Will AP Changes Give More of an Edge to the Wealthy?

High school counselors say that registration and fee changes will have little impact on those in affluent schools but will discourage those in low-income areas.

March 11, 2019
 

The Advanced Placement program, despite criticism that it receives, remains a popular way for high school students to demonstrate their commitment to rigorous instruction. Many students at high schools where Ivies and flagships are the norm for college applications compete to have the greatest possible number of AP courses (successfully completed) on their transcripts.

High school counselors, even those who have doubts about the way students obsess over AP, see the program as crucial for their students.

And that may explain why so many counselors -- especially those who serve low-income students -- are angry over changes the College Board is making in the registration deadlines and fees for the program. The College Board is changing the registration deadline for taking an AP exam from March (toward the end of the school year) to November (toward the beginning). In addition, the College Board is adding to the $94 fee for exams a $40 late fee for missing the November deadline and a $40 cancellation fee for those who register but then opt not to take the exam.

At high schools where AP courses (and scores of 5) are plentiful, the change may not be much noticed. Everyone who signed up for calculus or Spanish or whatever takes the test. Families (or the school) pay. There isn't much discussion about whether or not to take the exam.

But the situation is very different at other schools. Students try to figure out if they stand a chance at earning at least a 3 (generally the minimum for earning college credit). Many of them may not think that's likely. Some see this issue as extending beyond low-income high schools to the majority of high schools where it's not a given that many students will earn 5s. And someone has to pay for those exams.

"Now the College Board has added an extra stress for all students, in particular low-income students, by requiring them to register for AP exams in November, rather than in March," says a petition opposing the changes. "School is just getting started in November and there is no way anybody knows at this time whether or not they will be prepared for this high-stakes test. This unreasonable deadline is an unnecessary pressure for students and not in their interest."

The petition goes on to predict that the College Board will see revenues rise under the changes, despite all the school counselors objecting. "The College Board doesn’t care about students -- they only care about their bottom line," the petition says.

As of Sunday, the petition had more than 97,000 signatures.

The College Board has maintained that the earlier deadline will motivate students to study hard in their AP courses and to prepare for the exam.

But critics are circulating data -- from the College Board -- showing that the earlier deadline appears to be resulting in an increase in the number of low-income students registering for and paying for the exams but not earning a score of 3 or better.

Total Registration, which works with high schools on managing AP and other exams, found in the data that when the College Board tested the new system with some high schools, "3,141 additional low-income test takers at the pilot schools but only 742 additional scores of 3+. This gives a pass rate (scores of 3+) of 23.6 percent for the 'additional' low-income test takers. Another way to look at this is that 76.4 percent of the low-income students who were coerced to take the exams because of the new deadline, late fees [and] cancellation fees did not pass (scored a 1 or 2)."

A College Board spokeswoman said via email that the changes resulted in more students from all groups taking AP exams, that the base exam rate is not changing and that many states subsidize exam fees for low-income students.

As to the data being cited in the petition and elsewhere, the spokeswoman said that "these false statements are a reckless and futile attempt to thwart the College Board's efforts to launch the new AP model" and that companies that work with high schools on tests are defending not student interests, but their own businesses.

The spokeswoman said that the early registration motivates students, especially those who might not otherwise succeed. "We’ve consistently heard from educators that when students register in the fall -- a policy half of AP schools have already put in place themselves -- they’re more engaged and less likely to give up when faced with challenges," the spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman also denied that the College Board is making the changes to make money. Rather, she said, the College Board is producing many new AP materials to help students succeed. "Our goal is to ensure that all AP students have equal access to the best resources to help them earn college credit." she said. "The annual cost to develop and maintain these new resources, and the cost to develop and implement the fall registration process, actually reduce, rather than expand, the AP program's operating income."

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