The AP program is a series of 37 college-level courses students take in high school, for which they may receive college credit. The national AP exam, administered by the College Board, is scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 3 being considered a passing score. Some colleges will grant students credit for an exam grade of 3, but, increasingly, more-selective universities require a 4 or 5.
Passing scores on AP exams have declined about 10% over the last 20 years. Performance declines have been particularly sharp among Hispanic and African-American students.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that the Reach program, which involves students at 31 New York City public and parochial schools with large minority enrollments, showed marginal success this past year in raising student achievement on AP exams using payments for specific test grades.
Last year, in the program's first year, the number of students passing the tests actually declined from 2007, even though slightly more students took the tests. This year, the passing percentage edged up slightly from 32% to 33%, while the numbers of tests taken increased by about 15%. The program's director, Edward Rodriguez, linked the improved scores to changes in the incentive program, which rewarded class attendance in addition to exam performance.
A long-term study of Texas high schools released last year compared schools in which students were paid for passing AP exams and schools in which they were not. The study concluded that AP incentive payments are "likely to have lasting effects on students because they are more apt to attend college." http://www.hoover.org/pubaffairs/whatsnew/27022479.html
Psychological science has investigated, but not clearly determined, occasions when external rewards motivate students to perform better, not only in the short-term, but over the long haul.
From a psychological standpoint, the fear of providing rewards for performance arises because the rewards may undermine students' intrinsic motivation. Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper found in a study which he did in the early 1970s that young children who received one-time rewards for doing an activity that they already enjoyed (drawing), subsequently drew less than a matched group of children who did not receive rewards. Lepper concluded that children who associate a reward with an activity are less intrinsically motivated to perform that activity.
Of course, the AP incentive projects are not directly parallel to Lepper's study. The AP programs are targeting students who traditionally may have had little intrinsic motivation to take or pass rigorous classes.
If money incentives can motivate some groups of traditionally disaffected students to perform better, it would be money well spent. That would be especially true if the rewarded students subsequently internalize the message that learning is valuable currency in and of itself.