By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2007
The Advanced Placement program has long offered college credit to high school students who show mastery of a subject. Now, a group of educators and business executives plans to dangle another incentive in front of AP students and teachers in selected schools across the country: $250 for each passing score on science, English and math tests.
The offer, to be formally announced today by a group with $125 million in funding from the ExxonMobil Foundation, is stoking debate over the wisdom of cash bonuses for achievement.
The group behind the offer says it aims to raise AP achievement in certain public schools where an incentive might make a difference. Some students and teachers in the Washington area could be eligible if Maryland, Virginia or D.C. officials agree to participate. Yesterday, Maryland and Virginia officials said they were intrigued and wanted to learn more. In the Washington region, where AP participation is high, it's unclear which schools would be targeted.
Natasha Savranskaya, a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, which has a strong AP program, said she thought bonuses would be "a wonderful incentive" for students in schools where AP programs are weak -- and a well-deserved reward for hard-working teachers. Savranskaya said she has passed two tests herself. That would have earned her $500 at a participating school. "And I can think of a lot of things to do with that money," she said.
But Mike Grill, the AP coordinator at Wakefield High School in Arlington, panned the idea. Grill said his school's goal "is for everyone to play a role in getting kids to succeed at the most challenging level possible, and that level will not necessarily be AP for all students. Singling out AP teachers and AP students by compensating them for success in AP would completely undermine our ethos as a school."
A nonprofit organization called the National Math and Science Initiative Inc. is expected to announce the program today in New York. The idea is based on an 11-year-old Texas program begun by philanthropist Peter O'Donnell. In 10 Dallas high schools that pay the bonuses, the number of passing AP scores (3 or higher on a 5-point scale) has increased from 71 in 1995 to 877 in 2006. The Texas program also has increased teacher training, reduced AP test fees for students and provided teachers with annual bonuses averaging about $4,000. Some teachers have pocketed as much as $10,000 a year in bonuses.
Texas lawyer and education activist Tom Luce, the organization's chief executive, said the program is designed to "help kids succeed in high school so they can succeed in college" and particularly to encourage minority students to major in math, engineering and science. Luce said AP English was included because reading and writing skills are essential to success in math and science.
More than 2.3 million AP tests were given in 2006 in 37 subjects, according to the College Board. Among 2006 high school graduates, about 15 percent got at least one grade of 3 or better on any AP test.
But the program to be announced today would target only 13 tests: Calculus AB; Calculus BC; Computer Science A; Computer Science AB; Statistics; Biology; Chemistry; Environmental Science; Physics B; Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism; Physics C: Mechanics; English Language; and English Literature. The program also would help fund an initiative called UTeach that aims to produce more math, science and computer science teachers.
Some critics said research shows that material incentives can lead to a decline in student interest and curiosity. Alfie Kohn, a progressive education advocate and author of "The Homework Myth," said it was pointless to use cash incentives to channel education toward "an ever-narrower exercise in test preparation."
William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, called the proposal intriguing. "Exemplary schools and school systems continually search for creative ways to bring out the best in their students," he said. "This could offer a powerful incentive for students and teachers to raise their game."
Said Charles Pyle, a Virginia Department of Education spokesman: "We're eager to learn more about this program because it would seem to complement what we already do to promote participation in Advanced Placement." A D.C. schools spokeswoman had no immediate comment.