The Power of Now: Incentives that Work

Here’s an interesting new study by Freakonomics author, Steven Levitt.  Wondering how incentives affect student performance, Levitt and fellow researchers studied student performance within a wide variety of incentive structures and found a few things worth considering.  First, they found that not only does money work, but the amount of money makes a difference.  In fact, students performed better when offered a large sum over a smaller sum.

Second, they found that students responded differently to losses than to gains.  This appears to be keeping with larger studies that have found that adults are also more averse to losses than gains.  For example, students performed better when given money before the test and were told they would lose it if they fared poorly than when they were offered money if they performed well on the test.

Third, the researchers found that less tangible incentives, rewards like trophies and badges, worked well for students.  And fourth, they learned that students were much more likely to perform well when the payoff was immediate, e.g. immediately following the test rather than weeks later.

Nothing all that surprising.  We’ve long known that adults respond in similar fashion.  Business incentives work best when they are both concrete and provided in a relatively short amount of time, e.g. not at the end of the year.  We also know that adults are much more aggressive about keeping what they have and a bit more relaxed about losing out on future gains.  Still, this latest study provides interesting food for thought.  Most districts focus on the gains made by the end of the year as measured through high stakes assessments.  But for many students those assessments mean little.  Levitt’s study suggests some subtle ways we might be able to incentivize students to devote more energy and effort to these  critical assessments.

Auto-Essay Scoring Engines Confuse Prediction with Measurement

The Automated Student Assessment Prize (ASAP) essay grading competition was created to assess how well different vendors of automated essay scoring (AES) engines, along with public competitors from around the world, could score student-generated essays relative to their human counterparts. The competition was sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and hosted by the data prediction platform As it turns out, the competition confirmed what has been known for years: AES engines not only have good agreement with their human counterparts, but they agree better with humans than humans agree with themselves! The results of the study have been written up in a recent report and touted by some as the final green light for going ahead and letting AES engines score student essays, particularly in high-stakes situations such as standardized tests since not only are they more consistent, but much faster and orders of magnitude less expensive.

Competitors were given training data which included the text of thousands of essays written to eight different prompts. The scores provided by two human raters were given for each essay. Based on this training data, competitors had to use their AES engines to predict how human raters would score new essays without knowing the human assigned scores. This is the underlying problem concerning the competition.  AES engines are using a number of features that they tease out of the text to predict how two human raters would score an essay; they are not actually measuring (or at least estimating) the quality of the essay based on the harder to define constructs of writing the way the humans who originally scored them did. Of course, humans will often lack consistency in their scoring, but their scores are still based on things that computers do not yet understand.

Additionally, human raters will score the quality of an essay based on its causal attributes, whereas an AES algorithm will also likely exploit noncausal attributes. As it turns out, the number of characters used in an essay is highly correlated with quality. Better writers have the ability to write more in a fixed period of time and writing more means that you have more space to communicate your idea, which is the goal of writing.  But while the number of characters generated is a good predictor of essay quality, it is not a causal attribute of essay quality. It is evident that a sentence repeated 100 times does not represent better quality writing than the same sentence written a single time. (more…)

Prepared on All Fronts

Guidance counselors have been working to create programs to prepare high-school Seniors for life in the post-secondary world. Many states have already created programs that move beyond academic assessments to programs that focus on personal fulfillment and life skills. Two leading voices behind the push for programs that address personal fulfillment and life skills are Janice Dreis and Larry Rehage.   As guidance counselors, at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Illinois, Dreis and Rehage noticed that the majority of high school classes and programs did not prepare students for the real life challenges of the post-secondary world, challenges that bring high school Seniors a great deal of anxiety. “They’ll soon be transitioning into the real world, and there can be a huge amount of anxiety, but schools rarely address this. We wanted to create opportunities to engage seniors in this final year that should be a capstone year.”

Dries and Rehhage champion programs that can help ease the anxiety of Senior year and create a supportive school environment. The programs range from volunteer projects, to senior seminars and leadership programs. Rehage and Dreis travel around the U.S. encouraging the creation of similar life programs in the nation’s high schools. They do not force any specific program on schools; instead they encourage teachers and administrators to talk to students to see what programs they would find beneficial and helpful.

Three programs of specific interest are the Year Long Service Learning Project, Senior Instructional Leadership Core program (SILC), and campus based seminars. The Year Long Service project is a community based project that helps develops problem solving and communication skills. It also provides a way to give back to the school community. The Senior Instructional Leadership Core program places students in classrooms to help assist teachers with class instruction. The on campus lectures are a way to bring in speakers who give helpful presentations on preparing for college, stress, and time management.

