This study examines whether information supplied about a student’s ability helps inform that student’s decision to enroll in Advanced Placement classes. Specifically, the information “signal” is the “AP Potential” message on the student’s PSAT Results Report, as written by the College Board. Students who score at a certain cut point on the PSAT get a message that says, “Congratulations! Your score shows you have potential for success in an at least one AP course!” or else a message that says, “Be sure to talk to your counselor about how to increase your preparedness.”
Students in Oakland Technical High School who took the PSAT in 2013 made up the sample of roughly five hundred sophomores. The intervention was as follows: Right before and after they received their PSAT results that included one of the AP Potential messages above, they were given a survey that asked them (1) how they perceived their academic abilities and their plans relative to attending college; (2) the number of AP courses they plan to take; (3) whether they would take the SAT; (4) the probability that they’d pass the exit exam; and (5) the probability that they’d graduate high school.
Analysts found that the AP signal contained information that led students to revise their beliefs about their ability and future academic plans from the first survey to the second. Specifically, the PSAT is a “negative information shock” on average, meaning that students tended to adjust down their beliefs about their ability. Students who got bad news revised their beliefs down by .286 points on a five-point scale, whereas those who got good news increased their beliefs about their academic ability by only .187 points. Of all the beliefs surveyed, however, expectations around AP course enrollment were most affected by the new information. Students who upwardly revised their expectations in response to the new information enrolled in more AP classes compared to those who did not revise expectations.
The authors also found that students at the margins who were surveyed (a group for which three-quarters were minorities) and told they had AP Potential enrolled in and passed approximately one more AP class the following semester—and were more likely to take and pass one or more AP exams. But these patterns did not hold for non-surveyed students, suggesting that filling out the survey itself increased the salience of the information and made for an “intensified treatment.” Yet students near the margin who didn’t get the AP Potential signal took fewer AP classes, even though both groups were nearly identical in ability. So there is both an upside and a downside to the intervention, depending on whether the message to students is positive or negative. Perhaps we should just deliver the good news?
SOURCE: Naihobe Gonzalez, "Information Shocks about Ability and the Decision to Enroll in Advanced Placement: Evidence from the PSAT," Mathematica (October 2015).