Adding Incentives to Test Scores

From Education Week:

To explore what might happen if students had a little incentive to try harder, a trio of researchers focused on a sample of 2,600 students from 59 schools in seven states who were taking NAEP tests in reading. Within each school, the students were randomly assigned to one of three test-taking conditions. Under the first condition, the seniors were paid $20 at the start of the test-taking session. Another group was offered $5 in advance and $30 at the end of the session if they correctly answered two randomly chosen questions on the test. The control group received no special incentives.

The results of the experiment were posted today in the online version of Teachers College Record. The authors are Boston College’s Henry Braun and Irwin Kirsch and Kentaro Yamamoto of the Educational Testing Service.

Students who were assigned to the second group, earning the $30 bonus at the successful completion of the test, did somewhat better than the first group. Both paid groups outperformed the control group, who received no incentives. These results should surprise nobody. People perform tasks better given tangible rewards. The prospect of $35 outweighs the prospect of “opportunity” simply because money is tangible compared to the more abstract concept of opportunity. But here’s the question: ought school districts pay students to take standardized exams?

To answer this, let’s think back to the discussion over the cost of education. Public school students experience around $7 in subsidized instruction per hour in the classroom, whereas high-end private school students experience around $24 in purchased instruction per hour in the classroom. If public school students want to compete for spots in the Ivies with prep-school students, they need to make their education about three times more valuable (in crudely quantified terms). Students from low-income families have few choices – they either need to be very bright and very determined, or they need to sacrifice a large amount of resources to invest in extra educational opportunities. More often than not, we only see the very bright and very determined students gain the most from the public education system.

But what if state and local governments were to reward high performing students instead of subsidizing their education? Let’s say a standardized exam has 150 questions. At $30 per correct question, it could cost only $4500 to pay a kid to ace the test. This is less than half the $10000 it costs to subsidize that same kid’s education over one school year – an approach which we know leads many to failure.

You might say that replacing school funding with test rewards amounts to sabotage. How can the kids pass the test if nobody teaches them? My answer to that is: those who truly want to earn that $4500 will seek out an education. When that happens, you’ve created an open market, lowering costs, boosting innovation, increasing productivity, and posting gains in educating youth.

Unfortunately, I don’t see this transformation happening soon if at all.

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