Saturday, December 18, 2010

High school students test better when paid

When a high school senior sits down to take a test that "doesn't count," how hard does he try? Not as hard as he could, according to a study released yesterday by Teacher's College Record.

For years, policymakers have wondered why 4th and 8th grade NAEP scores, especially in math but also in reading, have been steadily rising, while 12th grade scores remain low and flat. NAEP is the National Assessment of Education Progress, often called the "national report card." Researchers scrutinize the results, politicians bemoan them, and everyone tries to figure out what the scores tell us about school improvement or decline. But for years, thoughtful observers have wondered whether the disappointing twelfth grade scores might reflect student rebelliousness more than student ignorance.

A 4th grader, the reasoning goes, will try her hardest just because her teacher requests it. Most 8th graders will do the same. But by 12th grade, students have taken so many high stakes tests for graduation, for classwork, or for college admission and placement, that a significant number of them may be too jaded - some would say too canny - to expend effort on a test that carries absolutely no individual consequences.

In the past, researchers and test administrators have tried to check for lack of effort by seeing how many questions are left blank or how many sections of a test are obviously answered at random, say by checking all c's. Now, however, a trio of researchers - Henry Braun, Irwin Kirsch, and Kentaro Yamamoto - have done an experiment to try and find out.

The researchers recruited 2600 high school seniors from 59 diverse schools in seven states. They randomized the students into three groups and administered them two sections of the 12th grade reading NAEP. The control group received no incentive. A second group received a $20 gift certificate before the test. The third group, called the "contingent reward group," received a $5 gift certificate at the start of the test, and was also told that two questions would be chosen at random at the end of the test. For each of the two questions students got right, they would receive another $15 gift certificate, for a possible total of $35.

Not surprisingly, the offer of a contingent reward made a difference for these 12th grade students. The difference was equivalent to 5 points on the reading NAEP, which is equivalent to one-fourth of the average 12th grade black-white achievement gap. What's even more interesting is that incentives made the greatest difference for lower-scoring kids.

The researchers' conclusion is that we are systematically underestimating our 12th grade students' reading ability, and the same is very likely true for math, Moreover we are overstating the achievement gap between high and low performers. Given no personal incentive to do well on yet another test, a significant percentage of students make the rational decision not to try all that hard. If we want accurate measures of the knowledge of older students, we need to give the students some convincing reason to do their best.

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