One of the areas of teaching that I’ve always struggled with has been motivation. I have tried to ask myself the hard questions: How do I motivate those students who have no intrinsic desire to learn or who have no personal interest in what I am trying to relate? What steps can I make? What will I not do to make this work – that is, what is off-limits for trying to motivate students? To date, I have not found easy answers, and I learn more and more that I must have a toolbox of ideas, not one trick to flip that proverbial switch from “unmotivated” to “motivated.”

I have also long been a critic of standardized testing (perhaps even before I decided on teaching as a career), with a rapidly growing (albeit somewhat morbid) fascination with the drive to use norm-referenced tests. (There’s a joke – although it’s not really a joke – about politicians who decry the fact that half of our students are below average: the punchline being, of course, that it is a mathematical certainty that half of any group will be “below average” because of group norms.) I tend to see the effects of standardized testing as destructive and antithetical to a profound approach to education, emphasizing lower-level thought (rote knowledge and memorization) and leaving little opportunity for higher-order thinking, such as analysis and synthesis. I don’t often feel the need to write about this because there are so many others who have written about the topic with greater evidence and precision that I possess.

So when I got my copy of the Illinois English Bulletin, the publication of the Illinois Association of Teachers of English (IATE, of which I am a member), I was interested to read an article entitled, “How Can Students Be Motivated to Do Well on Standardized Tests?” by Tisha Ortega. Unfortunately, Ortega’s approach was somewhat disappointing to me.

Ortega had me at the beginning, talking about one hypothetical student’s lack of motivation in some ways reflects on the school, who (with the teachers) will ultimately be responsible for low scores caused by low motivation. This is absolutely true, and it is the dark side of the “teacher accountability” that came with No Child Left Behind.

But what Ortega talks about when she talks about motivation are, in my opinion, methods that only support the flawed methodology of the standards-based assessment model. She talks about teacher incentives, which I am somewhat ambivalent about: yes, it’s a good idea to reward good teachers, but it’s counterproductive if the benchmarks for teacher rewards are tied to the standards which are trying to be improved.

Ortega also goes into some detail about schools that have tried student incentives: tying standardized tests into grades, with the possibility of a class trip for students who excel both on the tests and in their normal work (Linden High School in CA); scholarship incentives (Lansing, MI); and even money (New York City). She interjects quotes from teachers at various schools talking about these programs and how they help alleviate, as one teacher put it, the “uphill battle you have trying to get students to study for tests” and statistics of the sometimes nominal, sometimes significant success that these programs are having.

I don’t doubt that programs like this may in fact be winning the battle against standardized tests, but in my opinion, it is a Pyrrhic victory. In helping our students to succeed on standardized tests, what are we accomplishing? What do our students walk away from these tests with? Moreover, what have they learned from being motivated with these types of rewards?

The way that Ortega deals with some of these questions – where she does so – is alarming to me. For instance, she addresses some nebulous opposition to the Linden High School (CA) program:

Some criticize the program saying that if the tests were tied to something the students really cared about, the school wouldn’t need to bribe the students. It can be noted, however, the [sic] no one stated what that something was.

My concern is two-fold: 1) If we don’t know the nature of the complaint, how can we even evaluate this sort of criticism? 2) Even if it is true that there has been no definite answer provided on what these tests could be tied to that students really care about (and of course, the idea is really that the students should care about it because it is worth knowing), does that really justify the current system? Are we that unimaginative any more?

Finally, Ortega concludes with a word to those of us who are sitting in the back of the room wondering what’s wrong with this picture:

In an ideal world, students would be intrinsically motivated to do well on tests and would not need any incentives. But the reality is that teachers and schools are being held responsible for students’ performances on these tests. If students’ scores were always a reflection of their knowledge and preparation for the exam then accountability would be understandable. But in a less than ideal world where students don’t always try their best, money incentives appear to have some success, both in motivating teachers and students. No doubt, in the future more schools will be looking for financial ways to motivate their students. There also may be even stranger incentives on the horizon, as schools become even more desperate to improve students’ performances on standardized tests.

You don’t have to tell us that the world of education is not ideal – if it were, you wouldn’t be writing about student motivation (or standardized tests, for that matter). But the alternative to this “less than ideal” model is merely to acquiesce to its demands, not to find ways to promote authentic learning that in turn help students to do better on tests or even to get educators organized to help find this “less than ideal” trend of standards-based assessments. That, to me, is entirely objectionable when there are other manners in which teachers can make the best of a bad situation – or, better yet, try to fix the situation altogether.

I honestly am more saddened for the author than anything, merely because it does feel to me that she’s given in, or perhaps her educational philosophy is merely just different enough that this emphasis on extrinsic rewards doesn’t bother her as it does me (or possibly both). But I am convinced, no matter what we do to make the best out of NCLB, standardized testing, and the whole mess, the easy way is not the one that will ultimately be the most beneficial, and throwing money at a problem like this – especially when money is already a problem itself for most schools – sounds to me like the easy way out.