Student Well-Being

Study Finds NAEP Scores Rise When Students Are Paid

By Debra Viadero — July 13, 2010 2 min read
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A new study has hit on one possible way to improve 12th graders’ dismal scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress: Pay them to take the test.

Of all the grades that are regularly tested as part of the congressionally mandated NAEP program, the 12th grade results have long been the most disappointing. That has led some experts to wonder whether the problem stemmed from poor quality instruction in high schools or whether the older and more-savvy high school seniors just weren’t trying as hard as the younger test-takers.

Though the testing program is considered a national barometer of student achievement, there really isn’t much of an incentive, after all, for students to do well. Scores from NAEP assessments don’t show up on a report card or count toward graduation requirements. Likewise, colleges never see NAEP scores when students apply for admission.

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.

In the end, the study found, both of the monetary incentives spurred students to do better than they might have otherwise, although the second condition, in which part of the payout hinged on the students getting answers correct, proved to be the stronger incentive. Under both conditions, though, scores for both male and female students were, on average, at least 5 points higher than the scores for the no-incentive group.

Researchers said that’s a sizeable and significant gain. For instance, it’s one quarter of the difference between 8th graders’ and 12th graders’ average scores on the tests.

Students who knew they were being paid also were more likely to report, in survey questions, that they were trying hard on the tests and that it was important to them to do well.

“There is now credible evidence that NAEP may ... underestimate the reading abilities of students enrolled in 12th grade,” the authors write. On the other hand, the black-white achievement gap was larger when monetary incentives were offered, according to the study.

Does that mean the U.S. Department of Education ought to start paying high school seniors to take NAEP tests?

Not according to these researchers. They say that would be prohibitively expensive. But they write that it does suggest there might be other, less costly, strategies test-givers could use to motivate students and maximize results at the 12th grade level.

If only we knew what they were...

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.