
That is the tattoo he sports today on his left arm.
It’s a dilemma that schools face every year. While the fate of teachers, principals and even school districts hangs on scores from federally mandated standardized testing, students themselves have little stake in the reams of bubble sheets they must fill out each spring.
“The overall attitude toward these tests is, ‘If it doesn’t show up on my report card and if I don’t need it to graduate, it doesn’t matter,’” said Steven Bonaccorso, an English teacher at John O’Connell High School in the Mission district. “They find them incredibly boring and tedious, and frankly, I don’t blame them.”

The results of April’s California Standards Tests factor into a school’s Academic Performance Index, or API. That number can influence everything from the number of admission applications the school gets to whether its doors will stay open.

Test-prep pep rallies have become common at schools across the country in the era of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that requires states to evaluate schools based on test scores. But some schools take motivation a step further.

At Mission High School, Principal Eric Guthertz lets students vote on a reward they will earn if scores rise.
Two years ago, they decided Guthertz should get a tattoo of the school’s mascot, which he sports today on his left arm. Last year, chefs from top-rated local restaurants cooked a gourmet meal for all 900 students.

After scores went up last summer, students earned a dance cruise, to be held this spring — although according to the terms of the deal, if Guthertz cannot secure a boat, he will have to eat 25 live worms.
“We’ve had a 97-point gain in three years,” Guthertz said. “I’m not saying the incentives are responsible for that, but they help, and they’re fun.”

At O’Connell High School, which had an API of 594 out of 1,000 in 2011, students who do well on their tests this year will have their grades “bumped up” in that subject. Depending on a student’s score, an F could become a D, and even a B could rise to an A.

“We have some bright kids, they’re just really not trying their hardest,” said Principal Martin Gomez, who introduced the concept this year after seeing it succeed in the Fontana Unified School District, where he was a vice principal.
Gomez’s former school had four years of API growth after introducing the incentive, and Gomez said teachers felt that students took the test more seriously.

O’Connell teachers were more difficult to persuade, Gomez said, but given the stakes, they agreed to give it a try.

“The message that we’re sending to kids is, it’s important to do well on these tests, because that’s how the community is judging us,” explained Sally Jenkins-Stevens, an O’Connell math coach.

“But at the same time, it’s not the only way to be smart in math.”

Testing, testing 123s

The California Standards Tests are the main factor in a school’s Academic Performance Index. The results can have serious consequences for schools, which in some cases have been closed or reorganized due to low scores.
  • Students are tested in grades 2-11
  • Tests are in math, English, science and social sciences/history
  • All tests are multiple choice, with 60 to 75 questions each
  • Tests must be administered each spring, between “12 days before and 12 days after the day on which 85 percent of the instructional year is completed.”
Source: California Department of Education