College & Workforce Readiness

Schools Grappling With Fee Hikes for AP Exams

By Catherine Gewertz — January 17, 2017 | Corrected: January 19, 2017 8 min read
Kailee Giles, center, an AP student at Tumwater High School in Washington, worries that skipping the AP exam will “look weird” on her high school transcript. But she may not have a choice if her school or district can’t help her defray the higher cost this year.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Jason Helfer, Illinois’s deputy superintendent for teaching and learning.

Low-income students across the country are facing a steep hike in the cost of taking Advanced Placement exams this year, and teachers are worried that the change could lead many promising students to bail out of the tests.

News of the price hike—from $5 or $15 per test to $53—is just beginning to reach students and counselors as they begin to talk about sign-ups for this spring’s AP tests. And it’s putting needy students in a bind.

“With the way my financial state is, I might not end up taking the test if it’s that much money,” said Kailee Giles, a junior who’s taking AP Language and Composition this year at Tumwater High School, near Olympia, Wash.

Giles is feeling the effect of a little-noticed provision in the 1-year-old Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. That law ended a federal grant program that has helped subsidize the cost of AP and International Baccalaureate exams for students from low-income families for 17 years. Last year, $28 million in grants lowered the cost of 862,000 exams in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

Subsidies and waivers from four sources—the federal government, states, schools, and the College Board—typically slash the price of AP exams—$93 each this year—to between $5 and $15 for low-income students, according to an analysis by the Education Commission of the States. IB tests are priced at $116 each, but typically cost low-income students $15 or less. The disappearance of the federal grant program has erased a piece of that financing pie, however, leaving states, districts, and schools scrambling to replace it.

The impact is potentially far-reaching. Last year, 22 percent of the 2.6 million students who took 4.7 million AP exams were from low-income families. About one-quarter of the 76,000 students who wrote 55,000 International Baccalaureate exams have similarly limited resources.

‘It’s Not Our Fault’

Some states, like Illinois, have pledged to cover the lost federal money, holding the cost of AP and IB tests steady for needy students. Jason Helfer, the state’s deputy superintendent for teaching and learning, said the Illinois board of education decided to use $1.8 million of last year’s unused Title I money to offset the loss of the federal grant.

In Rhode Island, Alan Tenreiro, the principal of Cumberland High School, said he is relieved that his state came up with the money to keep low-income AP students’ test fees at $12. His school has seen a 70 percent increase in the number of students using fee waivers to take AP exams in the last few years.

“That money is very important to us,” he said.

But other states, like Washington, can’t pony up the money, which rolls the problem onto districts’ and schools’ shoulders. Some might be able to find the cash to plug the exam-fee hole; others won’t.

For Giles, a question mark hovers over her carefully constructed college plans. Taking AP classes—and exams—is a key part of her strategy to become the first in her family to attend college. A former foster child, Giles wants to be a social worker so she can help children who have been removed from their homes.

She’s counting on the sheen that good AP scores can add to a college application. And she’s counting on the potential tuition savings that AP-earned credits can offer, too; her mother is widowed and unemployed. Now Giles worries that “it could look weird” on her transcript if she skips the exam. But if her school or district can’t help pay her way, she won’t have another choice.

“It doesn’t really seem fair,” she said. “It’s not our fault.”

Todd Caffey, the AP coordinator at Giles’ school, said he fears many students will decide not to take AP tests because of the higher cost, unless his school or district finds a way to subsidize them in the next few months.

“The idea of someone opting out because they can’t afford it makes me crazy,” he said.

There are federal funding streams that can be used to replace the lost test-fee grants, like Title I money, but schools are just beginning to explore those options. And the one that federal lawmakers envisioned as the solution—the big block grant created under Title IV, Part A of ESSA—comes with risk and competing priorities, and is not an appealing solution for many districts.

A Crowded Pot

In writing ESSA, legislators rounded up dozens of programs, including the one that subsidized AP test fees, and created a block grant to support them. Money from that pot is to be distributed by formula to states, which then share it with districts. Those “student support and academic enrichment grants” can be used for many things, which gives districts maximum flexibility.

AP EXAMS: SHARING THE COST

BRIC ARCHIVE

For low-income students, the cost of Advanced Placement test fees has been subsidized through four sources. Here is how the cost is typically lowered to between $5 and $15 per test.

Source: Education Week, Education Commission of the States, U.S. Department of Education

But it also puts districts in a bind by making them choose whether to spend the money on AP exam-fee subsidies, or on college and career counseling, dropout prevention, student mental-health programs, or expansion of digital coursework, among the many allowed uses of the money.

