A Curious Takeaway

by Robert Pondiscio
July 15th, 2010

An interesting experiment shows 12th graders’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) go up when students are paid for correct answers on the exam.  The study by researchers from ETS and Boston College has reignited the debate (the hardiest of perennials) about intrinsic motivation and paying kids.

“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,” Edweek’s Debra Viadero writes.  “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.”  The study purports to show ”credible evidence” that NAEP underestimates the reading abilities of students enrolled in 12th grade.  ”Responsible officials should take this into account as they plan changes to the NAEP reading framework and expand the scope of the 12th-grade assessment survey,” the authors conclude.

In other words, things aren’t as bad as they seem?   To my mind the salient point about 12th grade NAEP is that it has read like a dead man’s EKG for 40 years.  Unless you’re ready to suggest that high school seniors were more motivated to do well in years gone by (and show evidence) then NAEP has consistently underestimated reading abilities that entire time.   Under the same testing conditions (no pay) over several decades, there has been zero change in outcome.  

Or am I missing something?


  1. I don’t think you’re missing much. As far as I know, intelligent folks are far more concerned with the fact that NAEP scores haven’t gone up than they are with the fact that they are generally quite low.

    Some of the deeper analyses I’ve seen suggest that changing demographics can account for at least some of the “flatness” of NAEP, but of course not nearly all.

    I think that this study just proves something obvious– with a great enough incentive, individuals perform better at a task.

    Comment by Jason — July 15, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

  2. I realized there is one other argument that could be made.

    If the state exams are considered “high stakes” and have consequences attached to them, it is possible that some of the hooplah over the disconnect between increasing state test scores and the NAEP results can be explained by incentives existing in one place and not the other.

    I suspect that alignment is several orders of magnitude more important in these cases, but incentives could very well be a part of this picture.

    Comment by Jason — July 15, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

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