Editorial: Curing Unemployment

Unemployment, as of this writing, had reached a 14-year high. That’s just one more thing to worry about in an economy bristling with troublesome trends.

But now, it appears a clutch of ever-resourceful entrepreneurs has come up with a strategy that just might make a serious dent in this unsettling jobless trend.

The brainstorm: Hire people to take tests.

Cash for Scores: This idea could catch on at both the K-12 and higher-education levels. Schools from coast to coast are trying it with various tests, and Baylor University has been giving it a whirl in Waco, Texas, with the SAT.

In some ways, paying for test results is simply a more efficient variation on paying kids to study, another nascent trend. The scheme is reminiscent, too, of many of those "merit pay for teachers" programs we keep hearing about.

But those cash-for-studying and merit-pay plans are one-step removed, relying as they do on the antiquated theory that teaching or scholarship might actually affect test scores. The current crop of cash-for-score plans goes straight to the sine qua non of contemporary American education. After all, why should we pay instructors to teach to the test, when we can cut out the middle man and pay the test takers directly?

What may be the biggest program of its kind is just getting up to speed right now. In it, according to the New York Times, "corporations and foundations have pledged $79 million over five years to pay 13,000 students and their teachers in 67 high schools in six states $100 for each passing score on the math, science, or English Advanced Placement test."

One big question: Will it work?

Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad recently donated $6 million to Harvard’s EdLab (the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University) in an effort to determine if financial incentives pay off with increased performance. Such programs already are under way in numerous schools, including those in New York City, Chicago, and the District of Columbia.

In New York, early results are in from a program called Reach (for Rewarding Achievement). The program received $2 million in private donations for students who take Advanced Placement tests. Students at 31 high schools – six Roman Catholic and 25 public schools – took 345 more tests this year than last. According to the Associated Press (AP), students earned $500 each time they scored a 3, the lowest passing mark. They received $750 for each score of 4, and $1,000 for each top score, 5. Students raked in nearly $1 million, and another $500,000 went to the participating schools. (My sources are mute as to the whereabouts of the other half-million dollars.)

But how’s it working? Well, if your goal is getting kids to take the tests, the program is doing modestly well. The number of test takers went from 4,275 in 2007 to 4,620 this year.

On the outcome side, well . . . The number of tests passed actually declined, dropping from 1,481 in 2007 to 1, 476 this year, according to the New York Times.

At the higher-ed level, at least one school has been grabbing headlines with a similar program. Reports AP: "Baylor University in Waco, Tex., which has a goal of rising to the first tier of national college rankings, last June offered its admitted freshmen a $300 campus bookstore credit to retake the SAT, and $1,000 a year in merit scholarship aid for those who raised their scores by at least 50 points.

"Of this year’s freshman class of more than 3,000, 861 students received the bookstore credit and 150 students qualified for the $1,000-a-year merit aid, said John Barry, the university’s vice president for communications and marketing."

Howls of protest have been ringing around the ears of Baylor administrators ever since the university’s student newspaper broke the story. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors have been complaining that they, too, could use help paying for pricey textbooks. It’s unfair, they say, to limit the largess to freshmen only. Other critics have challenged the ethics of retesting already-admitted students.

Baylor responds that the program was just an innocent attempt to distribute more student aid, which it says is allocated according to SAT scores. If the practice should also happen to boost Baylor’s ranking on the U.S. News & World Report college ranking chart, why that would be just a happy bonus.

Even so, the ruckus had reached such a pitch that a Baylor spokesman at press time announced the university probably will end the practice. "I think we goofed," the spokesman confessed.

Baylor’s exuberance might have been misplaced, but it’s understandable. Cash for scores is a logical outcome of our national obsession with testing and rankings.

With the economy in tatters, however, funding for sketchy test-score schemes is likely to evaporate right along with the value of philanthropists’ portfolios. In some ways, that’s too bad.

Given America’s love affair with testing, if we were to add upwards of 50 million students to the employment rolls as professional test takers, it might be just the economic stimulus everybody’s looking for.