New York gets so-so results paying kids to study

New York City's new program to pay students for passing Advanced Placement tests just got its first report card, and the results were nothing to brag about. The privately funded program by Rewarding Achievement (REACH) is one of many around the country that try to incentivize students to do well on tests, show up or behave. The New York City students at 31 high schools got $960,000 this year, according to the New York Times. More kids took the test, fewer passed. (The test is graded on a scale of one to five, with three and above passing.)

  • Number of students taking an AP test: UP 4,275 to 4,620

  • Number of tests passed: DOWN 1,481 to 1,476

  • Number of tests scored 5 (the highest): 184 to 207

  • This year's pay for scores: 3:$500 4:$750 5:$1,000

  • Next year's projected payouts: 3: $250 4: $500 5: 1,000

Obviously the program didn't get the improvement in scores it was hoping to inspire, but it points out that it started started after kids had already signed up for AP classes. That does seem like a huge handicap. Fellow Walletpopper Bruce Watson made some compelling arguments in favor of these programs last month.The results do point up one weakness of this incentive program: those AP tests are really hard and not everyone can pass or score a five. They got more kids trying, but not succeeding. That's huge in a way, but not what the program was trying to do. It's tweaking its incentives next year, paying less for lower passing grades. Will that motivate kids to try even harder? Or give up on the reward because a five seems so impossible? Is a three really worth only one-forth as much as a five?

Educators and parents have raised plenty of objections to these programs on theoretical grounds: it's bribery and it teaches kids they should expect a monetary reward for effort and education. Others have argued that we should be paying the incentives to teachers and hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes. What these results show is that these programs -- or at least this particular program -- just might not be pragmatic. This year's grade is like a D+. It really needs to bring up the results next year. Or maybe another philanthropist can come along an offer an incentive to come up with a better incentive program.
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