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Schools should incentivize without shaming students

What if the color of a card identified your state-determined intelligence to complete strangers and was used as a basis of discrimination against you?

Sounds like some hazy dystopian pipe dream. But two high schools in Orange County, Calif., have recently begun requiring students to carry color-coded ID cards based on their performance on annual state-wide standardized exams. Students in the higher score brackets — black and gold — were offered privileges such as school discounts and shorter cafeteria lines over lower-scoring white-card students.

Immediately, students carrying white cards were faced with discrimination, especially in Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. Senior Kiana Miyamoto overheard one student telling another that “anyone who has a white card shouldn’t even be in IB,” according to the Orange County Register. The schools are defending the practice by claiming that the program was meant not as a basis for hostility but instead intended to reward students for doing well on these state exams.

Overall, we believe merit-based awards should be encouraged. Incentivizing high performance in any academic institution is an excellent way to reward hard work and dedication that goes above and beyond one’s peers. But to do so in a way that shames others in the process is inherently flawed.

Publicly revealing potentially damaging information, especially among high schoolers (who are particularly vulnerable), is abhorrent and is a violation of fundamental privacy rights. Moreover, the benefits chosen — separate cafeteria lines, cheaper prices at local businesses — seem to be more indicative of the practices of some elite, cushy club rather than a public high school incentive program. The system does reward students who do well, but it also attempts to incentivize public shame and exclusion.

Instead, schools looking to implement tangible benefits should do so for the entire student body. If high performance results in cheaper prom tickets for everyone, or a free ice cream day for the whole school, the emphasis is not on public shame and humiliation but on pushing the student body to work together on everyone’s behalf. This large-scale collaboration is exactly the behavior we want to encourage in future generations of young students.