Staff Editorial: In the Red

The ever-increasing costs of AP testing, along with new, earlier registration deadlines, may prevent some students from succeeding on—or even taking—the tests

May 7, 2018

AP classes are typically regarded as the most challenging classes available. These classes, which provide students with key educational skills, demand a great deal of dedication and academic motivation. But now, it seems, they also require a great deal of something else: money.

The costs of AP tests have skyrocketed over the years. Students now need to pay close to 100 dollars per test, and even students on free and reduced lunch programs must pay around 50 dollars to take an AP test. Now, new policies from the AP are only going to further the expense of our supposedly free public education, according to City High guidance counselor Eric Peterson.

“We are one of 800 schools that have been selected to…pilot…this early-registration program, although it is my understanding that one year later all schools will be moving to this,” Peterson said. “When students have to commit to the test previous years has been somewhere in the week after spring break. I believe the deadline next year is November 15th, so it is significantly earlier that students have to commit and pay for exam.”

These changes are already alarming some teachers, including English teacher Robin Fields.

“Kids are going to be asked to make a decision in November, which is a little bit unfortunate because they won’t even have a full trimester under their deck of their AP class,” Fields said. “I don’t know if they’ll have a fair assessment of how they would do on the test. To walk into taking the test with not being guaranteed to get all the money you pay…it makes me a little bit nervous. As a teacher, I might not feel as comfortable saying, ‘Look into taking this test,’ if I know that these requirements are there.”

Peterson shared many of Fields’ concerns when it came to the early registration. 

To walk into taking the test with not being guaranteed to get all the money you pay…it makes me a little bit nervous.”

— Erin Fields

“The later deadline worked relatively well. It got the kids basically two-thirds of the way through the class, gave them an idea of their chances of being successful on the test. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes,” he said. “Sometimes students may not know for certain how they’re doing in the class. It may be their first AP class. Some seniors…opt to cancel because their school is not going to accept their score. I understand why students would want to cancel, but there would be financial penalties that are much more significant than they are now.”

More than just pushing up the deadline to register for AP tests, the changes also establish high fees for students seeking to drop a test.
“Any exams that are either added to or subtracted from the order after November 15th incur a $45 penalty. Any student that simply opts not to take the test which again has already been ordered, they get charged the whole $94. If they choose not to test, they’re still out the entire cost of the exam,” Peterson said. “I’m a little bit nervous how those earlier deadlines might impact some students. [For free or reduced lunch students,] it’s about $54. But, again, if a student cancels, there’ll still be that cost. So I’m nervous about that for our…free and reduced lunch students.”

With these costs racking up on students’ bank accounts, and with the decreased probability that the tests will pay off at all, one must stop and take a closer look at the College Board’s reasoning behind the expensiveness—and new early-decision nature—of exams.

“They believe it’s a ‘best practice.’ Some schools, if you’re in AP, they require every student that takes an AP class to take the test. Many others have much earlier deadlines,” Peterson said. “AP states that they think that’s a ‘best practice’ because students are committed from day one in class, they know the test is expected earlier, so they are much more diligent throughout the class.”

Many of the College Board’s practices, especially the financial ones, have been called into question before. The College Board, along with other large ‘nonprofit’ educational organizations like the ACT and the Educational Testing Service, is perhaps the least nonprofit of nonprofits. While these organizations are technically nonprofits, they pay their higher-ups immense sums. According to Americans for Educational Testing Reform, the CEOs of the three largest testing services, which include the College Board, make on average five times more than the CEOs of the largest nonprofits.

While this is technically legal, it is morally questionable. So much so, in fact, that in recent years backlash has sprouted against testing companies. In Iowa, the attorney general’s office requested that the IRS review the salaries of the Iowa branch of the ACT after it was uncovered that its board members received salaries higher than 98 percent of other nonprofits.

The ACT is not the only testing company whose practices have been called into question. The Educational Testing Service was reported by the AETS for a profit margin of 10.7 percent. The next year, the ETS’s profit margin decreased to 0.9 percent only after a large increase in expenses totalling over $100 million, but the company failed to account for why or how that money was spent.

Like the ACT and the ETS, the College Board has reported huge profit margins. In 2009, 8.6 percent of its revenue was profit—a margin which, according to AETS, “would be respectable for a for-profit company.” That margin has only increased, leading the College Board to have a profit of 317 percent of the industry average. In 2013, one of its former presidents earned $1.3 million in compensation, 444 percent of the average for his position in the industry. High salaries and compensations extend to the current presidents and executives as well.

These high profit margins and unnamed expenses become more questionable when one considers the other ways these companies market their products and make money. The College Board, the ETS, and the ACT all offer test-prep materials for the tests they themselves create and administer. This creates a sometimes insurmountable barrier for low income students, who may be unable to afford the tests themselves, let alone the study materials. While the College Board does offer some grants and support to low-income students, AP tests still cost around $50 for those on free or reduced lunch before taking the cost of studying into account.

“It’s time to examine the examiners by holding the standardized testing industry accountable for failing to operate cost-effectively,” Bob Schaeffer of watchdog FairTest told the Washington Post. “Federal and state officials should also investigate these ‘not for profit’ organizations for overcharging students and parents to pad their bottom lines.”

The increased prices and penalties also drew skepticism from Peterson.

“I cringe at the penalty costs. In the past if we had an unused exam, it was $15. Now that’s up to $45. If a student opted not to test, that was $15. Now it’s $94,” Peterson said. “It just seems that in some ways it’s going to create income for the company.”

For that reason, we stand in opposition to the AP policy changes that the College Board is seeking to implement. Moving registration up and increasing penalty costs hurts students, especially the financially vulnerable. The only thing improved by these so-called ‘improvements’ is the College Board’s profit margin. 

It just seems that in some ways it’s going to create income for the company.”

— Eric Peterson

This goes beyond the College Board, however. Making public education truly free is the responsibility of the government as well. That is what public means. The finances and spending of large testing organizations should be investigated by the IRS. The companies must either change their practices, or lose the protective nonprofit status that the government provides. Last year, Congress eliminated the AP Test Fee Program, which subsidized AP tests for millions of low-income students. Now, the price of AP tests has increased up to tenfold for those who used to depend on the program. The government has an obligation to those who depend on public education to reinstate the program, to provide funding and grants to low-income students, and to make efforts to reduce exclusionary, elitist AP culture. This includes taking actions like eliminating the requirement some schools have that students in an AP class must take and pay for the test. Such a requirement is tantamount to forcing students to pay to take high-level classes, a violation of the principles of public education.

The goal of public education is to provide equal access to education for all students in America. Although there are many obstacles facing that goal, few organizations are so careless and malicious in their treatment of the American school system as the College Board, which leaves students in the lurch, in the red, and out of the running when it comes to higher education.

Students should never be put at a disadvantage because of circumstances they cannot control. As of now, the College Board and organizations like it hold the reins when it comes to college admissions and a host of other opportunities only available based on the scores of standardized tests often administered unjustly. This system must provide students with aid when they need it. It must enable them to get back on the horse, and take hold of the future they were always meant to have.

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