Many students have reported that these programs have been helpful. Senior Brittany King of Chartiers Valley High School in the Chartiers Valley School District in Bridgeville, Pa., volunteered for her school leadership program. She was an assistant to a classroom for special needs students.  Participation in this program helped clinch her career choice. She now is majoring in Special Education at West Virginia University. When reflecting on the program she stated “I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile, and it helped me figure out what I want to do”

Kudos to Dreis and Rehage for their commitment to raising awareness for these programs.  In addition to increasing academic demand, the post-secondary world is full of non-academic challenges and it’s good to see counselors work to prepare students for both.

Beta Version of Free ‘Find a Book’ Mobile App Now Available

Today MetaMetrics launched “Find a Book” Mobile Beta.  Available in the Android marketplace, we wish to subject our app to a round of testing by the users we designed it for….you! You can download “Find a Book” Mobile Beta at:

The mobile app has the same popular features as the “Find a Book” website. Upon downloading the app, Android users can:

  • Match yourself, your child, or student to the books of best fit based on reading ability (Lexile measure) and personal interests
  • Allow a user without a Lexile measure to search for books by estimating his or her Lexile measure based on comfort with grade-level materials
  • Search for books using a quick keyword search
  • Browse through the entire Lexile titles database
  • View a book detail page containing bibliographical and summary information for every title
  • Check the availability of books in your local, public library by accessing OCLC’s database of more than 125,000 titles in WorldCat
  • Map directions to the closet library with your book selection(s)
  • Buy your book selection(s) with a Barnes & Noble® quick link
  • Log in with your Lexile account
  • Store books for offline viewing

The power of “Find a Book” connects readers with texts based on their personal interests and their reading ability (Lexile measure) to improve reading skills. “Find a Book” enables students, teachers, librarians and parents to find books within a reader’s recommended Lexile range: 100L below to 50L above his or her Lexile measure. Reading books within this optimal Lexile range will challenge the individual’s reading ability, while still maintaining interest and learning. Now available on-the-go, readers of all ages can connect with the books of best fit by downloading “Find a Book” Mobile Beta!

One Box at a Time

Because many states have less tax revenue to distribute, many school system budgets have been drastically cut.  This is distressing news for anyone who cares deeply about education. However there are a few projects that have been successfully raising large amounts of money for schools dealing with declining budgets. One of those projects is “Box Tops for Education”

Box Tops for Education is a project that encourages consumers to cut the box tops from different General Mills products and collect them for local schools.  This easy system has helped make Box Top for Education the most successful school fundraiser. This year it took in over 700 million box tops and generated 74 million dollars for schools. This 74 million dollar payment is an increase from 33 million dollars in the past 5 years. While this fundraising scheme has its critics – those that fear corporate marketing being intertwined with education – they are few and far between.  And most schools are happy for the infusion of revenue.

Clearly the Box Tops for Education program is beneficial to states dealing with budget shortfalls.   It can provide the necessary resources so students can have the proper materials to learn. Organizations, companies, and charities need to look at Box Tops for Education as a model to be duplicated and learned from to create other ways to generate school funding.

Chief’s Summer Reading Challenge

We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our state participants who have joined us for the 2012 Chief’s Summer Reading Challenge. The Council of Chief State School Officers, in partnership with MetaMetrics®, created this national, state-led summer reading initiative to bolster student reading achievement during summer break. The “Chief’s Summer Reading Challenge” raises national awareness of the summer loss epidemic, shares compelling research on the importance of personalized reading activities to counteract summer loss and provides access to variety of free online resources to support targeted reading.

We are joined by many of last year’s state participants, including: Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky and North Carolina. We’ve also brought on board several new states, including: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma.

This year’s participants have done a tremendous job planning and implementing summer reading campaigns and also hosting related events. Recently, we had the opportunity to work with both Florida and Kentucky’s First Ladies. Florida’s First Lady, Ann Scott recently kicked off the Florida Department of Education’s 2012 Summer Literacy Adventure. First Lady of Kentucky, Jane Beshear, joined the Kentucky Department of Education in supporting summer reading and encouraged children to use the “Find a Book” tool.

Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas and Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois were instrumental in promoting their respected state summer reading initiatives. Last month, MetaMetrics President and Co-founder, Dr. Malbert Smith joined Kansas Governor Sam Brownback to kick off the “Read Kansas Read” statewide summer reading program. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn joined Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and State Superintendent of Education Christopher A. Koch in urging educators and parents to ensure students commit to reading during summer vacation.

With your efforts we continue to combat the effects of “Summer Reading Loss,” while enabling students to grow in their reading ability and love for reading. These efforts will help to ultimately prepare students for the reading demands of college and their future careers.

Please join us – pledge to read this summer at!

Supporting Military Children Through Communities and Schools

The children in our military families deserve our respect, care, and encouragement. These children persevere through multiple re-locations and separations from their military family member.  Very often the difficulties that many families face after their family member returns from deployment alters their family structure, an alteration involving much struggle and despair. The children in these families demonstrate a strong spirit, compassion for each other, and a patriotic heart that are integral parts of their lifestyles.

