Students at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale were filing into a classroom one day this week to find their principal standing before them.
Ryan Smith held a cardboard box and greeted them with a smile; this was a good-news visit.
After the bell rang, Smith issued an announcement: A student in the class had made amazing progress on the California Standards Tests, improving in all four subjects tested.
“Can you give a big round of applause to … ,” Smith said, pausing for effect, “Tommy Mai.”
As the class clapped, a surprised Tommy Mai stood up and, at Smith’s urging, came to the front of the room to claim his prize inside the box. It was a portable Nintendo DS, as well as a game to go with it, Mario Kart 7.
When it comes to standardized testing in California public schools, a paradox has long been at play: schools live and die by students’ performance on a battery of exams taken every spring, and yet the students themselves have zero incentive to perform well. That’s beginning to change.
In the South Bay and beyond, more and more schools are trying to motivate students to care about those tests, which, at K-12 schools across California, are being taken next week.
The rewards take the form of electronic gadgets, kayaking trips, gift cards and extra credit, among other things.
It isn’t difficult to understand why the trend is occurring. Students’ results on the tests – which include math, English, science and history – form the basis of every public school’s Academic Performance Index (API) scores. (The high school exit exam also plays a major role.) The scores boil down to a single number for the entire school, between 200 and 1,000, with 800 as the state-set goal. Over the years, that number has embedded itself in the fabric of public school culture in California, to the point of near-obsession among parents, teachers, administrators, real estate agents and, yes, the media.
In other words, it’s a fixation among virtually everybody but the students themselves – especially the older ones – who, naturally, tend to be more concerned with what comes next for them.
The rewards programs have proliferated over the past couple of years.
At Leuzinger, the raffled prizes include not only the Nintendo, but also iPod Nanos, gift cards, Xbox game consoles and an iPad. At Gardena High – which has long carried the dubious distinction of being the South Bay’s lowest performing high school – students receive gift certificates from Starbucks, Target or Jamba Juice just for showing up on test day. On the more affluent end of the spectrum, at Palos Verdes High School, the incentive is academic. In some classes, students who ace the exams can gain extra credit, and therefore boost their grades.
In each case, the incentives are a new thing, and in each case, API scores have skyrocketed.
But is this a fair practice, when all schools are judged by the same tests but not all schools offer rewards? For example, the four high schools in Torrance don’t offer much in the way of incentives.
Kate Esposito, an assistant professor of education at California State University, Dominguez Hills, in Carson, isn’t a fan of testing incentives. But her concerns have less to do with fairness among competing schools than with something more internal within each individual student. Esposito believes that offering students external rewards for strong performance on standardized tests can mess with their intrinsic motivation to learn.
“If you give students a reward for something they were already motivated to do, the next time you don’t offer a reward they won’t be as motivated,” she said.
But what if students weren’t motivated in the first place? Esposito said she doesn’t fault the principals for trying to sweeten the deal; rather, she blames the tests themselves, which she believes are far too generic.
“What does it say about the task itself? It’s so onerous that we have to bribe you to do it,” she said.
But the principals who engage in the practice say it simply taps into a human drive that carries over into adulthood.
“Students need to be acknowledged for their achievements, just like adults,” said Nicole Wesley, principal of Redondo Union High School, which this year launched its own testing incentive program. “I like to be acknowledged – everyone does.”
At Redondo Union High, students who boost their scores on any test by a certain amount – or hit the advanced range – will be entitled to a handful of perks. These include free entry into certain athletic events, invitation to a barbecue and early dismissal to lunch a few times a year. The same students also will enter a raffle for an iPad.
What’s striking is the extent to which the practice seems to work.
After initiating the gift-card program last year, Gardena High’s scores jumped higher than those of any other high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said Rudy Mendoza, the school’s principal.
“The participation rates started to just soar when we added the incentives,” he said.
This year, the school is doubling the amount of gift cards it is raffling out. Another new feature: Students who score “proficient” or “advanced” in any subject will enter a drawing for a kayaking trip.
It also seems to work in more affluent areas. Last year, Palos Verdes High’s test scores fell off a cliff and the school found itself under the microscope of the school board and administration.
Educators at the school rounded up kids at random and held focus-group discussions on what might better motivate them to give it their all.
“They said: `If it matters in our college admissions, then it’s going to make a difference,”‘ said Palos Verdes High Principal Nick Stephany. Sure enough, the school offered a few points of extra credit to high performers – thereby allowing them to boost their grade from, say, a C to a B – and the school’s API shot up by nearly 50 points, to 898. That vaulted the school into a tie with its crosstown rival Peninsula High, which didn’t offer the incentives.
Stephany said that while the extra credit was just one of about 10 initiatives taken to boost the scores, he believes it definitely made a difference. And he makes no apologies.
“We were in a position last year where we’d been backed into a corner, and we had to get the scores up,” he said. “And we did.”
At Leuzinger – whose score has jumped an astonishing 67 points over the past two years, to 643 – Smith doesn’t just hand out prizes. He also goes into classrooms and leads a discussion that at first can seem a little uncomfortable.
“I tell them, look, as improved as we are, in the grand scheme of things, we have plenty of schools in the area that are outperforming us,” he said. “And we kind of have an interesting debate about: Is it fair to compare us to Mira Costa?”
That’s Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, right across the San Diego (405) Freeway, whose API score, at 911, is among the top 2 percent of all public high schools in California. (No incentives are offered there.)
“The kids usually start with, `No,’ and then we talk about why,” Smith continued. “And then there’s always a few kids who go, `Well, wait a minute, they are kids just like we are. We can do that.’ And then it always goes to a good place.”
Last year, Leuzinger – long the laggard of the three high schools in the Centinela Valley school district – set a goal to surpass Hawthorne High. It worked. Now, he said, the school has its sights on Lawndale High, the district’s perennial top performer.
Not all principals in the South Bay are comfortable with the intensified focus on API scores. Mitzi Cress, principal at Palos Verdes Peninsula High – one of the highest-scoring schools in the South Bay – said she believes the entire education system places far too much emphasis on the scores.
“It’s a one-day snapshot – one test, one day,” she said. “A school’s API score doesn’t really tell us much about what’s going on in each individual school. The accountability piece has to be much broader. … The pressure to perform on that number has become an obsession.”