Cash Rewards for Good AP Scores Pay Off, Study Finds

December 14, 2007

A study of several high schools in low-income areas of Texas has found that offering students cash rewards for earning good scores on Advanced Placement tests appears to have benefits extending well beyond the AP program.

The study, by C. Kirabo Jackson, an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University, examined the effects of a voluntary program, aimed at low-income and predominantly minority school districts, that offers teachers financial incentives to successfully teach AP courses, and students cash incentives to post solid scores on the tests. Run by AP Strategies, a Dallas-based nonprofit group, the Advanced Placement Incentive Program was first tried in 10 Dallas schools in 1996 to promote college readiness. Now it is in place in more than 40 schools throughout the state. A similar approach has been adopted at schools in New Mexico, and other states and school districts are moving to follow suit.

The cash incentives that the Texas program offers juniors and seniors are fairly modest, ranging from $100 to $500 for AP scores of 3 or higher. Nonetheless, Mr. Jackson found that at schools that adopted the program, not only were more students taking AP courses and scoring well on the tests, but students were showing more readiness for college in other ways. The number of students scoring about 1100 on the verbal and math sections of the SAT, or above 24 on the ACT, rose by 30 percent, and the number of students going on to college rose by 8 percent.

Mr. Jackson could not pin down exactly why the program had brought about broader improvements in student achievement, and could not rule out the possibility that schools were hiring better teachers as they adopted the program. But given the high costs borne by colleges to provide remediation to unprepared students, as well as the long-term financial payoffs of a college education, he said, the cash rewards that the program distributes to students “may have high social returns.” —Peter Schmidt