One complication with Title IV is that it was authorized at $1.6 billion, but it’s likely to be funded at a far lower level. One recent round of budget negotiations proposed $300 million. The other issue about Title IV money is that it becomes available in 2017-18. A special rule created for the block grant allows districts to essentially borrow on next year’s allocation. That move would let them use next year’s money to lower the fees of AP exams given this spring.

Texas plans to take advantage of this provision to replace its $3.5 million grant. But some states are uneasy with that solution, since Title IV funding, and districts’ allocations, are still uncertain.

Illinois officials heard from superintendents who were worried about relying on Title IV money to make up for the lost AP test-fee grant, Helfer said. “They would make that decision without knowing what their allocations would be, so wisely, they were nervous about that,” he said.

State officials were also unhappy about how the Title IV solution would force districts to weigh AP fee subsidies against other equally valuable programs, Helfer said. “That’s a decision we didn’t want districts to have to make,” he said.

At the U.S. Department of Education, which oversaw the AP test-fee program, officials worry that by pitting AP test fees against other district priorities, Title IV threatens to erode access to AP for students who need it the most. Without a dedicated funding stream for those exams, “there is going to be a significant difference in what districts and schools will be able to do for students” to defray the cost of AP tests, said Monique M. Chism, the deputy assistant secretary for policy and programs.

“This is not a year where things will [transition] and then be reset to normal,” Chism said. “I don’t know that we’ll ever get back to the before-ESSA levels” of AP funding.

The College Board, which owns the AP program, is working to get more low-income students into AP classes, and has seen the share of such students rise from 12 percent of exam-takers in 2006 to 22 percent last year. But Trevor Packer, who leads the AP program, said the organization is worried that the disappearance of the federal grant program could deny needy students key benefits, such as earning college credit.

Pressure or Support?

To prevent that, the College Board has undertaken a particularly intense outreach effort to urge schools and districts to consider Title IV as a way to keep AP fees down for low-income students. It hired extra staff to make an estimated 3,500 phone calls to AP coordinators at schools with large enrollments of low-income students. Its leaders discussed the Title IV solution with top officials at state departments of education. And it sent letters to schools, telling them that ESSA “explicitly allows” use of the Title IV block grant to subsidize AP exam fees, urging them to ask their state and district leaders to “take specific action” to use that money for that purpose.

Those tactics didn’t make a universally good impression. In one meeting with state leaders, a top official “had smoke coming out of their ears” when a College Board representative offered Title IV as a fix for the lost federal AP-fee money, said one meeting attendee. “We have a lot of things in mind for that money, and here comes the College Board, thinking it can tell us how to spend it,” he said. Sending letters directly to schools didn’t sit well with some state leaders, either. “That definitely felt like a strong-arm tactic to me,” said one state department of education official.

Packer disputed the notion that its outreach is too heavy-handed. The meetings and letters are the most effective way to inform states of important changes in federal law, and offer them potential solutions that can preserve AP access for students, he said.

“I do feel we have an obligation to these students, who signed up for this additional work without knowing something changed for them,” Packer said.

Difficult Choices

How many states and districts will opt for a Title IV solution is an open question. But meanwhile, they’re devising other solutions that carry their own tough choices.

Prince George’s County, a large district in Maryland, sent a letter to parents in October, in response to worried phone calls about AP test-fee increases. Chief Executive Officer Kevin M. Maxwell assured them that the district would keep the fees low despite the loss of the federal subsidy.

“This decision does have some financial implications that will require some additional adjustments, but we feel that this is the right thing to do,” he wrote.

Maryland has not offered to replace the lost federal grants for districts, counting on an increase in overall K-12 funding, and a large-scale conversion to more-flexible block grants, to enable districts to pay for what they need, said department of education spokesman William Reinhard.

In Vermont, deputy secretary of education Amy Fowler laments the spot her superintendents are in. That state can’t cover the lost federal grant money for AP fees. Local superintendents report that they’ll find a way to manage, she said. But she anticipates painful tradeoffs.

“It sets up each of the various possibilities in competition with each other for those dollars,” she said. “And the higher the poverty in a community, the bigger the hit will be. In some places, they might have to say, we’re just not going to do AP [subsidies], and use those resources for our preschool program instead. Those are the kinds of choices people are going to have to make.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as Fee Hikes on AP Tests Hitting Poor Students

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