NAEP is a no-stakes tests for students who take it. Twelfth-grade scores are low, perhaps because seniors don’t try very hard, realizing the exam doesn’t matter to their futures.
Working with 2,600 seniors from 59 schools in seven states, researchers randomly assigned students to three groups. One group was paid $20 at the start of the NAEP reading exam. Another group got $5 in advance and $30 at the end of the session if they correctly answered two randomly chosen questions on the test. The control group just took the exam.
Students who were paid in advance outperformed the control group; students who had to get answers right to earn $30 did the best. Students who were paid were more likely to say they tried hard and that it was important to them to do well.
“There is now credible evidence that NAEP may . . . underestimate the reading abilities of students enrolled in 12th grade,” the authors write. On the other hand, the black-white achievement gap was larger when monetary incentives were offered, according to the study.
Researchers say it would be too costly to pay all seniors to try hard on NAEP exams.