Students Getting Paid to Pass

In the constant battle to raise the level of student achievement, a program called Reach (REwarding ACHievement) is using a timeless incentive to encourage students to raise the bar – MONEY. The New York Times recently reported on this particular $2 million privately funded program that offers students up to $1,000 for passing Advanced Placement Exams in 26 public high-schools and 5 Catholic high-schools in the New York City area with large low income and minority enrollments. The success of this pay-for-performance program is all in the numbers.

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% from 32.

Programs like Reach have been popping up around the country to increase not just the amount of students taking standardized tests and AP exams, but also motivating students to study harder and become more involved in their education. However, as great as this program sounds, specifically for high-school students; there has been little evidence of these programs effectiveness. The results from 2008, the first year the program was running, show that the number of A.P exams taken rose from the previous year; however the number of passing scores, which is a 3 or higher, essentially declined. Reach believes that the numbers for the year of 2009 will be an improvement from last year giving more weight to students who attend Saturday tutoring sessions.

Edward Rodriguez, the executive director of Reach, explained that students who attended the weekend classes and ultimately received a 5, the highest score, would receive $1,000, while students who did not attend the tutorials and received a score of 5 were awarded $500. Students who earned 4’s received $750 if they attended the sessions and $400 if they did not.

The program awarded a total of $825,000 this year. A student from Flushing High School in Queens earned $3,250 for passing four tests.

The results at individual schools varied widely. At Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, students took 30 more exams this year than last year, and the pass rate increased by 13 percentage points, to 72 percent. (Nationally, the overall pass rate was 57 percent.) But at Newtown High School in Flushing, students took just 96 tests, compared to 116 in 2007 and the pass rate dropped to 33 percent, compared to 47 percent last year.

There is a great deal of mixed opinions on this topic of paying-for-performance. Many people believe that educators should not be enticing students with money to take more of or do better on Advanced Placement exams and standardized tests. Students should want to learn and succeed without monetary incentives that undermine the true joy of learning. Some feel that we are teaching students that bribing is okay; along with the fact that many school districts are losing money and need to cut art programs. But, instead we are paying students to do well on exams, which they should be motivated to do anyway?

At the same time there are many who believe that programs like Reach are great for education institutions and the succeeding students. This incentive helps both their economic situation as well as their confidence in their ability to do well in rigorous classes. This program is helping students become even more engaged in their education and excel further then they thought they could. This small incentive can improve college preparedness and can even improve graduation rates for low income high-school students. Essentially students are furthering their education while filling their wallets, which all in all sounds like a pretty good deal.