A lot of emphasis, and money, is being put into Advanced Placement (AP) in Alabama’s high schools. AP is seen as a way to boost academic rigor and give students a look at college-level coursework, ultimately, the reasoning goes, making them better prepared for college. Alabama’s big push is still in the early stages, so determining just how much effect AP coursework has on students and college readiness and success is unknown. We can take a look at what the snapshot of numbers tells us right now.
Before we start, it is important to note that some data looks at students, other data only looks at numbers of AP exams taken.
The Alabama State Department of Education issued a press release on Tuesday, February 11, proclaiming the great news that participation in Advanced Placement (AP) exams went up 250% from 2003 to 2013. From the memo:
- For the class of 2013, 4,773 students scored a grade of 3 or more, up from 1,723 for the class of 2003.
- Scoring a grade of 3 or higher allowed students in the class of 2013 to earn credit for college courses, saving $14,745,830 yearly in tuition expenses at average rate of $304.77 per credit hour. This represents an estimated 48,384 college credits.
- The percentage of Alabama students in the class of 2013 who scored a 3 or higher was 10.8%
The AP Report to the Nation, Alabama Summary uses the population of public school students who graduated from high school in 2013. In other words, at any point in their career, these students took an AP exam. That data is not publicly accessible on the web.
What Is Advanced Placement?
Advanced Placement is a worldwide program consisting of a standardized curriculum for 34 different high school courses. End-of-course tests are given to students in May, and passing scores of 3, 4, and 5 may earn college credit. AP isn’t new, having been piloted first in 1952 with 11 courses. It differs from the International Baccalaureate Programme, which is less focused on individual coursework and more focused on a philosophy of learning. Here’s a look at the differences between the two programs.
CollegeBoard, the nonprofit organization that oversees AP (and the SAT, among other education programs) highlights the standardization of content and curriculum as playing a major role in college admissions counselors’ decisions, reasoning that when admissions counselors look at a student’s transcript, they can trust the rigor of the course when it has an “AP” designation.
Research indicates that students who score a 3 or higher are more likely to be successful in college. AP classes give students an opportunity to attempt college-level coursework in the high school environment. Teachers are required to complete additional training in order to teach AP classes.
So it’s fair to say that the AP program and AP coursework are focused on preparing students for college.
How Much Do AP Classes and Exams Cost?
The CollegeBoard does not require schools to charge students additional fees to take an AP class, though many schools do. Alabama law does not allow school districts to charge any fee for courses required for graduation, but districts claim the law does not apply to AP courses. The rationale is that the “regular”, or non-AP, version of the course is required for graduation, but not the AP version of the course.
Message to students and families: if you want to take the more rigorous course, be prepared to pay additional fees for it. Schools should have policies for class fee waivers for low-income students. Ask your school’s principal for details.
What about the cost of the exam? Some school districts require any student taking an AP class also take the exam. For others,the exam isn’t required unless the student wants to receive the extra 1.0 quality point (meaning an A = 5.0 rather than a 4.0 in a non-AP class). Still other districts do not mandate students take the AP exam in order to take the AP course and be exposed to the increased rigor in an AP course.
AP exams cost $89 each. Schools keep $8 per exam for administrative fees. As with class fees, the exam fee can be reduced if there is a financial need. AP Coordinators at each school are responsible for determining whether students are eligible for reduced fees.
Who actually pays for the exam depends on where you are and what your income status is. As expected, there is no publicly-available data in this area in Alabama.
In some districts, families are expected to pay exam fees up front during registration, adding to an already-large bill for families.
While the CollegeBoard has allowances for fee waivers for low-income students, there are other ways for low-income students to have their fees almost completely waived. The ALSDE was awarded a $252,000 federal grant last August to cover all but $10 of the cost of AP exams for low-income students. States are given the choice of whether to pass on the $10 cost to students or to cover it out of state and/or local funds.
Students do not pay any AP exam fees in Florida’s public schools. Utah is on the verge of passing a bill appropriating state funds to cover the cost of AP exam fees for low-income students. Here’s a district in Maryland that allows students to make installment payments on their AP exams.
So How Much Did It Cost for Alabama’s Students to Take AP Exams?
Again, that’s a tough question because there is no data available showing who paid and who didn’t. Additionally, no figures are available as to how many exams the CollegeBoard allowed at reduced fees. So let’s just look at how much exams cost at $89 each.
According to AP Participation data from the CollegeBoard web site, during the 2012-2013 school year, 35,627 AP exams were taken at a cost of $3.2 million.
Students obtained a passing score of 3 or higher on 13,587 exams, or 38.14%, meaning nearly $2 million was spent on exams receiving a score of 2 or lower, making those efforts ineligible for college credit.
