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University of Iowa News Release


Sept. 1, 2010

UI study reveals principals use pizza parties, pep rallies to raise test scores

Some Iowa high school principals use pizza parties, pep rallies, gift certificates and days off from school as motivation strategies to raise students' tests scores on high-stakes tests in reading, math and science.

However, research conducted by Liz Hollingworth, assistant professor in educational policy and leadership studies in the University of Iowa College of Education, reveals that administrators rarely have tools in place to measure if these activities are effective or even have an impact on test scores.

The study, titled "Pizza Parties, Pep Rallies, and Practice Tests: Strategies Used by High School Principals to Raise Percent Proficient," appears in the September 2010 issue of Leadership and Policy in Schools, an international journal of educational leadership.

"No Child Left Behind has generated unprecedented pressure among school administrators to do whatever it takes to raise the reading, math and science test scores of their students," Hollingworth said.

Out of 103 Iowa high school principals who were contacted, 54 agreed to be interviewed for the study, which explored ways high school principals are responding to the demands of education reform to raise student test scores on achievement tests used for accountability purposes. Hollingworth said anecdotal evidence suggested that administrators used pizza parties, pep rallies and other techniques to motivate students to do their best and use practice tests to prepare them for the exams.

Principals responded from both urban and rural districts across the state. Seventeen percent of the principals reported working in schools on the Schools in Need of Assistance (SINA) list.

In 37 percent of the schools, no activities had been implemented to motivate students to perform well on tests, 24 percent offered nonacademic rewards such as gift certificates, 15 percent offered parties (pizza, ice cream, movies, etc.), 14 percent offered snacks to students during testing, 11 percent offered days off and field trips, and 7 percent offered semester exam and grade incentives.

After exploring which specific strategies were being used by the schools in their sample, Hollingworth found that SINA school principals used only nonacademic rewards, compared to non-SINA schools, which used a variety of rewards and activities. But whatever incentives were used, she said few assessment tools were in place to measure their success in raising test scores.

When asked if the principals had evidence that their strategies were working, 56 percent of those whose schools were on the SINA list said "yes" and 33 percent said "no." Among the principals whose schools were not on the SINA list, 59 percent said they had evidence and 39 percent said they did not.

"We end the paper with a call for principals to try to use more than just their gut reaction as the data they use to drive the decisions they make for school tests administrated in their building," Hollingworth said. "And to have a system in place for checking whether or not their new strategies are effective. Most of them were not able to say whether or not they felt like the pizza parties were increasing test scores."

This is important to investigate, Hollingworth said, because using such tools assumes that offering an incentive or a reward can motivate students to achieve higher test scores, and that motivation alone can make up for deficits in knowledge and understanding.

By way of example, she said that if someone offered her a free trip to Paris if she took a calculus test and passed it with flying colors, she would be eager to give it a try. But that wouldn’t guarantee success, for a very simple reason: she never took calculus in high school or college.

"I would look at this test and be completely unable to answer the questions, not because I'm not motivated, but because I don't know how to do it,” she said.

Hollingworth said school administrators need to be aware that lack of knowledge or skills--rather than lack of motivation--may be the real culprit in low test scores.

"My challenge to school administrators is before you jump to the conclusion that the reason your students aren't performing well on a test is motivation first consider whether or not there is additional information that can be brought to bear on whether or not they even have the skills they need to be proficient on the test," she said.

She doesn't entirely rule out the importance of motivating students and says that low morale and bad behavior can impact academic performance. "But if your reading scores specifically are really low, maybe that school needs to look at instituting reading interventions or differentiating instruction or doing something different in the classroom for teaching instead of just offering pizza parties to everybody," she said.

One-fourth of the principals were interviewed by phone in the 2007-08 school year. The others were interviewed in person at the School Administrators of Iowa Annual Meeting in Des Moines in August 2008.

UI College of Education students David Dude and Julie Shepherd, both doctoral students in the educational leadership program, co-authored the research article with Hollingworth.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Liz Hollingworth, 319-335-5409,; Lois J. Gray, 319-384-0077,