Monday, December 5, 2011

Should Students be Paid to Score Well on the SAT?

In 1996, a group called Advanced Placement Strategies had a radical idea: why not just pay students to do better on tests?

Thus the Advanced Placement Incentive Program (APIP) was born. APIP offers money to students and teachers for improving scores on AP tests. Under this program, students who score a 3 or above can receive between $100 and $500, and teachers can receive up to a $15,000 bonus if their students are successful.

Not surprisingly, some people are offended by the idea of paying students to get an education. In fact, when a Harvard economist named Roland Fryer tried to perform some of his own experiments, he received death threats. And even though more and more school districts are giving APIP, or something like it, a shot, many schools have rejected the idea outright.

It isn’t that this kind of solution isn’t effective; in fact, APIP seems to be very successful. It began in 10 schools in Dallas, and now exists in over 60 around the country. According to the APS website, school districts participating in this program have seen a 1089% increase in qualifying AP scores since the program began.
According to a research done at Cornell University, districts which have joined the APIP have seen improvements in other academic areas as well. Kirabo Jackson of Cornell writes that some of these schools have seen “a 30 percent increase in the number of students scoring above 1100 on the SAT or 24 on the ACT, and an 8 percent increase in the number of students who matriculate in college.”

Some people may object that they don’t want their tax money to contribute to this kind of thing, but most of the program’s funding doesn’t come from taxes: about 75% comes from private donors. Other people may argue that $500 is just too high a bonus for high school students, but the number is not entirely arbitrary. Part of its justification is that the money students receive helps to offset the cost of taking AP exams, which can run almost as high as $100 per test.
Some details of the APIP approach still need to be worked out. For instance, is it better to pay students for output (getting good grades), or for input (putting in the work to get good grades)? APIP uses the first approach, but Fryer’s research shows that the second approach may be better.

So let’s say it works: there are still questions to answer. Even if APIP improves test scores, is it a good idea? What about the lessons that it teaches students? Does paying students to learn keep them from appreciating the value of knowledge for its own sake? Does it make kids spoiled or shallow? Is Time magazine correct in calling it a “bribe?” These types of questions are difficult to answer.

One thing that I think everyone can agree on is that even though improving test scores is important, it can’t be schools’ only focus. Standardized test scores don’t necessarily say anything about how much a student has learned. Paying students to score well on AP tests can only address a very small part of a very big problem.

Advanced Placement Strategies <>

Fryer Jr., Roland G. “Financial Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence from Randomized Trials.” Quarterly Journal of Economics. (May 2011). <>

Jackson, C. Kirabo. “Cash for Test Scores: The Impact of the Texas Advanced Placement Incentive Program.” Education Next. Vol. 8, No. 4 (Fall 2008).

Jackson, C. Kirabo. “A Little Now for a Lot Later: A Look at a Texas Advanced Placement Incentive Program.” Working Papers. 2007.

Ripley, Amanda. “Should Kids Be Bribed To Do Well in School?” Time. (April 8, 2010). <,9171,1978758,00.html>

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