“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.”