The cafeteria at Savoy Elementary in Anacostia was rocking. Cheerleaders cheered, students in school T-shirts chanted and the principal gave a go-get-’em speech.
But this was no pep rally of yore, building excitement for a football team. This was all about getting psyched for a standardized test — the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, or D.C. CAS, a bubble exam that students across the city are taking this week.
“D.C. CAS!” called the Savoy emcee, Beverly Gamble Williams.
“I’m gonna pass!” hundreds of students called back.
The D.C. CAS has spurred swirling public debates over cheating and the wisdom of hitching teacher evaluations to a test. It also has spawned another, less visible phenomenon. Teachers and principals, who are under great pressure to raise test scores, are finding creative ways to inspire students to show up and take the exam seriously.
School staff stage academic pep rallies, produce rap videos and raffle off prizes. Some schools add sticks to those carrots, promising to ban students from sports if they don’t complete their exams.
Faculty say it’s a sign of a fundamental imbalance: The tests matter deeply for teachers and principals, whose jobs and salaries depend on improving scores. But the lengthy exams don’t matter much to students, because unlike in Maryland and Virginia — where students must pass standardized tests to graduate from high school — the D.C. CAS has little bearing on a student’s future.
“In D.C., a kid doesn’t really have an incentive to come to school for the D.C. CAS,” said Peter Cahall, the principal of Wilson High School in Northwest Washington. Cahall said the system would make more sense if students had to pass the test to graduate or had some other stake in the outcome.
At Wilson, officials have appealed to students’ material appetites. Last year, Wilson doled out prizes to hundreds of test takers, including a $50 gift card for anyone who scored at the proficient or advanced levels. The incentives cost about $30,000 and were paid for through school fundraisers, officials said.
Wilson administrators expect to spend about half that much this year. Students who took the test Tuesday received an off-campus lunch pass plus a raffle ticket for a chance to win two iPad Minis, five $50 Visa cards and five $20 gift cards to Chipotle.
Those who score advanced and proficient will be entered into a separate raffle for Apple products and cash gift cards.
Meanwhile, students who fail to show up for their assigned tests will be barred from participating in school sports next year. And D.C. CAS scores will show up on report cards, according to Cahall, who explained the new policy in an e-mail to parents last weekend.
“Colleges, employers, and other service providers will see this information, and scholars will want to make sure they see a score that best reflects their abilities,” Cahall wrote.
Some were surprised to learn of the prizes and threats at Wilson, including parent Anne Lindenfeld: “It defeats the purpose of the assessment, which is to tell us where our children are right now.”
Greg Dohmann, a seventh-grade math teacher at Jefferson Academy in Southwest, has tried a different approach, spending countless hours after school working with students to create test-themed music videos that debut as testing begins.
“It’s not high stakes for the kids,” Dohmann said. “It’s hard to get them invested.”
Last year, Dohmann and his students made “Proficient and I Know It,” a takeoff on then-ubiquitous “Sexy and I Know It” by LMFAO. The year before, it was “Math and Reading,” a rewritten version of “Black and Yellow” by Wiz Khalifa.
“I’m gonna rock that CAS, only got 20 sharpened in my pocket,” raps one student, clutching 20 No. 2 pencils in his hand.
“Harvard wants me with what I got on that math section,” raps another.
“I scored ‘advanced’ on both, my brain’s incredible,” sings a third.
The video features dance scenes with dozens of Jefferson students and cameo appearances that include the school’s principal, wearing roller skates; Claribelle, the ghost rumored to live on Jefferson’s third floor; and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
The music video premiered at a Jefferson pep rally last week. It was a hit.
“Everybody was congratulating us,” said William Harrell, 12, one of the three stars. “People were singing it in class.”
Music videos have become an unofficial D.C. CAS thing, produced by teachers at schools across the city each spring. This year, “Harlem Shake” was among the most popular songs to parody.
“However you can get a really positive culture around this experience, the better the end result is going to be,” Dohmann said. “That’s my motivation for doing this, taking that pressure away, getting everyone excited.”
Teachers say the pressure they feel to improve test scores inevitably affects students.
“Everyone’s uptight,” Carol Foster, who coordinates the arts-integration program at Savoy Elementary, said on the eve of testing Monday.
Savoy’s pep rally was a chance to let some of that pressure go. The crowd erupted in dance. Students sang for their classmates, pre-K youngsters offered messages of encouragement, and teachers donned tiger masks in honor of the school’s mascot.
“Scandal” star Kerry Washington, a George Washington University alumna, sent a good-luck video. When the children returned to their classrooms, they received orange T-shirts imprinted with a slogan similar to the Adidas shirts that players wore in the past NCAA basketball season: “Savoy Elementary School Tigers: Rise to the Occasion, April 2013.”
Principal Patrick Pope is trying to use the arts to transform Savoy, a school where poverty is pervasive and fewer than one-fifth of students are proficient in math and reading. It’s an effort that will be judged largely on the results of the D.C. CAS, this year and in the future.
“We know how smart you are,” Pope told his students. “We know how talented you are. We know how hard you’ve worked all year. Now is your chance to show it.”