In “Take Time to Honor Military Kids’ Service”, Elaine Sanchez points out that the community and schools can support these children in a number of ways.

  • Schools need to be more diligent in identifying the military children in their classrooms and providing staff development on nurturing to the needs of the children and their families.
  • Child development centers, youth programs and parent support groups need to adopt programs that provide active cooperation and collaboration with the military families.
  • Churches have a role in supporting new military families who move into their area as well as recognizing their struggle with isolation and separation from the deployed military service person.

The Department of Defense (DOD) recommends that members of the community who want to learn more about supporting the families of our military personnel should visit the White House’s Joining Forces website to learn more. This site offers suggestions for how groups or individuals can make a difference to the children and families of our military personnel.

In the spirit of Memorial Day, we should all consider these families and gratitude we owe them.  This appreciation can be expressed by volunteering, sending thank-you notes, prepare care packages, or making ourselves available to their needs.  Small gestures can make a big difference for many of these children and families.

Beyond the Standards:The Core that Matters Most

Here’s Anthony Colucci offering educators some useful reminders on their impact in the classroom  Classrooms are about more than just curriculum and accountability testing. He argues that while it is necessary to continually revise our state standards there are many bedrock values, core principles that underlie all classroom activity.

Here’s Colucci’s list of standards that are worth remembering:

  • My class will be engaging.
  • I will stress the importance of hard work.
  • I will teach my students what it means to be responsible citizens.
  • I will encourage my students to find careers they will love.
  • I will treat my students with respect.

While curriculum standards will continue to evolve and grow, keeping these basic principles in mind will go a long way in helping ensure that today’s students become tomorrow’s passionate, educated, and engaged adults.

College & Career Readiness for All

Here’s a useful reminder from Dr. Joseph Wise on why it’s so important that every student graduate prepared college and career:

 Lexile reading levels of newer technical and military manuals aims at what we used to know as blue-collar jobs now consistently surpass the Lexile reading levels of typical undergraduate liberal arts textbooks.  You have a high schooler who wants to focus on vehicle mechanics or computer technology-her reading demands will be more severe than her classmate who wants to pursue political science at a college.

If you encounter a colleague who asserts, “well not all kids are meant for college” you might say, “care to be the one to decide who goes and who does not”?

Dr. Wise goes on to remind us why college and career readiness is more than just a noble goal.  It’s imperative to our country’s survival and continued competitiveness:

When in India last year speaking to a college of aspiring teachers in Hyderabad one young woman asked me why the USA is so focused on kids going to college.  My answer to her was: In India you have a record population of 1.2 billion and many suspect that if those unaccounted for were added you’d have nearly 1.6 billion.  In the USA we only have 300 million-so we must get every kid ready for the choice of college or high wage important job.  Our economy and way of life depends on it.

Quiet Appreciation: Encouraging the Talents of Introverts

In the move away from the teacher-centered classroom towards a student-centered one, a classroom is often set up in “pods” of desks rather than in rows.  Most tasks are done in cooperative learning groups rather than the teacher lecturing to the class.  Many educators and parents consider the student-centered classroom the ideal.  But in the move towards the learner-centered classroom, ironically, a third to half of learning styles may not be addressed if teachers rely heavily on cooperative and collaborative learning.

In Susan Cain’s Ted Talks video, “The Power of Introverts,” she expresses concern regarding the over-emphasis on group learning in the classroom and the challenges it presents for the introvert.  She recognizes that extroversion has become the ideal in the United States and that introversion tends to be looked down upon.  History shows us though that many of our most revered thinkers were introverts who did their best work with quiet strength and often in isolation: Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, and Steve Wozniak, to name but a few.
The student-centered classroomhas its roots in the educational philosophy of John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky.  Both of these philosophers asserted that learning is a social process.  Consequently, “student centered” tends to mean “group work.”  

Introverts generally do their best thinking alone.  They tend to prefer listening over talking.  Introverts are energized when they are by themselves or in small, well chosen, groups of people.  It is a basic personality trait with which people are born.  The classroom that requires introverts to think and work constantly in groups does not play to the strengths of students with introverted personalities.   That’s why personalized learning platforms offer so much promise – they allow all students access to individualized instruction at their own level.

Taken at face value “student-centered” should be about playing to our students strengths as well as encouraging them to overcome challenges.  For the introvert, working in groups and actively asserting themselves in an unfamiliar situation tends to be the challenge.  For extroverts, focusing, thinking, and working by themselves is.  Both sets of qualities are equally important in an ever changing world.  As teachers enacting the student-centered classroom, we serve our students by helping them move outside of their comfort zone but equally, if not more important, is identifying and encouraging their strengths.

MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.