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Should Students Who Test Well Be Rewarded?

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"When the star-bellied children went out to play ball, could a plain-bellied get in the game? Not at all. You could only play if your bellies had stars, and the plain-bellied children had none upon thar's."
—Dr. Seuss, "The Sneetches" (1961)

"And when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my invention so that everyone can be superheroes. Everyone can be super! And when everyone's super ... no one will be."
—Syndrome, "The Incredibles" (2004)

Virtue is its own reward, but stuff is a nice reward, too.

At Mulberry Elementary School in Houma, La., the children with the best state assessment performances from the year before can wear whatever clothes they like in the first month of school, in place of standard uniforms.

At least a few parents view the policy with dismay, however, saying that it embarrasses their children who don't make the top levels, especially some children in special education, who wonder why they aren't allowed to wear what they want, according to The Houma Courier.

The levels of proficiency on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP, include advanced, mastery, basic, below basic, and unsatisfactory. "Basic" is the equivalent of scoring proficient. Students attaining the advanced or mastery levels qualify for the school's reward, as do any students who move up a level.

Elizabeth Newman, the parent of a student with special needs, says the policy is akin to having children walk around with their report cards taped to their chests.

Theoretically, all students are capable of getting rewarded. But some research on math anxiety offers one potential reason why that may not be true in practice: Some children just don't test well.

The Mulberry reward system is optimistic, asking every child not just to be basically proficient, but advanced, even as the U.S. Department of Education continues to grant waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act to states with low test proficiency. The bar seems high, so I don't know that any student has to feel too bad about being stuck in a uniform. And tests are not the same as grades nor a reflection of intelligence.

How does proficiency actually play out in Mulberry Elementary, though? If most students are in the top tiers, then the reward would seem less about being highly proficient and more about not being merely basic. According to data from the Louisiana Department of Education, Mulberry Elementary School has strong proficiency marks, with less than 12 percent of the student body registering below basic. So at a minimum, there's at least a decent chunk of students in uniform.

(As an aside: The way achievement ranges on iLEAP are described might confuse some people. "Advanced" is the highest level, followed by "Mastery." Meaning you can be more advanced than a master of something ... OK ... )

Allowing students to escape uniforms for a month because of their talents is a visible expression that the school values achievement. Other schools use pizza or trophies, but losing the uniform is a pretty great, cost-free, health-neutral treat. All reward systems have the potential to drive jealousy in some way.

And yet, the school could create a reward that's still meaningful but less conspicuous—except an overt display is probably part of the idea, showing the benefits of exerting effort on state tests that students might not otherwise care about. But does that make the reward about the students, or about the test? Is "both" an acceptable answer?

Ultimately, then, perhaps the most important question is: For those students left in uniforms, is working to obtain the reward about self-achievement and pride, or about competitiveness and envy?

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