Saturday, April 16, 2011

Test Pep Rallies: Good Practice or Waste of Time?

If you go into any elementary, middle, or high school this time of year, you are likely to hear shouting like “Ace that Test” or “Let’s rock that test!” emanating from the Gymnasium. For once though, the shouting is not part of a pep rally to try to pump up an athletic team for an impending contest. It is a pep rally to get students pumped up to take state standardized tests.
After a simple Google Search on term “Test Pep Rallies,” I found 131 current articles describing recent events held by public schools across the country that would be described as “Test Pep Rallies.” For some schools, these rallies are combined with various kinds of incentives and rewards, but for now, I want to focus entirely on Test Pep Rallies. Here are some examples. In Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, an elementary school held a Test Pep Rally in order to motivate students to take the second phase of state testing. Students cheered as teachers rode around on scooters and walked on balance beams. The sole purpose of this event was to motivate students to do well on the upcoming state test. Then there was the big test pep rally held in Fort Wayne, Indiana by a middle school. In order to further motivate students “to do better on tests” the principal told students that he would shave his head and throw a big party for them if they scored well on their standardized test. A similar event is held in Derry, New Hampshire where students are being motivated to do well on their New England Common Assessment. The principal in this case throws in a big smooch with a pig to get students motivated.

Check out some of these other Test Pep Rallies":
Elementary School in Idaho
Charter School in Louisiana
Elementary School in Florida
Elementary School in Tennessee

 All over the country, administrators and teachers are holding “Test Pep Events” obviously with the hope that these events will someone have a positive effect on student achievement scores. But just what do administrators and teachers hope to accomplish with these test pep rallies?
In all the news articles I reviewed that described these “Test Pep Rallies” there were five main reasons given for holding these events:
  1. Get students excited about taking the test
  2. Motivate students to do well on the test
  3. Help students cope with “pre-test tension”
  4. Help boost students’ self-confidence going into state testing
  5. Raise students’ self-esteem before they take the test
While some of these reasons are obviously similar and perhaps indistinguishable, they all indicate the reason for the test pep event is somehow affect student performance on a state test. What is really curious about these practices though is that no where is there mention of how administrators and teachers are going measure how their pep rally event actually affected student performance. A search of the Internet led me to only one study that focused on Test Pep Rallies, and it was a study entitled “Pizza Parties, Pep Rallies, and Free Parking: How Common Are These Types of Testing-Related Incentives/Activities in Iowa Schools?” The authors of this study, Joann Moore and Kris Waltman did not study the effectiveness of these events; they only wanted to see how prevalent “Test Pep Events” were in the state of Iowa. They ultimately found that the practice of incentives and activities to boost test scores was quite common.

There is clearly a lack of research to support the practice of having test pep rallies even though I was able to find news articles describing such events as far back as the early 1980s. This lack of research concerning the effects of such practices leaves me with quite a few questions about their use. For example, do they actually have positive effects on the things they’re supposed to affect, like self-esteem, self-confidence, student test-taking stress, or the student’s achievement? When looking for research on effectiveness there is a deafening silence except for anecdotal accounts. If the practice of holding test pep rallies extends as far back as the early 1980s, you would think someone would have investigated the issue.
Of a bigger concern to me is what are some of questions I have about the possible negative effects of holding Test Pep Rallies. Those questions include:
  • How does all this emphasis on the importance of students “passing the test” or “doing well on the test” affect those students who are unsuccessful?
  • How does holding “Test Pep Rallies” foster a culture where “teaching to test” is expected and the norm?
  • Do these “Test Pep Rallies” even work as advertised? Not that I agree with the “test maniacs,” but do these events even raise test scores?
  • What effects does having “Test Pep Rallies” have on longitudinal testing data? For example, how does this figure into those who push value-added models? (Perhaps someone needs to conduct a value-added study of Test Pep Rallies.)
  • Do these Test Pep Rallies foster a culture that trivializes learning and makes standardized tests the focus of all learning?
I have no doubts that administrators and teachers who hold “Test Pep Rallies” really mean well, and want to equip their students with everything they can to do well in all circumstances, including standardized tests. In some ways, I think this practice is one of many practices where schools are trying to adapt to politics that place testing on an undeserved pedestal. Yet, it is important that school leaders not fall into the “do-whatever’s-necessary-to raise test-scores” trap. I would argue that kind of approach has a whole set of dangers about which administrators need to be cautious. Those dangers might include:
  • “Test Pep Rallies” might actually harm students and learning. For example, pumping a student up by telling him he’s going to “pass the test” when he fails, obviously is not a boon to self-confidence. In addition, the emphasis that Test Pep Rallies place on tests could foster bubble-sheet learning rather than learning that focuses on problem solving and creativity.
  • “Test Pep Rallies” might also reinforce the “Test-Prep” culture found in many schools today due to No Child Left Behind. In those schools we are confident “getting-ready-for-the-test” takes precedence over everything else. Art and other non-tested courses are tossed out in favor of tested subjects.
  • “Test Pep Rallies” might just be a waste of time. Because there’s no research on their effectiveness to do what they’re designed to do, continuing them year after year might be based on hope and wishful thinking rather than solid evidence.
Obviously, there are a number of administrators and teachers who believe Test Pep Rallies do affect student performance. Why else have then been a part of school culture since 1983.  Yet, with wide spread practice of these events, you would think there would be lots of evidence of their effectiveness. Sadly, there isn’t. The question for me is, “Do we really want to give imperfect tests that kind of weight in our students’ lives?” The answer to that is not a question of effectiveness. For me it’s a question of ethics.


