Two months ago, Tahj Jones said he intended to become the first Anniston High student in recent memory to get a 30 on the ACT college entrance exam.
On Thursday morning, Jones stepped up on stage in the school’s auditorium to accept a $500 check for doing just that. The audience — hundreds of students and dozens of parents — gave him a standing ovation.
“You just have to put in the hard work,” said Jones, a senior. “You just have to do it. Even if you don’t feel like doing it, just do it and the results will come.”
Jones was the star of Anniston High’s regular awards ceremony, a morning assembly to recognize the dozens of students who land on the A or A/B honor roll or notch a respectable score on ACT pre-exams. His score is also the crowning achievement — so far, at least — of Principal Charles Gregory’s plan to boost test scores by offering incentives to students.
Gregory last year set up an ACT honor wall to permanently recognize students who achieve a 25 or higher on the college entrance exam. The school also gives each of those students $100, typically in a pep-rally-style ceremony intended to laud high academic performers in the way schools typically honor sports stars. Gregory also offers $500 for every 30-plus score. Jones is the first student so far to claim it.
“It’s not so much that we’re paying them for performance,” he said. “I want to teach them that if you work hard at a goal, life will bring good things to you.”
The average ACT score in the Anniston system is 16.1, according to data collected by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. That’s below the statewide average of 19.1. Average test scores tend to track closely to poverty rates among students, according to PARCA’s analysis; Anniston’s numbers lie right along that trend line.
Gregory is convinced that Anniston’s students can do far better on the ACT than they do now, if they see fellow students hitting high goals.
“People thought a 4-minute mile was impossible until Roger Bannister ran one in 1954,” he said. “Since then, 14,000 people have run a 4-minute mile. Tahj Jones is our Roger Bannister.”
The high school has 423 students in four grades, and every year, all 11th-graders take the ACT. If all of them scored a 25-plus, incentives for students would cost around $10,000. Gregory believes that if the school system approaches that goal, local businesses will gladly pitch in the money.
Right now the ACT prizes, as well as smaller gift cards to honor roll students, are paid for by a handful of donors, chief among them Don Hobden, owner of a local Kia dealership. Gregory said Hobden simply approached him one day and asked what he could do to help the school system.
“I just think that all our entrepreneurs should be givers into the community and not just takers,” Hobden said after the meeting. “The needs of this high school, which is graduating people into the workforce of this community, are important. If it costs you money, so what?”
Hobden surprised Jones at the meeting with an additional gift: a $1,000 scholarship. Jones said he’s planning to go to UAB after graduation and possibly become a doctor.That’s the same plan he outlined in a Star interview in August, when he was working to bump his 29 ACT up to a 30.
Asked for his tips for a better score, Jones said it’s a good idea to use the tools the school already provides.
“You have to listen in class,” he said. “What they tell you in class covers all the basics you need to do well on the ACT.”
He noted that the school offers online ACT prep. Gregory said school officials have been asking students what the school can provide to help them with the test. Many asked for more study hall time, to do test prep and homework on the Chromebook computers the school provides, he said.
Asked if those students have Internet at home, Gregory said many don’t.
“It would be very beneficial to us if someone could provide us with citywide Wi-Fi,” he said.
A handful of academic studies suggest that cash incentives might increase test scores. Former Anniston school board member Nat Davis, who was in the audience Thursday, has run his own informal experiments.
Davis offered his children and grandchildren money for every A on their report card, a practice he says has cost him a lot of money — because it improved their grades. A former mail carrier, Davis once tried the same experiment with kids on his mail route, offering $10 for every book they’d read over the summer. In two years of trying, he said, no one took him up on the offer.
Davis thinks Gregory’s incentive experiment will work, because has the support of the school and of donors like Hobden.
“I always say there must be self-motivation, parental motivation and community motivation,” he said.