Cash for AP Test Scores: Is This Really the Best Option?

Today’s article from the New York Times focuses on a controversial topic: paying students to excel on tests. The New York-based “Reach” program has had moderate success, with increased numbers of students taking Advanced Placement exams as well as greater numbers of students achieving “4” or “5” scores.   While it is admirable to encourage students to do well academically and prepare for college, the concept of paying students for their scores on AP exams has several serious shortcomings.

Money talks – but what does it say?

The concept of the Reach program is simple: it connects people who have money (the program’s founders) with people who want money (the students).  But is handing cash over to teenagers really the best alternative?  No.

It is important to consider the ultimate goal here: preparing students for college and career. If Reach is trying to encourage students to go to college, why not use the $1,000 to create a scholarship or educational savings account?  What about a laptop that students could use in their college classes?  Instead, young students are given the freedom to spend the money as they see fit – and in all likelihood, the money isn’t going straight into a college savings fund.

By handing cash over to students when they meet the expectations set by the AP board, what message is the Reach program sending?  In my mind, the message is simple and risky: You will be rewarded for meeting expectations.  In their future careers, students won’t be handed bonuses, promotions or praise for simply meeting expectations.  Quite the opposite: students need to be taught to exceed expectations consistently – even if they think no one is watching or no reward is expected.   In fact, if future employers perceive these students as “all about the money”, they will be less likely to invest in mentoring and promoting them.

In Program Giving Cash, More Pass AP Tests

Published: August 4, 2009

A program that offers students up to $1,000 for passing Advanced Placement exams has shown some success, with more students at 31 city high schools earning passing scores, according to officials in charge of the effort.

The program, called Reach, or Rewarding Achievement, involves students at 26 public and 5 Catholic schools with large minority enrollments. The number of students passing A.P. exams at those schools rose this year to 1,240 from 1,161.

The number of tests taken at those schools — many students take tests in multiple subjects — increased by more than 800, to 5,436, and the number of passing grades by 302, to 1,774. The passing rate edged up slightly, to 33 percent from 32.

The program is one of several local and national experiments using financial incentives to raise student achievement. Another New York City program that pays students for doing well on standardized tests has been underway for two years, but the city has not announced any results.

Although such programs have proliferated in recent years, there has been little evidence of their effectiveness. The results of the privately funded $2 million Reach program are scheduled to be announced Wednesday, and organizers say they are confident the results will help them secure more money.

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