Guest Opinion: School assessment incentives is not the way to go


Jillian Mitchell has been an educator in Delaware public schools for 17 years and is a literacy expert and advocate for children. She shares more information on incentivizing assessments at She is a resident of Wilmington.

My son came home from school a few weeks ago with heightened anxiety about the upcoming NWEA MAP Growth assessments at his school. NWEA MAP Growth is a nationally normed, standardized achievement test that is used to universally screen students in many schools in the state of Delaware. He has taken these assessments three times a year, in both reading and math, since he was in kindergarten. He never voiced a concern about these assessments in previous grades.

Now, as a fourth grader, I was all ears to hear what was causing him this increased anxiety. I asked, “What’s worrying you?” He went on to say how the school is incentivizing the assessment results, and if you meet both your reading and math growth goals, you get to go to a pool party and a glow party, and you get a gift bag. If you only meet one goal, you get to go to the glow party, and you get a gift bag. If you grow but don’t meet either goal, you get a gift bag. My son said, “What if I don’t get to swim with my friends?” I tried to assure him and calm his nerves.

On the day of his MAP reading assessment, he again was having increased anxiety and trying his best to calm his own nerves. He said to himself, “I can do this! I am confident!” as he got out of the car and walked into school. I messaged his teacher to let her know of his increased anxiety, so she was aware and could update me throughout the day.

Later in the day, I also emailed the principal to let her know of my disagreement with incentivizing these assessments. In my opinion, it is unethical practice to use incentives to bribe students to somehow “do better” on an assessment that is used for teacher evaluation and district performance. This assessment is not something that students even understand or know how to improve on, besides just coming to school each day, learning and doing their best. What’s more, my son usually does not have anxiety for normal school testing and has not had increased anxiety during MAP testing at the beginning and middle of the year, when incentives were not used as bribery for good scores.

Why incentives on assessment tests?

At the end of the day, I picked up my son, who got into the car sobbing. He missed his reading goal by one point. All his friends met their goals. He will have to sit in the classroom, while everyone else swims.

At this point, I am truly outraged. Is this what is best for kids? Is this how we want kids to feel from an experience at school? Is this building positive culture for all students? Is this building school community?

He said to me, “I am not good enough.” I tried to empower him and tell him he can speak up and voice his disagreement. He took a piece of paper out of his backpack and began writing while we drove. He later typed up his viewpoint and sent it to the principal. She responded, but in my opinion, did not understand the needs of all kids. Incentivizing assessments is not ethical and ruins the efficacy of students who did their absolute best and still did not achieve the number (RIT score) that was told to them days before, a number that is not quantifiable for a student to even understand how to attain this progress or achievement.

In addition, we must ask ourselves, why are students receiving incentives for these assessments? Why MAP, an assessment that a student cannot actively monitor their growth or progress on because they only take this assessment three times a year? A test that was not used to inform or differentiate instruction for students?

Well, I can shed some light on the reason why. This assessment is being used for teacher evaluation purposes and will be used to showcase growth at schools and across the district. This data will be brought to the board to say: “Look how well we are doing!” This is why district and school leaders think it is worthy of damaging student morale and self-worth with the bribery of pool parties, glow parties and more.

I shared my disappointment with a friend of mine, and she went on to say how her daughter, who attends a middle school in the same district and is a high achiever who also is intrinsically led to do her best on all her work, missed her goal by a few points, as well, and had to be neglected a soft pretzel and a bounce house incentive. In addition, peers of hers did not meet their goals, but they shed tears and were allowed to receive the incentives. Students had to cry to show they were worthy of participating! This is outrageous.

Also, let’s not forget that teachers are also being punished because they have to be the communicators of the plan and tell well-deserving students they cannot participate with their peers. What an awful spot to put teachers in.

Not equitable or ethical

Later the next week, my husband and I met with administration at my son’s school. We shared information on why incentivizing assessments is not equitable or, in our opinion, ethical, and we shared other important information about the assessment itself that helped solidify the inappropriateness of using this assessment for punishing students for not achieving a certain goal.

