More Students in AP Courses Find They Can't Escape the Test

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For students in Advanced Placement classes at one Nevada high school, preparing to take the program's end-of-course exams could mean both hitting the books and hawking raffle tickets.

This month marks the first time the $74 tests will be mandatory for all AP students in Reno's 51,000-student Washoe County district, and Robert McQueen High School there is sponsoring fund-raisers to help defray the cost.

Students shouldn't have any reason--financial or otherwise--not to take the exams, especially when a high score can earn them college credit or advanced standing, said Kathy Freeman, the school's principal of curriculum.

"If kids can cop out of an exam, they aren't doing themselves any favors," she said. "Now they can say, 'Hey I did this. I can do college work, too.'"

The College Board estimates that students will take a record 1 million of its Advanced Placement tests this month in 31 subjects, from calculus to music theory.

In most schools, the exams are optional; students who don't feel financially or academically prepared need not endure the lengthy tests to receive a final grade in the course and credit toward high school graduation.

But as districts look for ways to hold both students and teachers more accountable for academic performance, an increasing number are making the tests mandatory, said Philip Arbolino, the associate director of the program at the New York-based College Board.

Nationally, Mr. Arbolino estimates, at least 20 percent of districts now require the exam, compared with only 3 percent or 4 percent 10 years ago.

"It's certainly growing," Mr. Arbolino said. "It's a way to open the gates for students. Colleges are realizing that if you take the course and not the test, that's not an accurate measure."

One District's Decision

In Virginia's Fairfax County district, the school board is expected to vote this month on a proposal that would make AP tests mandatory for all of the roughly 9,000 students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses each year. Currently, AP students there receive extra credit for the courses toward their grade point averages even if they opt out of the exams.

Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech is selling the proposal as a way to establish parity between Advanced Placement students and those enrolled in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program, who must take an end-of-course exam to receive extra credit.

And as in other districts that have moved to require AP tests, proponents of the Fairfax County proposal seek a more definitive way of assessing the success of the local AP program.

"How do we know how effective the program is if 50 percent of the students who take the course don't take the exam?" Mr. Domenech said.

But the four Republicans on the 12-member school board question how the 147,000-student district will improve the training of its AP teachers to ensure that students aren't paying for exams they haven't been properly prepared for.

"Until we get teachers up to speed, it's unfair to require parents to pay to have students take the test," argued Mychele B. Brickner, an at-large board member.

To make the tests more affordable for students, board members are also considering a proposal to pay the fees of students taking more than two exams. The district already picks up the tab for low-income students.

Financial Support

Any school that moves to require the tests should first ensure that all students are capable of paying for the exams, said Wade Curry, the director of the AP program for the College Board.

In at least 23 states, districts are helped by varying degrees of state financial support for AP testing and teacher training. Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Utah each pay the full exam fees for any student who elects to take a test.

And under a South Carolina program instituted in 1985, every student who registers for an AP test is required to take it at state expense. The Palmetto State is currently the only one with such a requirement.

But at the 1,700-student McQueen High School in Nevada, which receives no Advanced Placement support from the state, school officials have resorted to fund-raisers as a way to ensure that each of the roughly 200 students who take AP courses can pay for the required exams.

Students raise money by participating in year-round activities that range from preparing lunches for district functions to stuffing envelopes for conferences held at nearby casinos.

Profits from a school soft-drink machine are also applied to test fees for students who take more than one exam, and every student has the option of paying for the exams in monthly installments.

"Some schools argue that kids are too poor" to pay for required exams, Ms. Freeman, the school's principal of curriculum, said. "That's bogus. It can work. It does take time and effort, but you can do fund-raisers."

At the 800-student Millburn (N.J.) High School near New York City, administrators collect the fees for the required exams as early as October to make sure the students are "committed financially and mentally" to taking the tests in May, Principal Keith Neigel said.

"It reinforces for them that if you're going to sit for the course, you're going to take the test," he said.

5 Out of 5 Required

The AP students who gripe the most about test requirements, school officials say, are often seniors who are unlikely to receive credit from their colleges of choice, either because the colleges demand high scores or set a tight limit on the amount of credit they award.

At West Potomac High School in Fairfax County, for example, AP biology teacher Susan Piskor said the possibility that the tests will soon become required troubles her students who want to attend colleges that accept only an AP score of 5--the highest possible--for credit.

"They feel it could be a waste of money if they don't get a five," Ms. Piskor said.

As participation has increased in recent years, a number of colleges have set stricter requirements for the Advanced Placement scores and subject matter for which they offer credit or advanced standing, Mr. Curry of the College Board said.

Undergraduate officials at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, decided in 1994 to stop allowing specific AP credits to serve as substitutes for any of the school's seven required general education courses.

"It wasn't a reflection on the exams themselves," said Margaret DiStasi, the director of undergraduate advising at UC-Berkeley. "It was more a feeling that that was high school work."

But even when colleges offer only limited AP credit, they still look for test scores to see which high schools offer a "bona fide" AP course, said Claire Pelton, the director of academic services and Advanced Placement at the College Board's Western regional office in San Jose, Calif.

"The complete AP class includes the examination," Ms. Pelton said. "It's a part of the AP experience."

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 1

Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as More Students in AP Courses Find They Can't Escape the Test
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