AP Tests: Waste of Tax Money?

Published September 14, 2013

Politico recently published a story on the increasing numbers of students who are failing Advanced Placement (AP) tests in U.S. high schools. The story’s findings provide a valuable illustration of the waste that can result from combining a monopoly with government-funded “investment.”

From the article comes an explanation of how “students don’t reap any measurable benefit from AP classes unless they do well enough to pass the $89 end-of-course exam.” This hasn’t stopped the federal government from spending $275 million in recent years “to promote the classes and subsidize exam fees for low-income students; states have spent many millions more.”

Even a senior vice president at The College Board—which has a monopoly on giving the test and increased its assets from $491 million in 2010 to $609 million in 2012—admits pushing AP classes is failing many students.

“In the past, the College Board has pointed to studies that found a correlation between taking an AP class, whatever the outcome, and succeeding in college. Yet that research was flawed because it didn’t control for other predictors of college success, such as family income or high-school grades, Packer said. More rigorous studies find benefits only for students who earn at least a 3 on the AP test.

“That means, Packer said, that hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in AP may be better served by lower-level classes that focus on building foundational skills. ‘We have no interest in collecting exam fees,’ he said, ‘if the kids are not going to benefit.'”

High Earnings, Fail Rates
The numbers tell the story. AP exam students who pass can claim thousands of dollars in saved college tuition costs, but the failure rate has also jumped to 41 percent since 1999. As Packer noted, savings for those who pass the test—who tend towards upper-income brackets—are little comfort to parents and taxpayers, especially those who see the test as often being done for the benefit of The College Board and schools trying to make quotas.

In an interview, three teachers with differing AP exam experiences all said the test’s value is limited. The first, an AP Science teacher in a wealthy school district, said the AP exam’s benefits are obvious for her students, but she doubts the value for society at large:

“Rather than compare students to an objective standard, they are compared to each other, which does not set society up for wholesale advancement in science. Essentially, pushing more students to take the test who are not prepared for it seems to have inflated the scores. My students have an easier time succeeding simply because they are well-educated, have strong math skills, and their parents are highly educated and are closely involved in their education. Meanwhile, low-income students are being pushed to take a test they are not prepared for. In conversations with colleagues who teach AP science in low-income areas they have admitted to having to lower the rigor in class to meet students at their level. While we all agree it is good to expose all students to rigorous classes, paying for a test that teachers know their students aren’t prepared for does not seem like the best investment.”

A seven-year teaching veteran who teaches low-income students said the AP exam’s value is limited, as is the federal “investment” in the exam: “Federal involvement should be appreciated only if direction is under an umbrella of local and state government and/or leadership. Low-income schools cannot afford to be sustainable and efficient on their own, but nor should students be forced to take the test, which they sometimes are to meet federal quotas.”

“Furthermore,” said the teacher, “students are not fully equipped to take these classes, and only enroll for the benefit of numbers in the classroom, or because parents push students into the classes to avoid behavior problems in ‘normal’ classrooms.”

Wasteful Spending
The most aggressive critic of the AP exam system is an English teacher who takes issue with the federal government’s decision to “invest a lot of money in something that is unproven.”

“Public schools get a bad rap for being a ‘money pit,’ and the AP exam is emblematic as to why,” explained the five-year teacher. “Schools send teachers to AP academies for 3-5 days, putting them up in hotel rooms on taxpayer expense, and somehow these teachers are magically qualified to take the test. Additionally, fee waivers for poor students come from the taxpayers.

“I take issue with the College Board claiming [having] more AP students is good for the students and the country. While they are a nonprofit, the Politico article shows the financial benefit of more students taking the exam, which the Board has a monopoly on. More students equals more money for them, even if the students do not have the academic background for the classes. It’s like me trying to run a marathon without having run before in my life.”

Experimental programs that fail to measure up to expectations, money for those programs going to a large monopoly, and people on the ground unhappy with the results—yup. Sounds like the U.S. Department of Education’s modus operandi. 

Kavon W. Nikrad ([email protected]) is the founder and editor-in-chief of the campaign and elections website Race42016.com and a 2011-2012 policy fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Image by Adrian Sampson.