We made three key points: 1.) incentivizing tests/assessments is not equitable; 2.) rewards are not effective in raising test scores and are ultimately not good for kids’ motivation; and 3.) NWEA admits that only 50% of students will reach their mean normative growth goals.

1.) First, let’s speak to equity. Equity in education demands that each and every student in a community be invited, welcomed and given a sense of belonging in a system of teaching and learning that is fluid, responsive and dynamic, and that uses all available resources matched to each student’s needs (Mijares, Montes, Hukkanen & McCart, 2017). Equity is about opportunity, access, resource allocation and culture. These translate to a deep examination of often long-held practices and beliefs about who should, who can and who will succeed within our schools (McCart & Miller, 2020). Using one or two assessments to ostracize a community of learners from participating in a social event with their peers is not equity.

2.) Moving on to how rewards hurt children. “Rewards are no more helpful at enhancing achievement than they are at fostering good values. At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a task (or for doing it successfully) simply do not perform as well as those who expect nothing (Kohn, 1993). “This effect is robust for young children, older children, and adults; for males and females; for rewards of all kinds; and for tasks ranging from memorizing facts to designing collages to solving problems. In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that is required for a task, the worse people tend to do when they have been led to perform that task for a reward” (Kohn, 1994). “Deci and Ryan (1985) describe the use of rewards as “control through seduction. Control, whether by threats or bribes, amounts to doing things to children rather than working with them. This ultimately frays relationships, both among students (leading to reduced interest in working with peers) and between students and adults (insofar as asking for help may reduce the probability of receiving a reward)” (Kohn, 1994).

“If the question is ‘Do rewards motivate students?,’ the answer is, ‘Absolutely: they motivate students to get rewards.’ Unfortunately, that sort of motivation often comes at the expense of interest in, and excellence at, whatever they are doing” (Kohn, 1994). Rewards seem to be an easy fix for a short-term goal of producing specific test scores; however, this is actually counterproductive and not what is best for the efficacy of students and their futures as learners.

3.) Now, for an even more eye-opening piece of the puzzle. How does NWEA’s MAP Growth reading and math assessments report student growth goals and how many students are projected to meet these goals each year? “Each student’s growth goal is simply the mean (or average) normative growth, which considers a student’s enrolled grade, initial achievement level, and the number of weeks of instruction received” (Dahlin, 2013). This definition makes it seem that this would certainly be an equitable way to identify individualized growth goals, and it is! However, when asking how many students achieve their growth goals each year, NWEA writer Michael Dahlin states, “The question is difficult to answer because it’s precisely like asking what percentage of students got taller by one year’s worth. Both questions assume the same false premise: that academic achievement and height are measured in units of time. Growth in achievement, just like growth in height, is not constant across all kids” (2023).

More than an assessment score

Here is the most troubling conclusion. It is known that only about 50% of students show growth that is greater than mean normative growth, and about 50% show less than mean normative growth, as implied by the bell curve model. “So in a general sense, one could reasonably expect that about 50% of students should meet their growth goals” (Dahlin, 2013). With this knowledge, we are now knowingly already penalizing 50% of our student population for their growth (even when it is still within the standard deviation of growth scores) for being below the mean normative growth, just as we already knew they would be. It is normal for students to be under the mean normative growth! That does not mean failure.

NWEA’s Michael Dahlin writes, “If you work with data from growth measures such as MAP Growth, the next time you are asked what percentage of students shows a year’s worth of growth, give the correct answer: 100%.”

After an hour of sharing research and our personal experience, there was some common understanding, and it was agreed upon that all students should be able to celebrate together with the school community regardless of their ability to meet or exceed a certain growth target. However, this practice may continue in the future at my son’s school, your child’s school or other schools in the state of Delaware. I believe it will take a community to stand up and speak out and declare that our children are more than standardized assessments. Our children are worthy of community celebrations no matter their achievement levels or assessment scores. Our children, all children, need to be included.

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