Thursday, April 10, 2014

Revisiting Test Pep Rallies in a Season of Testing: Good Practice, Waste of Time, or Bad Ethics?

In 2011, I explored the topic of "Test Pep Rallies" in a blog post entitled "Test Pep Rallies: Good Practice or Waste of Time". With the advent of Race to the Top and the Obama administration's education policy forcing states to elevate standardized tests to even higher stakes, I wondered if the practice had become even more prevalent. I again did a quick search for research on the topic, and as far as I can tell, no studies of whether the practice even affects student achievement exist. Still, though,  the Test Pep Rallies continue and in some cases have become part of celebrated school culture and tradition.

In New York, a "Rock the Test" rally has gotten bigger over the years and continues strongly. PS 55 recently held its "Rock the Test" rally on March 31. (See "Pep Rally Readies PS 55 Students to 'Rock the Test' as They Begin State Exams.") However, the message seems to be a bit different. The principal of PS 55, Sharon Fishman states "The message to students and parents should be that this is just a test; no matter how they do, it's not the end of the world." Still, the school talks about "psyching students up the test" while at the same time talks about calming students' nerves and helping them deal with stress.

These rallies continue in other states too. In Nebraska, Elkhorn Elementary also had a Test Pep Rally on March 28 to "Fire Up Kids for the Test." This school goes so far as to compare "getting ready for the test" to "getting ready for the big game" and even brought former Nebraska football players to remind students that "the test is their game." A local TV station WOWT joined in as well to get students pumped for the state tests.

Still another school in Indiana tried to get students pumped for the tests on April 10. On that date, Mary Beck Elementary in Indiana held its test pep rally "to get students feeling positive about tests." This rally included a Test-Cheer, games, and performances by teachers and students on how to perform well on tests. This rally was all about "getting students excited about the tests." (See "Students Participate in Pep Rally Before ISTEP Testing Starts.")

All over the country, schools are still holding “Test Pep Rally Events” obviously with the hope that these events will somehow have a positive effect on student achievement scores, even though there is still absolutely no evidence that such practices work. I just can't help but wonder if there are other educators like me who see these practices as harmful and downright unethical. Since my 2011 post about Test Pep Rallies, my big question now is "Why have we allowed our culture of education come to a point where tests even deserve this kind of emphasis?" This practice of using "Test Pep Rallies" has to be one of the most bizarre rituals to come out of the testing and accountability culture yet!

In my original 2011 post I raised a series of questions about Test Pep Rally use that I think is even more pertinent in today's even higher-stakes testing atmosphere.
  • How does holding a Pep Rally over-emphasize the test's importance? Does not this practice buy in to the idea that "only the test matters?" It would seem that Test Pep Rallies only reinforce a school cultural idea that one's value is determined by a test. Is that a message we want to send to kids?
  • How does holding “Test Pep Rallies” foster a culture where “teaching to test” is expected and the norm? It would be interesting to see if these schools holding these rallies are dominated by school cultures where the teaching that occurs focuses mostly on the test, and that the de-facto curriculum is actually the test content. But even if they aren't, what is the hidden message about tests we are sending kids with these kinds of events?
  • Do these “Test Pep Rallies” work as intended? Do they even affect test scores? Even if one buys into the idea of elevating of test scores to this level, does that mean having these rallies raise test scores? There's no evidence of this at all.
  • How has the use of Value-added teacher evaluations affected the frequency of these test pep rallies? One would suspect as our education system places even higher-stakes on testing, the occurrence of these test pep rallies will increase, taking even more valuable time away from learning.
  • Do these Test Pep Rallies foster a culture that trivializes learning and makes standardized tests the focus of all learning? This question of course depends on what your definition of learning is. If it's a test score, then the answer is no. If the answer is yes, then perhaps you see learning as more than a test score. There is something about this practice that seems demean learning and what we're about as educators.
I still have no doubts that administrators and teachers who hold “Test Pep Rallies” really mean well, and that 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 even more important today that school leaders avoid falling into the “do-whatever’s-necessary-to raise test-scores” trap. In the end, 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 was a question of ethics 3 years ago, and it is even more so today.

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