An Early Understanding of Economic Incentives
A precocious high school student criticizes the accuracy of Missouri MAP test score results in today’s Springfield News-Leader, arguing that such scores are a biased metric of student performance. She explains that because MAP test scores are not perceived by students to have a direct impact on their future academic success (which seems to me to be pretty true), students have little incentive to prepare for it in some cases, they actively strive to do poorly on purpose in order to reflect negatively on their teachers.
I have no doubt that this student is correct about MAP test student incentives. I remember my own experience with the Texas TAAS test, which I actively worked to either fail or skip and encouraged my peers to do so as well (oh, I was such a punk at age 14).
We can argue about whether standardized tests are an appropriate measure of student learning. Any performance metric will ultimately be biased, though, because learning can’t be summarized in a single number. And although I would disagree that incentives alone are responsible for low MAP test performance scores, I do wholeheartedly agree with the aforementioned student’s statement about the role of incentives in general:
At the root of this problem lies the real challenge for MAP test-takers: motivation. Students do not perform as well as they should on MAP tests because they simply do not care.
Students without incentives have little reason to care about academics in general, not just the MAP test. If a family is stuck in poverty, in a miserable school system, with little opportunity for upward mobility, then it is no surprise to find students there who find little reason to care about their academic performance.
This is one of the reasons to support school choice to break the barrier of stagnation. If students don’t have an opportunity to learn, and are stuck in a system in which violence rather than learning is the primary concern, even the brightest and most motivated will fall behind. If offering families the opportunity to choose their school helps even one additional student break that cycle, school choice is a success. And think of the benefits to Missouri.
P.S.: By the way, according to our grade report, the author of the piece linked at the beginning of this entry goes to a school (Glendale High School) that is ranked among the top 25 percent of public schools in the state (and even higher among high schools alone).