Recruitment & Retention

Program Doles Out Cash To Students Who Pass AP Exams

By Sean Cavanagh — July 09, 2003 7 min read
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First, there’s the promise of college credit. Then there’s the satisfaction of notching a top test score. But for students at Skyline High School, in the heart of working-class east Dallas, there’s another, even more immediate incentive for passing their Advanced Placement exams: pocketfuls of cash.

Hitting the magical “3" score on the college-level tests will earn them $100. The more exams they pass, the bigger the paycheck. At schools across town, and in several other Texas cities, the payout is even greater.

The pass-for-pay system is the product of Advanced Placement Strategies Inc., a Dallas nonprofit organization that tries to encourage students, teachers, principals, and whole districts to make AP classes exams a more integral part of high school academics.

Launched three years ago with corporate and philanthropic backing, the AP Strategies program is growing. And similar incentive models have earned the support of the Bush administration, which in a March report cited their benefits as potential race-neutral methods for steering minority students into college. The study was issued shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court began consideration of two University of Michigan cases that last month yielded qualified support from the court for inclusion of race as a factor in admissions. (“Justices Give K-12 Go-Ahead to Promote Diversity,” this issue.)

Educators Paid, Too

At Skyline High, graduating senior Kenitra Brown, 18, like some of her AP classmates, said she harbored college ambitions, and had planned on taking AP tests long before learning of the incentives.

But she also saw the money as a plum reward. She received a $100 check last fall from the school for passing the AP English language test. (Her senior-year AP test scores aren’t in yet.) Having quit her $6-an-hour job at Chuck E. Cheese’s earlier in the school year, Ms. Brown was grateful for the extra cash.

“I used it for school supplies, and books I needed,” said Ms. Brown, who is African-American and plans to attend Rice University in Houston in the fall. “It wasn’t the only thing,” she said of the payout, “but it was a good thing.”

For teachers and principals, it can be an especially good thing.

Teachers of AP courses earn $100 to $500 for each student they teach who passes an AP test, with additional bonuses of between $500 and $2,000 if the results show progress over time. Principals can earn an extra $1,500 to $3,000 annually for their work in supporting the growth of AP classes in their schools.

Nationwide, 913,251 students took AP exams in 2002, according to the College Board, the New York City-based sponsor of the exams. Numerous studies have linked taking a rigorous high school curriculum, including AP courses, with college success. Passing AP tests allows students to gain college credit, and potentially place higher in college courses.

AP Strategies, in cooperation with the College Board, trains teachers in how to provide the college-level coursework, and counsels schools on how to help establish the classes themselves. It works with private donors, such as Texas Instruments Inc. and Roger Enrico, a former PepsiCo executive, who provide funding for the incentives in individual schools and districts.

The Dallas nonprofit’s total annual budget is roughly $5.6 million, most of which comes from private donors, said Don Graham, AP Strategies’ director of finance and operations. During the 2001-02 school year, the company gave out awards to 1,196 students, worth $183,846, and made nearly 300 payments to teachers (some of which flowed through school districts), worth roughly $340,000, he said.

The funders often tailor their gifts to academic subjects of interest to them. Texas Instruments, for example, pays students for passing AP mathematics, science, and English exams; the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, a New York City organization which supports the visual arts, rewards passing scores on AP tests in art history.

‘Super Collider’ Offshoot

The birth of the AP Strategies’ initiative can be traced to one of the scientific world’s strangest premature deaths. In the early 1990s, Texas philanthropist Peter O’Donnell Jr. launched an AP incentive program in the area south of Dallas. He hoped to improve the local schools serving the children of scientists and engineers who had come to work on the famed “Super Collider” project, a high- tech atomic-particle smasher with a projected $11 billion budget.

But in 1993, Congress killed the Super Collider’s funding, leaving a 14-mile-long abandoned tunnel under the North Texas prairie. And yet the incentive plan grew, eventually migrating a few miles north to the Dallas city schools. With Mr. O’Donnell’s help, AP Strategies was founded in 2000 to build on those initiatives. Currently, 23 districts in Texas are partnering with the AP Strategies program.

