The Baltimore school system will pay high school students who improve their scores on the state graduation exams up to $110 each, a controversial plan that would be a first in Maryland.
The system will spend $935,622 on the student incentives, part of a $6.3 million plan to help students struggling to pass Maryland's High School Assessments that administrators presented to the school board last night.
State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick approved the plan last week. But in a letter to city schools chief Andres Alonso, she expressed concern about the "lack of ... research" supporting student incentives and required the system to closely track student results.
Grasmick's OK was necessary because the system is funding the plan with money from the settlement of a dispute over a federal audit, and the state must approve how that money is spent.
Financial incentives for students are being used in New York City, where Alonso was deputy chancellor before becoming CEO of the Baltimore schools in July. In a program created by a Harvard economist that began last fall, students in New York can earn up to $500 for test scores and good attendance.
According to accounts in The New York Times, the program has been controversial, pitting educators who believe that students should learn for the love of it against leaders eager to reverse the tide of low student achievement.
While the New York program uses private money for the student incentives, Baltimore is using public dollars. Alonso also said the programs are different because New York's is for younger students and is strictly about incentives. The incentives in Baltimore are part of a broader strategy to help older students pass high-stakes tests.
Here, students who have failed at least one exam will earn $25 for improving test performance by 5 percent from where they started, according to the proposal submitted to Grasmick. If they improve an additional 15 percent, they will get $35 more. And 20 percent more growth earns an added $50, for a maximum of $110.
Starting with the Class of 2009, this year's juniors, students must pass basic skills exams in algebra, English, biology and government, or make a combined passing score, to earn a high school diploma. But earlier this year, the state school board approved the option of a senior project for those who do not pass the exams, and since then principals have worried that they won't be able to keep struggling students motivated to learn the material.
In an interview before last night's board meeting, Alonso said financial incentives for students have the potential to be "tremendously fruitful." The system's proposal said the incentives are designed to affect enrollment, attendance and test pass rates by giving students a reason to attend tutoring after school hours.
Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said the practice of paying students for improved test scores is gaining popularity nationally. He said schools in at least a dozen states are offering incentives.
Schaeffer, whose organization is critical of the standardized testing movement, called the practice a "bribe" for students and a bounty for teachers. Incentives "may temporarily boost scores and make districts look a little better, but in the long run, there is no evidence that they improve educational quality, close achievement gaps or make kids into better students," he said. "They're like steroids, a short-term performance boost. The long-term impact may be damaging.
"They distort the purpose of education, the belief that kids will do better for the money and create false expectations about everything else those students will do: Why aren't they bribing me in my social studies class? How much will they bribe me in college?"
In the coming weeks, 34 Baltimore schools will be receiving a slice of the $6.3 million for interventions to help students struggling on the tests. Each of those schools must submit a plan detailing how it will spend the money by June 2009.
The money will target more than 5,000 students in the classes of 2009 and 2010 who have failed at least one of the four High School Assessments. The largest dollar amounts will go to the schools with the largest number of struggling students.
The bulk of the money will go to more traditional interventions. The biggest chunk, $3.1 million, will be spent on extra help for students after school and on Saturdays, including one-on-one tutoring.
Tutoring will be provided by students' peers who have passed the exams, in addition to college students, school staff and state-approved private tutoring companies.
About $700,000 will be allocated specifically to pay high school and college students for tutoring work. Alonso said after the meeting that he is trying to provide schools with "a set of tools to motivate every child."
There will also be an extra 10 days of training this summer for teachers of the tested subjects.
The school system would have had to return the $6.3 million to the federal government by next year if it had not found a way to spend it that the Maryland State Department of Education approved. As the system is projecting $50 million in budget cuts for the next academic year, officials said they need to make use of all the money they can find.
The money was an outcome of a 2004 audit of how the school system was spending its Title 1 money, federal funds earmarked for schools serving large numbers of poor children. The purpose of Title 1 money is to give poor children services beyond those that other students have, but the audit found the system using it for routine operations.
As a result, state officials said in July 2004 that the system might have to repay $18 million in Title I money. To prevent that, the city schools and the state education department went through months of federal mediation.
A deal was announced in October 2005 in which the system agreed to set aside $9 million for extra tutoring and programs for the needy children the $18 million was meant to serve. According to the terms of the agreement, the state needed to approve how the $9 million was spent over three years. Until now, only $2.7 million has been spent.
Sun reporter Brent Jones contributed to this article.