State Scholarships Based on Test Scores

K-12 Testing

One common but unproven claim for the use of high-stakes exit exams is that only threats - such as the loss of a high school diploma - can make students work harder and take such tests seriously. Now another form of inducement is being proposed in a growing number of states: college scholarship money for students with the best scores on standardized, high-stakes tests.


After a statewide test boycott resulted in a participation rate as low as 5% in some Michigan districts, the state announced it would provide $2,500 in scholarship funds to top scorers on the high school Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) exams (see Examiner, Spring 1999). As of October, up to 20,000 students had received scholarships under the plan. Initially, the scholarships could cost $75 million to $100 million a year, a figure that may rise sharply if more juniors take the test and post higher scores.


Closely following the Michigan plan, Nevada officials proposed a “Millennium Scholarship” to start in 2000, to provide up to $2,000 for each year of college for high school graduates who pass the Nevada High School Proficiency Exam. “This is an awful, awful lot of money,” said Regent Steve Sisolak about the offer. “A lot of parents have taken a great deal of interest in this.”


Education equity advocates are concerned that such scholarships will go primarily to wealthier students who already enjoy the advantage of having attended better resourced schools. A study of 1998 MEAP scores, for instance, found that suburban high schoolers are more likely than urban students to get scholarships. The study also found a wide disparity between races qualifying for the scholarship; 36.1 percent of white students met the standard, compared with 6.9 percent of black students and 22.5 percent of Hispanics.


Similar arguments were raised against a proposal by California Governor Gray Davis to award up to $1,000 in the ninth, tenth and eleventh grades to students who score in the top 10% statewide on the standardized STAR test or the top 5% of the scores at their school.


A UCLA study showed that most beneficiaries of the plan would be white, middle to upper class students. Jeannie Oakes, Dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education, suggested that a school’s top 5 percent should be the only criterion for the scholarship to widen participation to low-income and minority students, but Santa Monica High Principal Sylvia Rousseau claimed that adjusting the criteria would produce only minor changes. UCLA researchers focused on the scholarship program because they believe the funds should go towards ensuring that schools serving low-income communities offer higher level courses needed for college preparation.


Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci offered a copycat plan to encourage students to treat the state tests seriously even before they count towards graduation in 2003. Officials hope the reward will encourage students to retake the exam to obtain higher scores. Results from last years’ test showed the vast majority of students scoring in the lowest two test categories. If applied to 1999 results, only about 2.3 percent of the class of 2000 would be qualified for Cellucci’s proposed reward.


Some opposition has developed to these plans. Parents who opted out of the test in Michigan say the scholarship funds were also a ploy to lure parents back to the test and silence those protesting the misuse of the exam for high-stakes purposes. A leader of a Nevada group that has filed a racial discrimination claim against that state test with U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights called the scholarships “nothing but a bribe” to get students and parents to focus solely on passing the test.