Dallas’ 162,000-system is the largest participating district, and earlier this year the system agreed to make the AP Strategies training program available in all its high schools. The model has also been carried to schools in Abilene, Amarillo, and Wichita Falls, among other Texas districts.

Most of AP Strategies’ sponsors target incentives to disadvantaged areas, or districts where AP participation is low, said Gregg Fleisher, AP Strategies’ president. Occasionally, the nonprofit has turned down some schools and districts that sought entry, when the company, or one of its donors, wasn’t convinced there was “uniform interest” in making changes to build the program, Mr. Fleisher said in an interview this spring.

In schools where interest is strong, AP Strategies officials see results. In the 2001- 2002 school year, a total of 7,445 juniors and seniors were enrolled in the nine original Dallas schools taking part in the program, including Skyline High; 1,617 students took some kind of AP test, or 21.7 percent of the population in those grades. That estimated percentage assumes the vast majority of test-takers are juniors and seniors in high school.

That rate of participation is higher than the 12.8 percent of students nationwide who took at least one AP test in 2002, out of roughly 6 million public school juniors and seniors. It is also higher than the 15.1 percent of Texas students who participated, among the state’s 487,108 juniors and seniors.

Since 1996, the number of passing scores on the AP test in 10 schools currently participating in Dallas’ program have risen from 361 to 1,047 (including students who took more than one test); for black and Hispanic students, the number of passing scores has climbed from 79 to 417. Among juniors and seniors in those Dallas schools, overall enrollment is 45 percent Hispanic and 38 percent black. While increasing the number of students taking AP courses and tests was an important goal of the program, Mr. Fleisher said, so was raising the number of students who actually pass and thus win college credit.

“We really count the passing scores as the measure that there is success,” Mr. Fleisher said.

Maria Robledo Montecel, the executive director of a San Antonio research organization that champions educational opportunities for minority students, said those teenagers were just as likely to be motivated by the satisfaction that came with the cash rewards, as the paychecks themselves.

“It recognizes the importance of their achievement,” Ms. Montecel, who directs the Intercultural Development Research Association, said of the reward system. “For some of these students, that is a novelty.”

In addition to AP Strategies’ effort, the Texas Education Agency since 1993 has offered $100 to high schools for every student who scored a 3 or higher, out of 5 possible points, on AP exams. The state program has an annual budget of $27 million, and also covers at least $30 of students’ $80-per-AP-exam fee.

Added Incentives

Other efforts are under way to broaden participation in the Advanced Placement program. The University of Texas system, for instance, offers its own incentive program, staging workshops and seminars for teachers and offering them stipends for that AP training.

Florida pays teachers $50 for each student who scores at least a 3 on an AP test. Teachers who work in low-performing schools there receive annual, one-time bonuses of $500 if at least one student gets a 3.

The U.S. Department of Education also supports two incentive programs. One gives state education agencies money to cover AP test fees for disadvantaged students; the second provides money to state and local efforts to increase access to AP classes. Their combined budgets were $23.3 million in 2003.

“It’s a way to level the playing field,” said Brian W. Jones, the Department of Education’s general counsel, in explaining the federal agency’s support for incentive programs. “It’s making sure disadvantaged kids have equal access.”

But others, like test-reform advocate Robert Schaeffer, warn against giving such cash incentives to teachers. They say the practice encourages teachers to structure classroom work around prepping for exams.

Still, Mr. Schaeffer sees no harm in a company’s or state agency’s paying exam fees for students. And he has no objection to exhorting teenagers to take AP classes, and the exams that go with them.

The payoff—saving money by earning college credit— is obvious, said Mr. Schaeffer, the public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, the Cambridge, Mass.-based watchdog group known as FairTest.

“No student is hurt by taking an AP exam and getting a two,” Mr. Schaeffer said.

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