Assessment Opinion

Cash for Scores

By Diane Ravitch — January 29, 2008 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

In the past, say, a century or so ago, school reformers used “democracy” as the magic word. Whatever they were doing, whether it was imposing vocational tracking in the new junior high schools or using IQ tests to sort students for their future occupations, the reformers said that it was all to promote “democracy.” Each child would learn where he or she fit best into the social order and could then make their appropriate contribution, whether as professionals (the tiny few) or housewives or clerical workers or manual workers, and so on.

Now, as you point out, the buzz word of the day is “equality.” So New York City has a “chief equality officer,” an economist who has designed a plan to pay poor kids to raise their test scores. This, he presumes, will lead to equality. On Monday, USA Today had a big story about how several districts across the nation are now paying kids to raise their scores or paying them to take AP classes or paying them to get a passing grade in an AP course. I am not an economist, so perhaps I am just not smart enough to understand the nuances of this plan, but I wonder: Suppose the policymakers decide that this experiment works. How much will it cost to pay every low-performing student to raise their test scores? How much will it cost to pay every student who agrees to take an AP course? Right now, these programs are being funded by private philanthropies and businesses. Has anyone figured out what it would cost to turn these programs into public policy?

I have deep objections to this mantra of cash-for-scores. I think it is wrong to pay kids cash-for-scores. I do believe in incentives, just not these incentives. I believe that grades are an appropriate incentive; so is the expectation that good work in school will prepare one to enter higher education. Those are education appropriate incentives. They require the student to learn the value of deferring instant gratification. Paying them cash to raise their scores does not do that.

And as psychologist Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore wrote in The New York Times several months back, ‘if we have to pay people to do the right thing, no one will do the right thing unless they are paid to do it.’ Down the drain will be any idea of intrinsic motivation, as well as any sense of civic duty.

Then there is the question of exactly what these tests mean and why they matter so much. Imagine that the incentivists carry the day. We will have created an educational system that strives mightily (and maybe even successfully) to teach kids to check off the right box when given a choice of four. Pray tell, in what line of work will that skill be valuable in the future? I don’t know.


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