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Students get paid for FCAT success

Two middle schools in Hernando County are rewarding those who do well on the state test with payouts up to $150.

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001


Two middle schools in Hernando County are rewarding those who do well on the state test with payouts up to $150.

BROOKSVILLE -- Andrea LaDuron, an eighth-grader at Parrott Middle School, will collect a $60 check on Friday. But it isn't money from babysitting or a part-time job.

It will be her reward for getting high scores on the FCAT.

In what may give new meaning to the phrase "high-stakes testing," two middle schools in Hernando County will write checks to students in the next month for making the schools look good on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Parrott expects to hand out more than $4,000 to its high-scoring eighth-graders on Friday. West Hernando Middle School, which paid $1,400 to students last year, will start cutting checks as soon as it can sift through its test data.

The money comes primarily from their share of Coca-Cola sales on campus and from student fundraisers. Parrott also is using profits from a school dance and money it has received from local business partners.

Neither school says it is using tax money.

Paying kids for good FCAT scores is, as best as anyone in Florida can tell, a new twist in the crusade for higher achievement. And it's far from a common practice around the country.

"Cutting checks to kids for test scores? I've never heard of anything like that," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Cambridge, Mass. "Every step down the testing road is more appalling than the last."

Parrott principal Marvin Gordon has devised a system that pays students $50 each time they get a perfect score on the reading, writing or math portions of the FCAT. Students who hit the second-highest level get $30. The maximum anyone can get is $150.

Students were given advance notice of the cash payouts, and about 125 students qualified for the reward money.

Andrea LaDuron is receiving $30 for her reading score and $30 for her math score. "I'm raking in the dough," she said Tuesday. "It's cool."

Jeannie Mounger, who is getting $30 for her reading score, expects to spend the money on clothes. "I thought it was pretty good. It's a little bribe," she said. "That way, it's not just a pain-in-the-butt test, you actually have something."

As long as there have been schools, teachers have used rewards to motivate kids to do better. Mostly, it's been certificates, pizza parties and trips to amusement parks. For years, report card day has meant a windfall at home for some kids.

In recent years, schools have had their own performance motivations.

Accountability has meant that schools scoring high on the tests get flooded with extra cash from the state. Those that do poorly can lose students -- and the money that follows them -- to private schools via Gov. Jeb Bush's fledgling voucher system.

Under such pressure, schools have gotten more creative in how they motivate students. Just to get kids to come to school on test days, schools have given away cars and chances to win small amounts of cash. Now, they are paying kids to perform well.

Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise and Other Bribes, said there is a lot of research to show rewards have a detrimental effect. The incentive becomes the goal, not learning. And interest in school eventually wanes, he said. Giving cash to students, he said Tuesday, is "unbelievable."

"I guess because there is no authentic reason for kids to be concerned about this awful test, it's necessary to resort to shameless bribery so they'll become more concerned about test scores than learning," he said.

But the principals who are piloting this cash giveaway see it differently.

"This is America, free enterprise," Gordon said. "Generally, we are a materialistic society. Money is very good to motivate students."

Ken Pritz, the principal at West Hernando, wishes it were not so. But he knows money talks. "Let's face it. A lot of kids work off (whether) they are going to get something. I have my own mixed feelings about that because I'm a self-motivated person. But that's me," he said.

Neither principal could say whether the incentives helped. Both schools' reading scores improved; both schools dropped in writing. West Hernando improved in math; Parrott's scores declined. All of the scores were near the state average.

The revelation that some schools are paying kids for good FCAT scores caught many people off guard Tuesday. Hernando County school Superintendent John Sanders was unaware it was going on in his own district. So were some Hernando School Board members.

"That's news to me," said board member Sandra Nicholson. "If it works, it works."

Another board member, Gail Coleman, was so astounded her jaw dropped. "To actually give a cash reward to the students is not appropriate."

Yet, in a sense, this is just the next logical step for the reward system in Florida's schools. Already, the state gives schools incentive money for high scores. Some schools have passed that along to teachers, cooks and other staff in the form of bonuses.

So why not students?

"You know what? I don't have a problem with it," said Florida Education Commissioner Charlie Crist. "There's a part of me that's a little anxious about it, I must confess. But I'm going through the checklist: It's legal; it's not unethical; it's not taxpayer dollars; it's a local decision. They're being rewarded for doing well."

Still, that sentiment does not ring true with some people.

Hernando County's school system had to resort to cuts in December to meets its annual budget, and employee health care costs are bleeding it dry. But those items are paid for with tax money while the student incentive plan comes from other sources.

That distinction, however, is lost on Ryan Armstrong and Racheal Warren, two eighth-graders at Parrott who did not qualify for the payments. They say their school could use some fixing up, some extra custodians to keep it clean and some new textbooks.

"I want to know where they got the money from," Armstrong said. "I think it's sad because I don't think they should have to pay us to do good on the tests."

Lori Allen, whose daughter, Kacie, stands to bring home $110 on Friday, joked that she wishes the money would have arrived before Mother's Day. But after some reflection, she lamented how the quest for cash is influencing the classroom.

"I don't feel badly that they are doing it," Allen said. "But I feel that something has gotten lost in all this -- the basic learning for knowledge."

- Times staff writer Stephen Hegarty contributed to this report.

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