Chico High tries bribes to motivate students

Too many kids avoiding STAR tests leads to gifts, punishments

Students in grades two through 11 must take the STAR test to gain scores that rank individual students, their schools and their district.

Students in grades two through 11 must take the STAR test to gain scores that rank individual students, their schools and their district.

Photo By Cindi Christie/ZUMA Press

Every teenager knows that standardized testing is the pits. Little bubbles, long periods and no grades to show for the effort that goes in. So why put in any effort at all, right?

Well, that seems to have been the attitude of one too many Chico High students in years past. Attendance for the annual STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) test had been lower than expected over the years. A number of students who did show up sat furiously filling in bubbles for a few minutes and then excusing themselves, saying they were finished.

“One of the things we find is elementary-school kids will do back flips for you, but when you get to high school, the first question is: Will this affect my grade? The answer is no [for the STAR test], so the effort level goes down,” said Jim Hanlon, Chico High principal.

So he and his staff came up with an interesting motivational game of sorts. The students who do the best get prizes. Those who do poorly or fail to show up at all get reprimanded. The benchmark to reach for is a “basic” score, right in the middle of proficient and advanced on the high end of the scale and below basic and far below basic on the low end.

Just last Tuesday (April 13), the school held a special assembly in advance of two days of testing. They used that time to recognize students who had done well the previous year or had shown marked improvement over the previous year, offering gift certificates bought with donated funds.

Then came the announcement that most students had already heard in their classrooms in the days prior: If they fail to take the test this year, or guess on all the answers without trying, they will lose privileges like going to school dances, parking on campus, getting an open period for seniors and taking AP courses.

“We’re motivating them on both ends,” Hanlon said, emphasizing that students in special education and those who are not fluent in English are exempt from sanctions. In addition, teachers have the flexibility to single out students who are not good test-takers or who don’t get a “basic” score yet try really hard for exemption as well.

The STAR test may not seem important to students, but it’s certainly important for teachers, the schools and the districts that oversee them. The results are used to calculate each school’s annual performance index, or API.

According to federal guidelines, schools must provide test results for 95 percent of their students. If scores are very low, or not enough people take the test, schools face sanctions, explained Mike Morris, district director of instructional support and testing, during an interview last year.

Attendance for STAR testing has historically been below 95 percent at Chico High. This year, Hanlon said, only three students didn’t take the test.

The main hurdle administrators try to jump in getting students to actually make an effort on the standardized test is understanding how it affects them.

“Most important for kids, [the STAR score] is a reflection on the school that they went to. It’s rated by colleges,” said Chico Unified School District Superintendent Kelly Staley.

For 2009, the results that just came in, Chico High posted an API of 753, a 19-point jump over the previous year. The score to shoot for is 800, and Hanlon hopes that through incentives to try harder on the STAR test Chico High will get there. Pleasant Valley High, in contrast, came in at 798, an eight-point jump from 2008.

In Hanlon’s mind, when a large enough group of students doesn’t even try on the test, the scores are meaningless. He and the teachers don’t know what to concentrate on if they don’t know how well the students understand the material being taught.

“We want to really emphasize that students try,” Hanlon said. “We want the parents to know how well the school is doing, and we want the number to be meaningful.”