Local News

Thursday, Feb 25 2010 05:42 PM

Schools, families struggling to pay for AP exams

BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer jbarrientos@bakersfield.com

Katie White's son is taking three Advanced Placement classes at Bakersfield High School. At $86 a pop, White must pay more than $250 for the tests that aim to prepare students for college.

"It's pretty hefty," White, a speech therapist at BHS, said.

Related Info

WHO QUALIFIES FOR A WAIVER?

Families are eligible if their income does not exceed 185 percent of the federal poverty income level. In terms of family size, that income level is:

1: $20,036

2: $26,955

3: $33,874

4: $40,793

5: $47,712

6: $54,631

7: $61,550

8: $68,469

* Add $6,919 for each additional member

Source: California Department of Education

The high cost of AP tests is taking a toll not only on parents and students, but teachers, schools and even the Kern High School District.

Last school year, nearly 3,500 Kern County high school students took at least one AP test. Standards in AP classes are rigorous, and students can receive college credit for passing the tests.

A fee waiver is given to families whose income does not exceed 185 percent of the federal poverty level -- students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals qualify for the waiver. On average, about half of students in KHSD qualify.

The test fees go to the College Board, a nonprofit that administers the test.

White doesn't qualify for fee waivers that would cut her expenses down to just $15 -- $5 for each test. If she did, the state would pay $51 of the fee, but schools must pay that money up front.

And with state budget woes continuing year after year, schools are in danger of not being reimbursed. Schools have not yet been reimbursed for last year's tests and don't expect a full reimbursement, said Diane Fletcher, KHSD supervisor of research and planning. Schools are out more than $50,000 right now.

"That takes a hit on the budget," Fletcher said. "We have to sit and wait for a reimbursement. It's a little scary."

For now, the school and district pay for students who qualify, Fletcher said. Schools district- and county-wide have fundraisers and other efforts to help students pay for exams. At Rosamond High School, a teacher ran a marathon to raise money for some AP Calculus students.

"We have students with great needs," Fletcher said. "We want to do our best to serve the many taking the AP exam."

At West High School, teachers have given scholarships to students to help pay for tests, some of whom take five or more tests. Community members have donated for the exam. Funds from concession stands can also go to student test fees.

Fundraising, however, can be tricky, officials said, because money raised must go to the neediest students in the school first, according to federal rules. AP students sometimes aren't the neediest.

"The money is a deterrent for students, but we're doing the best we can to help them," said Terrie Bernardin, West's assistant principal of instruction. "We would never deny students who need to take the test the ability to take it."

A passing score can earn high schoolers college credit, but students and parents have complained that's not always true.

About 800,000 high school seniors in last year's graduating class -- a little more than 25 percent of that class -- took at least one test, according to College Board. In all, more students pass the test than fail. Tests are taken in May.

The AP test is one of the most expensive testing programs in the world to operate, Jennifer Topiel, a spokeswoman for College Board, said in an e-mail. The money, she said, pays for the development of the test -- a multi-year process -- thousands of test graders, shipping millions of exam across the country and to fund teacher development, among other things.

Marjorie McConnell, an education programs consultant with the state, said times are tough for everyone in California. The state is the "middleman" and it reimburses schools using federal money.

Fewer students might be taking the test because of its affordability, she said. But AP classes are still important because they prepare students for college, and help during college admittance, she said.

"Passing the test helps colleges and universities in how they view students compared to their peers," McConnell said.

Although the price tag is high, White said she sees the classes and tests as preparation for her son's college career. On top of that, if her son passes the AP tests, he could be getting out of taking remedial college classes.

She would rather pay a little money now instead of paying for college classes later.

"In that respect, they're worth it," she said.

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