Don’t forget that there are other costs to schools and districts (which means us, the taxpayers) for teacher training, test logistics, and administration of the tests. No financial data is publicly available to determine how much the AP program (courses plus tests plus other costs) actually costs Alabama’s school districts (which means us, the taxpayers) and families.
A Score of 3 Doesn’t Always Earn College Credit
Many of the “tuition savings” numbers are based on the premise that a student need earn only a score of 3 on an AP exam to earn college credit. That is a faulty assumption.According to AP data, Auburn University received 4,382 scores, more AP scores than any other in-state college. Here is Auburn’s policy for awarding college credit based on AP scores:
As you see, a score of 3 on an AP exam will only earn college credit for seven of the 26 AP exams listed. Check out the AP’s search tool to find college policies regarding acceptable AP scores.
It is imperative for school counselors and those pushing participation in AP coursework and exams to fully inform families that a 3 doesn’t automatically pay off in tuition savings.
How Many Exams Earn Passing Scores and What Is the 5-Year Trend?
The number of students taking AP classes has increased (by 254% in 10 years per the memo referred to at the beginning of this post), but the number of exams on which those students have earned passing scores has not kept pace with the increased participation.
While research shows that students are more prepared for college coursework if they take an AP class, it might be a good idea to determine whether everyone needs to actually take the exam, especially considering the cost.
Going Back to the Cost Figures for a Moment….
That got me wondering about the CollegeBoard, a nonprofit corporation, and just how much revenue it earns. Checking the 2011 990 (the most recent tax return available) on Guidestar, I was stunned to see that the nonprofit, as whole, brought in nearly $760 million in revenue, a nearly $40 million increase from 2010. After expenses, the remainder (not a profit, remember) was more than $45 million for 2011. That was two years ago.
The CollegeBoard president in 2011 earned more than $1.4 million in compensation that year. Obviously, I missed the fray in 2011 when the salaries of key personnel at CollegeBoard were challenged. Since that time, the president has left to work for a private equity firm, and the new president, David Coleman, a supporter of the common core state standards, was reported to have been given a compensation package of $750,000.
Standardized standards through the common core…standardized curriculum through AP. This is going down a path towards something, just not sure what.
What Do the Numbers Tell Us?
At this point, not a lot. The AP program has value, certainly. How much value? Exactly?
Is it necessary for students to actually take the exam in order to reap the benefit of the AP curriculum?
A lot of money is being spent on the AP program, whether it be from families’ pockets, from public-private partnerships, or from federal grants. Without knowing exactly how much money is being spent from which source, and what those outcomes are for Alabama’s students, it is impossible to determine whether the investment is worth the outcome.
Student participation is increasing, but a passing score of 3, 4, or 5 is elusive for too many students taking AP exams. So what sounds like a great return on investment…$89 for an exam versus $1,000 for a college course…might just be time and money spent with little to show. It is important for families, and taxpayers, to understand all of the costs and all of the benefits associated with AP coursework and exams.
Perhaps the ALSDE or A+ College Ready could produce some actual, not estimated, numbers showing:
- exactly how much money was spent on AP exams and AP fees by:
- students’ families,
- school districts (taxpayers),
- the ALSDE (also taxpayers),
- the federal government (also taxpayers), and
- private donations
- how much money families paid for test-preparation classes and materials (the AP test-taking book market likely brings in quite a bit of revenue),
- how much money families paid to have scores sent/re-sent to colleges (rush fees are $25),
- how much money families saved in actual tuition costs, taking into account those colleges that did not award credit because they required higher scores than students earned on AP exams, and
- how much money, and from what source, is spent to hire and train teachers, attend conferences, produce materials, and administer tests (which includes building-level costs for test-taking purposes).
If those numbers could be produced, a more thorough analysis could be conducted.
And I don’t know how you quantify the time, energy, and stress that high school students put into AP coursework. That certainly should count for something.
Applause is appropriate for the efforts the ALSDE and A+ Education Partnership have put into bringing more rigorous coursework to more students across Alabama. Here’s hoping we can see more, and more accurate, numbers to prove this investment is making our children’s lives better.
Here’s the 2013 data from AP. Here is the archived data used for the Distribution table above. Scroll down to view the “State Reports” used in this post. Only the “Public” tab of each spreadsheet was used for analysis in this post.
While I typically do not share one-viewpoint pieces here on the site, Diane Ravitch’s piece from May 2013, titled “What Is the Value of AP Courses and Tests?” offers a viewpoint not often articulated in Alabama. Worth a read.