  1. Thanks for the critical, meaning fair handed, look into a common practice.

  2. Agreed, but it makes me why wonder why we don't scrutinize sports pep rallies this much. There isn't much research that supports them either.

  3. I believe they send the wrong message about the importance of the tests. If you read "The Myths of Standardized Testing" you will understand why these tests are such a poor way to evaluate students and teachers. See my summary of this essential book at In my view they are worse than a waste of time. You should have pep rallies featuring student performance (in groups) and student projects. Also, stop the sports pep rallies. They are a waste of time and school sports are bad for your health.

  4. We tried something different at our middle school this year. Instead of cheers and skits, I simply spoke to the students, told them they had already put in the hard work preparing for the test, we knew they were going to do well on it and to just do their best. If our scores go down, we will probably have to bring back the cheerleaders next year.

  5. We do something different at my High School. We have an event called "Wake your Brain" where we provide kids open access to the weight room, badminton, walking the track, Wi sports, fresh fruit and juice in the morning before the test. We know that getting your body moving before a test, as well as making sure you have had some sort of decent breakfast is much more likely to be helpful than a pep rally.

    Enjoyed your post - I formerly taught science in NC, now teaching in IL.

  6. Why send the message that something is only worth doing if there are bells and whistles and rewards? This practice contradicts over fifty years of research on motivation!

  7. My kids recently told me about the test pep rallies at school. I had no idea about them until this year. My two grade school children were less than thrilled about their latest rally and actually seemed insulted by it. Watching their teachers dance on stage to "Rock the Test" seemed more like a punishment than getting them psyched to take a test. Before the test, one of my children even indicated that their teacher gave them mints (to help quell any hunger or something like that). A day before the actual state testing my son's class took formatives (practice tests). The teacher announced the class's test average and encouraged them to try to do even better. Then then the took the formative again. This teacher also said he'd let the class shave his head if they got a certain class average.

    How all this test prepping fanaticism may affect children depends on the child. I have one child that thinks that all this talk of tests over a month before they actually happen is of no consequence and doesn't seem to be affected by it. I have another child who is by nature an over-achiever. All the talk about tests, the rallies, and the incentives, the practice tests... all this raises his anxiety. It's really frustrating as a parent to explain that these tests don't matter at all to his grade, so he doesn't need to stress over it, but that he should still do his best.

    I feel like administrators and teachers are transferring the stress of state testing to the students... as if it is their fault if they don't perform well. If they get prize for performing well on the test, children my naturally think there is a punishment if they do not do well.

    This is a broken system.

  8. We do it so that our students can have a little fun before they have to take the test. There's no way around taking the test, so rather them leave the day before it starts worrying about it, they leave having a fun experience associated with the test (even though we know that reality will hit them the next day.)

  9. Jon, I was just wondering the same question: What is the effect of pep rallies? I was trying to find related studies that measured the impact of pep rallies on high school football games. Not a direct correlation, but something to consider. For me, I don't conduct assemblies. At most, we do an item analysis of where students did well and where they didn't. This is passed on to the teachers to help them determine redundancies and gaps in their curriculum. The only thing we strive for is 100% participation, because that is all we have control over.

    I appreciated your commentary at the end of this post, especially the first one about where your focus lies. I think it is disingenuous to create enthusiasm over something that no one in the building is really that excited to take part in. Students are perceptive, and they can smell a skunk even when it is disguised as something else. This practice can erode trust and relationships between teachers and students (If you do well on this test, I will give you rewards). As a principal, I can understand the pressures schools feel. But not at the expense of harming a true culture of learning.

  10. I agree to an extent. Yes, there needs to be more research to demonstrate the effectiveness of having a Test Prep Rally. However, sports rallies have been in existence for many years. Do we ask ourselves whether teams do better because of them? I think not. We do it to feel good. everything we do in schools can't be measured. There are variables in human maturation that can't be measured.