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Paying For Grades Yields Mixed Results in Boosting Student Achievement

As public school districts struggle to boost student achievement, an increasing number of districts are turning to incentives for students, such as paying them cash money, to improve their attendance, test scores and grades.

One of Georgia’s largest school districts, Fulton County Public Schools, is testing a program that will pay students to attend free after-school tutoring in math and science. New York City pays students to pass Advanced Placement exams and introduced a plan this summer to pay students up to $500 for good attendance and test scores.

The Baltimore city school district is the latest district to initiate its own version of a cash incentive program. The program will pay high school students who have previously failed state tests up to $110 per subject if they attend tutoring and improve their test scores. This program is estimated to cost the district around $1 million a year.

While most students will think that being paid for grades and test scores is a great idea, experts disagree over whether incentive programs really work as studies on the trend have yielded mixed results.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, says that while incentive programs may show short-term progress in academic achievement, the long-term effects are far from positive.

“This is not a brand new idea,” Schaeffer says. “Research shows that [incentive programs] have the same effect on learning as steroids has on athletic performance. There is short-term improvement while risking long-term damage. Test scores may increase in the interim but over the long haul kids lose motivation. It’s a bad idea.”

Schaeffer adds that such incentive programs are actually a deterrent for students who are already performing at high levels in school.

“It sends the wrong message to students who are performing well,” he says. “They think it’s better to screw up in school because then you get bribed. It doesn’t create a hunger for education, but a hunger for more money. Kids develop the expectation of a financial payoff.”

Others say that it is too early to judge the effects of incentives for academic improvement. Dr. Josh Angrist, professor of economics at MIT and research associate in the National Bureau of Economic Research’s programs on children, education and labor studies conducted a study on incentives and Israeli students. In his study, students were offered $1,500 for passing national high school exams. At the conclusion of the study, many female participants improved their test scores. These female students were more likely to go to college, Angrist said. Success on the exam, in this case, did translate into long-term success for the study’s female participants.

Angrist says that eventually research will reveal the impact that these new programs will have on student achievement in public schools and that there is no conclusive evidence that incentive programs are a deterrent to high achieving students.

Dr. Eric Bettinger, associate professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University, conducted a study in which students were paid for performance on tests in a variety of subjects. These incentives increased test scores only in math, but not in any other subject, according to an article in Education Week. The students who saw the most benefit from receiving the incentive were those who were already excelling academically, not the lowest performing students.

The study was multi-year, meaning that some students were given incentives in one year and not in the next. Advocates of incentives make the case that while students initially may just be in it for the money, when the incentive is taken away, they will developed an appetite for education. Bettinger found that the opposite may be true.

“This may suggest that the existence of external motivation has a negative effect on the intrinsic desire to learn,” he wrote in the study. At the conclusion of his study, the students regressed back to their original achievement level. Bettinger’s experience in this study supports Schaeffer’s steroids analogy.

Schaeffer suggests that instead of an emphasis on paying children to achieve academically, there should be a concerted effort “to improve quality of education and offer an engaging curriculum with engaging teachers. There should be an emphasis on long-term performance, not just on how you do on a test.  Encourage consistent long-term performance.”

He also suggests that because of the focus on standardized test scores, “people are looking for quick fixes to a complicated problem.” A lack of educational resources and teacher training, health care issues and outside distractions are all hindrances to the educational process, he says. “There is no magic bullet solution. We have to determine why students and schools aren’t achieving.”

–Sarah Lake

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