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.