Test-score cash seems worth a try in the city

January 25, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

My first reaction was something along the lines of, &%$#?? Followed by, *%$*#&!!

Translation: Are you out of your mind? And: Why, back in my day, not only did I have to walk 10 miles through the snow to get to school - well, actually, ride a well-heated bus for 40 minutes - but once I got there, I had to pass my tests for free!

I'm talking of course about the pay-to-pass plan that Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso unveiled this week, promising to hand over as much as $110 to any high school student who previously failed a state assessment test but improves his or her score the next time.

Alonso, who was hired precisely to act boldly and shake up a sluggish school system, certainly did that. He created quite the firestorm, even within the usually supportive school board, and his plan was quickly denounced as everything from a bribery scheme to yet another entitlement program.

It's neither.

First of all, students don't get a cent unless they improve their scores. As I understand bribery, you're paid to do something you're not supposed to do - rig a vote, hand a contract to someone other than the low bidder. But we want students to do better, don't we? This is no more a bribe than a sales commission, a year-end bonus or any other workplace incentive is a bribe. And the plan is hardly an entitlement grant, but quite the opposite: again, no results, no bucks.

What the plan is, though, is an act of desperation.

Only a school system at wit's end over chronic failures would have to come up with such a proposal. But then, these are pretty desperate times - Baltimore has the third-worst graduation rate in the country, according to a national education journal, and new requirements are soon going into effect that will make those diplomas even harder to earn.

That would be the High School Assessment exams - which test students on biology, English, algebra and government - that, starting next year, seniors have to pass to graduate. If you've followed the saga of these apparently fearsome tests, you've seen how they've caused no end of angst for educators as the 2009 deadline has drawn closer. And yet scores were showing that as many as about a fourth to a third of students in the state were failing at least one of the exams.

Educators have already fiddled with the new graduation standard - it's no longer that everyone must pass each test, period. Last year, the state school board decided to allow students to graduate with a composite score - allowing, say, an algebra wiz to compensate for deficiencies in English - or to make up points by completing an approved senior project.

And now the latest attempt to help more students pass, at least in Baltimore: cold, hard cash.

In a perfect world, learning would be its own reward. In a perfect world, kids would act on long- rather than short-term rewards. In a perfect world, students, understanding the perils of leaving school without a diploma, would knuckle down and study and pass these tests.

Obviously, the world of Baltimore schools is a vastly imperfect one. And yet the same people who love to bemoan the schools' failings and point to their scandalously low graduation rates are now begrudging a plan that seeks to improve the chances that more diplomas will be given out.

Admittedly, the idea of paying for passing is, as one school board member put it, wince-inducing. Yes, every student is supposed to pass. That's the minimum, but the reality is, a lot of them aren't, for any of a host of reasons.

Maybe they're dumb. Maybe they're lazy. Maybe they've been skipping class or not doing their homework. Maybe their teachers aren't any good. Maybe their schools have failed them. Maybe their parents have failed them. Maybe they were having a bad day when they took the tests. Maybe they didn't get breakfast that day, or any day. Maybe they were up late working the night before. Maybe they were up late partying the night before. Maybe a brother got arrested that morning, maybe a girlfriend said she was pregnant, maybe maybe, maybe.

Will the prospect of a payment change any of that? Not all of it, for sure. The problems that the schools face, particularly those whose students come from impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods, are many and complex and beyond fixing with a simple pay-to-pass plan.

But consider it a stopgap measure, designed to save a few kids now while, presumably, school officials work on larger, systemic improvements whose results are years down the road. Consider it triage - if there are some students for whom a couple of bucks will provide enough motivation to push their scores from fail to pass, why not spend it?

Alonso's plan would set aside $935,622 toward paying students who improve their failing scores - of an overall $6.3 million devoted to extra tutoring and other instruction designed to prepare for the tests. In a school system whose budget is $1.2 billion, paying some kids from $25 to $110 - depending on the percentage amount of improvement - seems worth a try.

What's the worst that can happen? A student finally learns to solve for x not just because it's a good thing to know but because of a $50 payout? Horrors! The kid may blow that $50 in a heartbeat, but presumably he'll still know how to solve for x.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

Find Jean Marbella's column archive at baltimoresun.com/marbella

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