When schools pay kids for test scores

Florida eighth-grader Kristen Dempsey found that acing an achievement test pays off - literally. A week ago the dark-haired Brooksville youth received a $30 check for scoring above average on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment test. The check wasn't signed by her parents, but by her principal.

"I think it's great," says Kristen, who plans to use her money to compete in a beauty pageant.

But not everyone agrees. The cash rewards, while not unprecedented in public schools, are seen by some as a troubling sign of the premium educators now place on achievement-test scores.

More broadly, the payouts raise anew the question of how to best motivate young scholars. While some educators support such payouts as modest tokens of encouragement alongside nonfinancial incentives, others decry the incursion of mercenary motivation in schools.

"There's a big difference between paying a kid and giving a bonus to a teacher. Maybe a pizza party ... but not money," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) told the St. Petersburg Times recently.

Still, at a time when Florida schools can gain or lose state funds based on achievement scores - a system launched by Governor Bush himself - the rewards for students simply carry incentives a step further.

Indeed, in the small, rural community of Brooksville, Fla., where there are more antique shops than burger joints, the principals at two local middle schools say they are just trying to keep up with modern times - and the state's expectations.

Under the governor's policy, schools that score above average on FCAT receive more money, sometimes as much as $100,000 a year depending on the number of students. Schools that score poorly may soon risk losing state money if a fledgling voucher system, now in court, allows parents to send their children to private schools.

What schools do with the state money is up to each school. Some have passed it on as bonuses to teachers whose classes performed well.

Here in Brooksville, where neither middle school qualified for state funds last year, the student-bonus money comes from fundraising events and from Coca-Cola vending contracts.

"This is only a small part of what we do to motivate kids," says Ken Pritz, principal at West Hernando Middle School. He says the recent criticism takes the cash program, which he pioneered last year, out of context. "We have a huge remediation program for a lot of kids, but we realized that we weren't rewarding the high-end kids, because they were constantly achieving."

An $1,100 pot

This year, the school paid 42 students a total of about $1,100. The most any one student got was $50. Mr. Pritz says the school has other incentive programs that don't require students to ace tests. If students do community service or excel in some area, they can qualify to win a bicycle, tickets to an amusement park, or other prizes.

"You have to be creative in what you do in school today," Pritz says. "Many of these kids are not motivated anywhere else. We may be the only positive motivation in their lives. We've got to do something."

At Delores S. Parrott Middle School, which started the cash-incentive program this year, students can earn enough money to buy a bike. A student reaching the highest level of each part of FCAT could take home $150. In all, 107 qualified for money, and 37 qualified in more than one area. The most a student won was $110.

With President Bush proposing increased emphasis on standardized tests nationwide, critics worry that such cash rewards could mushroom into a form of educational payola.

"The last time I checked, bribery was illegal. This is wrong, and it should be halted now," US Rep. Jim Davis (D) of Tampa said on the House floor recently.

Marty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Cambridge, Mass., says cash rewards really aren't that surprising, given the increased emphasis placed on testing. "It's not wholly unheard of, but it's not that common. I think that it's a sign that schools are pretty desperate and don't know how to get scores up."

Mechanics of motivation

The question is, does it really work? Are the students winning the cash the ones who would have scored high anyway? At least on an anecdotal level, the answer to the latter question may be yes. Andrea La Duron, who made $30 with her high reading test score, says she forgot about the money until after taking the test.

The principals here say it's hard to tell if the money makes students perform better, since a different group takes the exam each year. But they say the payment may prod students to test up to their capability.

"I don't consider it to be bribery," says Parrott Middle School Principal Marvin Gordon. "This is reality.... If you are an achiever in your job, you get a bonus."

But even waving cash under students' noses may not be enough to make schools eligible for a state funding bonus, Pritz says. His school didn't score high enough last year, and he doubts it will this year.

"We don't worry about that," he says. "Over 50 percent of our students are below poverty level. I don't think the test is a fair way to assess a school."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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