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 [http://aptestservice.com/] 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:
School # exams # students
Canyon Crest Ac. 1,793 749
Torrey Pines HS 2,452 1,025
San Dieguito Ac. 951 442
La Costa Canyon HS 1,519 723
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:
Exam # taken # passed
English language 921 797
U.S. history 797 553
World history 693 501
English literature 654 546
Psychology 498 396
Calculus AB 355 304
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.
College prep is big business
By Marsha Sutton
The College Board, founded in 1900, has become synonymous with college readiness programs for high school students. Composed of more than 5,400 schools, colleges, universities and other educational organizations, each year College Board, according to its mission statement, serves 7 million students and parents, 23,000 high schools and 3,500 colleges.
Programs including the PSAT, SAT, SAT II subject tests and Advanced Placement have become fully infused into high school academic culture and are considered predictors of college success. Few ambitious high school students, or their counselors, question the value of these tests and programs, and most consider them an integral part of the college application process.
Yet College Board is not without critics. Americans for Educational Testing Reform, for one, cites excessive pricing for services, high-paid executives, and a non-profit status that exempts College Board from taxation.
College Board, based in New York, is classified as a 501c3 (EIN 13-1623965) that reported revenue in fiscal year 2010 of $660 million and expenses of $594 million.
In fiscal year 2009 (July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2009), revenue was reported as $623 million with expenses of $569.7 million.
Part of these expenses included $766,354 for lobbying efforts, including contact with legislators, their staff, government officials or a legislative body, according to College Board’s Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
That year, College Board reported compensation for 22 of its top employees of about $8.1 million. The highest paid employees were president and chief executive officer Gaston Caperton, who earned $872,061, and chief operating officer Herbert Elish, who earned $526,558. Peter Negroni, senior vice-president of relationship development, earned $452,843, and chief financial officer Thomas Higgins earned $452,230. The average compensation package for these 22 executives was $371,420.
Kathleen Fineout Steinberg, College Board’s executive director of communications, said in an email that the organization’s executive salaries “are established by a compensation committee of the Board of Trustees with the advice of independent, external compensation experts.”
“Salaries are benchmarked against comparable organizations, including other educational organizations and both for-profit and not-for-profit institutions of comparable size, scope and complexity,” she said. “As a non-profit, employee compensation is governed by the IRS and must be considered reasonable and demonstrate a direct connection to the exempt purpose and mission of the organization.”
Steinberg said all revenue is invested back into College Board’s programs and services, and the organization provides nearly $100 million in free programs and services annually, including more than $50 million in fee waivers and fee subsidies.