Cash Incentives for AP Scores Yield Long-Term Benefits



By 02/16/2010

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In the Fall 2008 issue of Education Next, economist C. Kirabo Jackson reported that the Advanced Placement Incentive Program, which pays both high school students and their teachers for receiving passing scores on AP exams, boosted AP participation rates in participating schools (no big surprise!), the share of students receiving solid SAT or ACT scores, and the share of students going on to post-secondary education.  The results were no doubt encouraging, especially given the program’s low cost.  But they left unanswered questions as to what would happen to students after they had enrolled in college.  After all, a large body of psychological research that has been relentlessly promoted by testing critics such as Alfie Kohn suggests that, in some situations, the use of external rewards to promote academic achievement can actually undermine students’ intrinsic motivation to learn.

A follow-up study now available in the NBER Working Paper series [subscription required] puts these concerns to rest.  Jackson, who now has access to more refined student-level data than used in his previous study, confirms that students in participating schools attended college in greater numbers.  More important, he shows that the program increased their college GPAs and led to higher college completion rates among blacks and Hispanics.

As Jackson explains, the study provides an unfortunately rare example of a late-high-school intervention that seems to yield lasting benefits for students.  And while the Advanced Placement Incentive Program is not a “pure cash incentive program” (it also involves teacher training and curricular changes in earlier grades intended to insure students are prepared for AP courses), the results suggest that thoughtfully designed programs that include cash incentives for students can promote college readiness.

Apparently New Mexico, New York City, and schools around the country are implementing or considering similar programs.  Let’s hope they follow through and see similar results.




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