D.C. high school offers $50 gift cards for high scores on tests
By Bill Turque
Like many D.C. public schools, Woodrow Wilson High School has dangled numerous carrots before students to motivate and inspire them to do their best on the DC CAS. The annual standardized test — a high-stakes event for teachers and principals who are evaluated on the results — is sometimes a less-compelling exercise for students, whose grades are not impacted. Dinners, trips, iPod raffles and other inducements have not broken through.
So this spring at Wilson, the carrots have turned to cash.
According to a story in the latest issue of The Beacon student newspaper, Wilson administrators are offering $50 VISA gift cards to the school’s 400 sophomores for every proficient or advanced score they register on the CAS, which will be administered for two weeks beginning April 17. The Beacon’s account is consistent with parent and staff e-mails I’ve received over the last couple of weeks.
In an interview Thursday evening, principal Peter Cahall said the point of the program was to spur more student enthusiasm for a test that hasgrown increasingly important to the careers of teachers. Reading and math instructors in grades 3 through 8 and ten have 50 percent of their evaluations tied to test score growth.
“I want to hold on to my teachers,” Cahall said. “I’m looking for a creative way to do that. “You have a high stakes assessment that has no bearing on the kids. There’s no reason for taking it. It’s about having good instruction and great teachers in every classroom but then you have to get kids to come and take it seriously.”
Last year 65.7 percent of Wilson sophomores scored proficient or better on the CAS reading assessment. The pass rate on the math test was 52.2 percent. The school did not make adequate yearly progress as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
History teacher Jim Leonard, the Washington Teachers’ Union field representative, said he supported the idea. He said he’s seen students come into the testing room, fill in random bubbles on the answer sheet and put their heads on the table.
“The whole testing procedure in the District has no real incentive for kids,” he said. “There’s no accountability on the part of children. This might be the carrot that makes the difference.”
According to The Beacon, Wilson business manager Ajibade DaSilva said the incentive program is being funded through federal Title 1 money, appropriated to school districts to improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students. A smaller amount is coming from the Redskins Foundation, DaSilva said. Forty-three percent of Wilson students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.
Cahall said that Title 1 funds are being used only to pay teachers for tutoring students in preparation for the CAS, a legitimate purpose. Funding for the $50 dollar gift cards is yet to be determined, he said, and that it could be Title I or a private source.
“We’re looking at multiple funding sources,” he said.
David Thompson a Wilson instructional coach, told The Beacon that the incentives are “a small price to pay if all of our students are advanced or proficient. If we were to get 100 percent proficient or advanced and it only cost us $40,000 to do it, that’s huge.”
Wilson PTSA president Leticia Barnes-Long said Thursday evening that she was aware of the effort and that the school had been searching for ways to build enthusiasm for the test.
“We were looking for reasons for incentives. The DC CAS is a test that isn’t really counted. The students are aware of that. But it is important data..We’ve looked at ways to really engage the students.”
Matthew Frumin, a Wilson parent and chairman of the non-profit that raises money and supports school programs, declined to comment on the cash awards.
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