March 11, 2007 in Nation/World

Group offers cash bonus for success on AP tests

Jay Mathews Washington Post
 

WASHINGTON – The Advanced Placement program has long-offered college credit to high school students who show mastery of a subject. Now, a group of educators and business executives is dangling another incentive in front of AP students and teachers in selected schools across the country: $250 for each passing score on science, English and math tests.

The offer, announced Friday by a group with $125 million in funding from the ExxonMobil Foundation, is stoking debate over the wisdom of cash bonuses for achievement. The group behind the offer says it aims to raise AP achievement in certain public schools where an incentive might make a difference.

A nonprofit organization called the National Math and Science Initiative Inc. announced the program in New York. The idea is based on an 11-year-old Texas program begun by philanthropist Peter O’Donnell.

In 10 Dallas high schools that pay the bonuses, the number of passing AP scores (3 or higher on a 5-point scale) has increased from 71 in 1995 to 877 in 2006. The Texas program also has increased teacher training, reduced AP test fees for students and provided teachers with annual bonuses averaging about $4,000. Some teachers have pocketed as much as $10,000 a year in bonuses.

Texas lawyer and education activist Tom Luce, the organization’s chief executive, said the program is designed to “help kids succeed in high school so they can succeed in college” and particularly to encourage minority students to major in math, engineering and science. Luce said AP English was included because reading and writing skills are essential to success in math and science.

More than 2.3 million AP tests were given in 2006 in 37 subjects, according to the College Board. Among 2006 high school graduates, about 15 percent got at least one grade of 3 or better on any AP test.

But the program would target only 13 tests: Calculus AB; Calculus BC; Computer Science A; Computer Science AB; Statistics; Biology; Chemistry; Environmental Science; Physics B; Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism; Physics C: Mechanics; English Language; and English Literature. The program also would help fund an initiative called UTeach that aims to produce more math, science and computer science teachers.

Some critics said research shows that material incentives can lead to a decline in student interest and curiosity. Alfie Kohn, a progressive education advocate and author of “The Homework Myth,” said it was pointless to use cash incentives to channel education toward “an ever-narrower exercise in test preparation.”


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