May 11, 2023

Nancy Bailey: The Troubling Focus on Testing Rewards, Testing Pep Rallies, and Test Prep Bootcamps

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Nancy Bailey discusses some of the features of testing season. Reposted with permission.

With spring comes heightened concerns about public school students facing high-stakes standardized tests and the troubling focus on testing rewards, testing pep rallies, and test prep boot camps. It makes schooling and a student’s worth all about the test.

Testing is a serious business. Test results have been used to rate teacher performance unfairly, and to close public schools, often pushing charter schools and vouchers, schools that may not have to administer high-stakes standardized tests.

What’s most troubling about tests in schools today is that they falsely connect a child’s worth to one test (same skills for all), and children can feel like losers if they do poorly on the tests.

This has been the argument for years surrounding high-stakes standardized testing, yet the tests continue to drive public schools and how students and teachers are treated.

It’s not that testing isn’t essential. Professional teachers need to assess student achievement to see how they’re progressing. Still, tests shouldn’t be the focal point of school, and there should be a wide range of subjects and activities where students can thrive and find their passion, along with getting support in the skills they need to do well in life.

The current standardized testing has narrowed the curriculum and what students can learn, and it wastes student and teacher time to focus on gimmicks to elevate the tests.

Testing Rewards

In 2012, the University of Chicago found that by giving students extrinsic awards, just the right kind, their achievement improved by six months beyond what would be expected. High school students got monetary awards, and elementary students got trophies.

This research led the NEA to ask If Rewards Improve Test Scores, What’s Really Being Tested?

Other studies found little impact surrounding awards (Fryer, 2010).

Also, the more students are rewarded for tasks; they might increasingly rely on rewards for what they do (Kohn, 1999, p. 83). Kohn has a book about this, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A;s, Praise, and Other Bribes. 

The New York Times reported: Which Is Better, Rewards or Punishments? Neither. Rewards they say, are punishment’s sneaky twin.

They include a study, A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation showing:

The picture that emerged from these meta-analyses of 128 well-controlled experiments exploring the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation is clear and consistent. In general, tangible rewards had a significant negative effect on intrinsic motivation for interesting tasks, and this effect showed up with participants ranging from preschool to college, with exciting activities ranging from word games to construction puzzles, and with various rewards ranging from dollar bills to marshmallows.

Testing Pep Rallies 

Holding pep rallies to raise student morale does little to increase test scores (Hollingworth, Dude & Shepherd 2010).

Promoting pep rallies in honor of the test has been around for years, and cheering for the test for students is a waste of time. It falsely implies students have control over test results, and it highlights the testing company and its program.

Students might go into the testing with high morale and still do poorly. This could lead to low self-esteem or the inability to be positive about other life events.

Some parents opt their child out of the tests, and over focusing on the test can make students anxious, the opposite of what it’s designed to do.

Test Prep Boot Camps

Teaching students how to test, or drilling the material that might be on the test, is not always effective; and teaching students how to endure the tests, sitting still for long periods of time, should raise questions as to what tests are supposed to do. Why put students through this and what’s the purpose?

Here’s how one testing boot camp is conducted:

Dressed in battle fatigues, she had students marching, chanting slogans, and dropping to the ground to do push-ups for not completing assignments as part of a four-week math boot camp to get seventh graders ready for Mississippi is high-stakes tests.

Here’s another.

Eight teachers were put through their own boot camp, complete with a drill sergeant barking orders at them.

Boot camps sound eerily like the military.

Isn’t it time to end high-stakes standardized tests, President Biden?

It’s worth repeating, President Biden campaigned with the promise he would get rid of high-stakes standardized tests, but his administration has not kept that promise.

From Valerie Strauss and 2021 The Washington Post Answer Sheet:

In December 2019, Joe Biden appeared at an education forum and was asked if he would commit to ending standardized testing in public schools if elected president. His answer was surprising — given that the Obama administration, in which he served as vice president, made testing a central part of its controversial education agenda.

“Yes,” Biden said. “You are preaching to the choir.” He said that evaluating teachers by student test scores — a feature of President Barack Obama’s overhauls — was “a big mistake” and that “teaching to a test underestimates and discounts the things that are most important for students to know.”

High-stakes testing is still a prominent  feature  of  the Biden administration.

The President had the perfect opportunity to end high-stakes testing after the pandemic, instead testing began immediately with the start of his presidency, when children were Covid-19-weary and expected to be behind.

Such testing has served nothing more than to blame teachers for school closures and their attempts to keep students and families safe, and as a result, many great teachers have left the classroom.

The President’s push for testing surprised and disappointed those who took Biden, married to a teacher, at his word.

Let’s hope the President will return to his initial promise and end high-stakes standardized testing in America’s public schools. Public schools should provide a broad range of skills to help  individuals with learning differences to find their strengths instead of a one-size-fits-all system.

When students are provided opportunities to learn and find their passions they won’t need attention getting schemes that focus on assessment and the companies that make the test.


Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, As, praise, and other bribes. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Turgeon, H. (2018, August 21). Which is better, rewards or punishments? Neither. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiments Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation. Psychological Bulletin125(6), 627–668.

Hollingworth, L., Dude, D. J., & Shepherd, J. K. (2010). Pizza parties, pep rallies, and practice tests: Strategies used by high school principals to raise percent proficient. Leadership and Policy in Schools9(4), 462–478.

Strauss, V. (2021, February 26). One month in, Biden angers supporters who wanted him to curb standardized testing. The Washington Post, Retrieved from 

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