By Marsha Sutton
Advanced Placement classes originated decades ago as a way for gifted high school students to take college-level courses in fields for which they had passion and talent.
Today, AP classes are open to all students and have gained in popularity, particularly in high-achieving districts where students compete for coveted spots in selective colleges that give weight to the number of AP classes taken.
A standardized curriculum for AP classes is provided by College Board, a not-for-profit organization that holds exclusive rights to Advanced Placement coursework and the AP examinations, which are tests administered every year in May to assess each AP student’s comprehension of the material.
This year, College Board offers 34 AP exams, from Art History to World History. Languages include French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and Latin. Science and math coursework includes physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, calculus and statistics. Exams also test achievement in European history, world history, United States history, government, economics, psychology and other social sciences.
Although not required, the AP exams are considered mandatory by many students, and also by teachers, most of whom expect their students to take the test. Many teachers and district staff review the AP pass rate each year to gauge student achievement.
College Board’s price of each exam is $87, unless a low-income student qualifies for a fee reduction. Eight dollars of the $87 fee is given back to districts, to cover overhead.
Deborah Davis, College Board’s director of college readiness communications, said in an email that the exam fees, which some criticize as too high, enable College Board to manage the AP program’s ongoing development and operations.
“In 2011, AP exam fees covered the operational costs related to administering more than 3.4 million AP exams at more than 18,000 high schools around the world,” Davis said. “Because at least 50 percent of each AP exam consists of essay and short answer questions that cannot be scored automatically, exam fees also cover the significant costs associated with scoring these portions of the exams.” This includes a daily stipend and travel, lodging and meal expenses for readers of the exams.
If students are not required by schools to take AP exams to get full credit for the course, and if the exams are strictly voluntary, then no law prohibits districts from charging more.
AP exams at La Jolla High School in the San Diego Unified School District previously cost more but this year will run $87, said LJHS principal Dana Shelburne, who is following district recommendations not to charge students beyond the fee set by College Board.
The Poway Unified School District, according to spokesperson Sharon Raffer, is charging $92 per exam at all its high schools.
For AP students in the San Dieguito Union High School District, the cost this year has risen to $103 per exam.
The extra $16 per exam — plus the $8 returned by College Board — pays for proctors, special equipment, room rental fees and other expenses, said SDUHSD associate superintendent of educational services Rick Schmitt. He said there is no profit for SDUHSD and that the excess money is used to help defray costs.
Elloise Bennett, a consultant and former assistant principal at Canyon Crest Academy and Torrey Pines High School, estimated that the district pays about $23 per exam to cover outside costs, plus $3 per credit card transaction. She said the $8 returned to districts by College Board for administrative overhead “is unrealistic.”
Hired by San Dieguito to handle all details and logistics involved in AP testing, Bennett now runs her own consulting service [https://
] and is an AP Coordinator assisting numerous schools and school districts in southern California, Texas, Oregon and Washington.
“The cost of hiring a contractor to process registration and plan the logistical details outweighs the significant staff time that test coordination requires, at a time when we’ve reduced staff down to core needs,” Schmitt said in his email.
Bennett is paid $.75 per exam, and last year San Dieguito administered 6,715 exams to 2,939 students, averaging about 2.3 exams per student.
Overhead of $120,000
“Our district is unique in that we have so many students taking the exams,” Schmitt said. “We are forced to test off-campus, because we do not have facilities, chairs, tables, etc., to host such large numbers.”
All SDUHSD students take AP exams at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which last year charged a rental fee of $8,500. Other expenses from last year, according to Schmitt, were $70,000 for proctors and staff hours, $20,000 for equipment and furniture rental, $10,000 for special equipment and lab rentals, and $10,000 for additional costs for special needs students.
Bennett said last year the district had about 50 special education students, and some took six exams each. They have a variety of needs, she said, with some requiring individual proctors, one-on-one assistance or special equipment.
“Special education students cost much more than regular education students to test, and SDUHSD has a large percentage of special education AP test-takers,” Schmitt said.
Bennett said special needs students are not only special education students but also those with special circumstances, such as illness, sports conflicts, students with injuries, last-minute medical emergencies or small-group testing.
About 7 percent of the district’s AP test-takers qualify for a fee reduction, she said.
Besides handling all logistical details and arrangements in preparation for the two weeks of AP testing, Bennett selects proctors, all of whom are credentialed teachers, and provides four hours of training.
Hundreds of proctors can be required per session, to maintain a ratio of 25 students per proctor. An AP Calculus exam might have 600 students, she said, which would require 24 proctors. There can sometimes be as many as 1,100 students testing at one time, or as few as one or two.
In 2011, of the 6,715 exams taken by 2,939 students, the breakdown by SDUHSD’s four high schools was as follows:
At Canyon Crest Academy, 1,793 were taken by 749 students. At Torrey Pines High, 2,452 exams were taken by 1,025 students. At San Dieguito Academy, 951 exams were taken by 442 students. At La Costa Canyon High, 1,519 exams were taken by 753 students.
AP exams are graded on a scale of 1 to 5; a 3, 4 or 5 are passing scores. The most popular AP exams taken in the district last year were English language, with 797 exams passed out of 921 taken; U.S. history, with 553 passed out of 797 taken; world history, with 501 passed out of 693 taken; English literature, with 546 passed out of 654 taken; psychology, with 396 passed out of 498 taken; and calculus AB, with 304 passed out of 355 taken.
Although colleges don’t require AP students to take the corresponding AP exam, Bennett said in a competitive environment many colleges consider AP test scores as part of the application package.
School districts frequently encourage students to take AP tests because formulas used to rank the nation’s top high schools are often based on the number of AP tests students take. More AP tests translate into higher rankings.
One common complaint about AP testing, besides the cost, is the timing of the tests in early May, which leaves four to six weeks of school remaining after the testing period. Many teachers feel pressured to race through the material to cover the subject completely before the exam, many students struggle with the fast pace, and many parents object to the less productive last few weeks of school.
College Board’s Deborah Davis said testing is held in May primarily for the benefit of high school seniors beginning college in the fall.
This, she said, “allows ample time for scoring and the delivery of scores to colleges in July. Colleges request this lead time to ensure credit/placement decisions are made in a timely manner for incoming students.”
But Bennett estimated that 30 percent of seniors either cancel or don’t bother showing up for AP exams, even after paying for them, because “AP testing comes after kids have decided which colleges to attend.”
SDUHSD’s deadline to register for AP exams is March 14, with late registration through March 28. Exams this year will be held May 7 to 18.