Tuesday, October 16

Incentives may be a misnomer in DOE's cash-for-AP scores experiment

At this point, you've probably heard that the DOE is rolling out a new program, titled Reach NYC, to reward high-achieving high school students with cash for passing scores on Advanced Placement exams -- ranging from $500 to a just-passing score to $1,000 for a perfect one. The program is privately funded, thanks to the work of reformer Whitney Tilson, who blogged about the launch, and will start this year in 25 public and six private schools in the city. In addition to the student rewards, schools -- and possibly principals -- with large numbers of students who pass AP exams will get cash of their own. This program is similar but not related to the DOE's Opportunity NYC program, which will pay younger kids in needy schools smaller amounts for their academic performance and behavior.

I happen to believe that kids shouldn't get cash rewards for success in school. I especially think that in this case, because passing scores on AP exams can translate into college credits, which can net kids savings in excess of $1,000 an exam. But I can also see potential policy benefits in finding out whether financial incentives improve student performance. The original cash-for-kids plan is troubling but could yield meaningful information. I don't see how the AP initiative could possibly do that because as far as I can tell, the "incentives" will be operating on kids who are already successful.

The new program was announced at the selective Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, where students will be eligible for the money. FDA has about 1,500 students in grades 6-12. Divided evenly, that would mean there are about 215 kids in each grade. AP courses are most typically offered to 11th and 12th graders; only a very few schools nationwide allow students younger than that to take AP courses except in exceptional circumstances. So we know that about half of all students in 11th and 12th grade are taking AP courses at FDA. How does this rate of AP enrollment stack up?

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post has been monitoring AP nationwide for years, using test-taking rates to compile a "Challenge Index" of the nation's high schools. Any school where students take at least one test per graduating senior makes the list; Mathews says only five percent of all high schools qualify. So even if each kid taking AP courses at FDA is taking only one, the school would rank at the low end of the top 5 percent of all schools nationwide, according to Mathews' index. And 80 percent of FDA's test-takers pass their exams, a more-than-respectable rate at any school. (Those are just the numbers in the New York Times article; the Daily News's coverage makes it sound like 350 kids are currently taking AP classes.) Sure, FDA can do better, but in a city where, according to the Times, only 1 percent of black students pass an AP exam, are its kids the ones who need incentives?

Roland Fryer, the DOE's Chief Equality Officer, is absent from the coverage of this new initiative. I wonder if he is involved in it at all. With a Harvard economist on the DOE's payroll, I would hope for more rigorous experimental conditions for an expensive project like this one. Or else the DOE and the private groups distributing money to its students should stop calling cash payments "incentives" and call them what they really are -- salaries for kids.

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