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4/15/2012 8:18:00 PM
Indiana offers cash for good grades for high school students

Maureen Hayden, Tribune-Star CNHI Statehouse Bureau Chief

INDIANAPOLIS — It’s a provocative idea: paying high school students to earn good grades.

But some Indiana educators think it may be the key to getting more students through college and into well-paying jobs that depend on science, math and communication skills.

On Thursday, the Indiana Department of Education announced a new initiative to increase the number of Indiana high school students taking advanced coursework that will earn them college credit.

Based on a national program in six other states and funded with $7 million in private money, the Indiana program will offer cash incentives and intensive support to students and teachers at nine high schools next school year. There are 33 other schools in line for the program; with additional interest and funding, it could spread statewide.

To be eligible for the cash incentives, students must take an Advanced Placement math, science or English course and pass the AP exam that earns them college credit in that coursework.

Students who pass the AP test earn $100 in cash. The AP teachers earn an extra $100 for every one of their high-scoring students.

The program specifically targets low-income, minority and at-risk students who might not otherwise take an AP class. In doing so, officials said, it overturns the long-held assumption that only a small group of “smart” students in high school are capable of doing college-level work.

“We want to break down the barriers that keep students from taking these courses,” said Ginger Whitis, assistant principal at Jeffersonville High School, one of the nine Indiana high schools selected to test out the program. “There are too many students who’ve been unfairly labeled as not someone who is ‘good’ at science and math.”

Critical to the program, Whitis said, is the intensive training of AP coursework teachers and the extra support and tutoring for students taking those courses.

That extra support is needed: An increasing number of high school students are taking AP courses, but the fail rate on the AP tests is high.

In 2009, only 10.4 percent of Indiana high school students taking an AP test passed.

That rate increased to 12.4 percent in 2010 and 14 percent in 2011.

That gives Indiana the second highest two-year increase in the nation. But state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said that’s not good enough. “It is the focus of this administration that we lead the nation in AP,” said Bennett at a Statehouse event Thursday announcing the new initiative.

Travis Haire, assistant superintendent at Greater Clark Community Schools, which Jeffersonville High is a part of, said the initiative signals a major shift for teachers and administrators. “We don’t want teachers coming to us and saying, ‘This is what I taught,’” he said. “The question now is, ‘What did the students learn?’”

The new initiative, known as the Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program in Indiana, is funded by the National Math and Science Initiative, or NMSI. It’s a nonprofit network funded by corporations like Exxon/Mobil and private groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. NMSI is working with the University of Notre Dame to train and support AP teachers in Indiana.

Not everyone embraces the idea of cash incentives replacing the intrinsic value of learning; and some researchers have found that cash alone likely doesn’t work. But research by Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer, who studies educational incentives, found that combining payments with tutoring, teacher training and other critical support can significanlty boost student performance.

Jeffersonville’s assistant principal Ginger Whitis said her school is ready for the challenge. It already offers a high number of AP courses and has a faculty, she said, committed to increasing access to AP courses for students who may not initially have seen themselves as college-bound.

“This opens it up to students who may never have thought they could succeed,” Whitis said.

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Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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