‘Advanced Placement’ Deserves Scrutiny

June 21, 2010

For release Tuesday noon June 22 and thereafter (1,020 words)

Newsweek’s ranking of the nation’s best public high schools gives disproportionate attention to one variable of school quality: the percentage of students who take an Advanced Placement or similar test. It should also focus attention on one of the rarely questioned yet more mercenary institutions in the educational bureaucracy: the designer of the Advanced Placement program, aka the College Board.
This is the organization best known for the SAT exam that almost every college-bound student takes once and sometimes multiple times at $47 a pop. Now, through its heavily marketed AP Program offering college-level coursework in 30 subjects, College Board holds increasing sway over state education departments and curriculum used in the nation’s high schools.
And yes, it has mercenary traits. Notwithstanding its not-for-profit status and its mission “to connect students to college success and opportunity,” the College Board charges high prices for tests and test prep materials while promoting policies that encourage more testing and more buying of test prep materials. Families of high school age students and taxpayers bear the costs.
In Indiana, as in many states, the costs are rising. The Indiana Department of Education has made it a priority to increase the number of schools offering AP courses and the number of students taking AP tests. The intent is to encourage a climate of academic rigor that will prepare students for college and beyond. But before the state buys wholeheartedly into the AP culture, it should take note of recent criticisms.
Americans for Educational Testing Reform, a Prescott, Ariz.-based group launched to draw attention to unethical practices in the test development industry, studied the most recently available IRS forms filed by College Board and reached these conclusions:

* College Board in 2007 made gross profits of $55 million or 9.5 percent of revenue, a margin that would be respectable for a commercial venture but is excessive for a not-for-profit. “If the money were being spent in the non-profit spirit of helping educate and inform test-takers, such profits might be acceptable. However, the money is going towards lining College Board’s own pockets – between cash, savings, and investments. College Board has a surplus worth 69.5 percent of its revenue. College Board either needs to start charging less for its exams and other services or relinquish its non-profit status.”

* College Board’s officers are extravagantly paid in relation to comparable not-for-profit and government officials. Its CEO Gaston Caperton received $830,832, more than the CEO of United Way and twice the salary of President Barack Obama. (Almost nine times the pay of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.) “More than half of the top 41 officers, including 10 senior vice presidents and 28 vice presidents, are compensated more than a quarter million dollars per year.”

* College Board spent $794,417 on political lobbying at local, state and national levels, which is not illegal but should raise eyebrows. This money was used to influence legislators “to adopt and even require College Board tests for various educational and professional purposes.”
Another complaint involved College Board’s dual role as test designer and test preparation service for the SAT. This is something parents intuitively question as they consider whether to plunk down $69.95 for the “Official SAT Online Course.”  Said AETR, “It is unethical for a testing company to sell test prep materials because it is morally and legally obligated to treat all test takers fairly. Selling test materials gives an advantage to wealthier students.”
Another advocacy group, Fair Test, has criticized the College Board (as well as the other two major non-profit testing companies: ETS and ACT) as virtually indistinguishable from for-profit testing companies that try to compete for business but lack the tax advantages given to their non-profit cousins.
Trevor Packer, vice president of the Advanced Placement Program, said any suggestion that the College Board “profiteers” from its exams is both simplistic and inaccurate. “I see what we’re doing as something very, very altruistic. We want more students to go to college” and succeed. College Board officials insist their salaries are in line with other New York-based non-profits and school principals.
These issues aside, the AP Program is rarely questioned because of the perceived academic benefits to high schoolers of doing college level work. But the program came under scrutiny in San Diego where the school board voted in April to no longer require students who take AP classes to take the corresponding tests. The students can still get “weighted” grades for taking the classes and thus boost grade point averages. The district adopted the policy in an effort to trim $680,000 from its 2010-11 budget.
Leading up to the vote, the San Diego News Network published a series of articles suggesting the AP Program has morphed from an exclusive program for exceptional students to a “commonly accepted program accessible to most students” and used by schools to enhance their rankings, goaded on by the annual Newsweek report which assesses participation, not passing rates. “There are definitely far more kids in AP classes than are qualified for them,” one teacher said. As more students take the AP test, passing rates are falling, the news service noted.
One AP test costs $86, which in Indiana is paid by parents, school districts or the state, depending on circumstance. A reduced fee of $56 is available for students with financial hardship. Indiana uses state dollars to cover any test in a math or science field — $1.22 million in 2009 — and federal grant money to cover all other tests taken by students on free or reduced price lunch. Look for the taxpayer contribution to rise as the state pursues a goal of 25 percent of all students passing one or more AP-like test before they graduate. The current rate is 10 percent.
State School Superintendent Tony Bennett said he justifies the $86 investment by comparing it to the cost of college classes and is convinced that more Indiana pupils can meet the high expectations of AP coursework. He says his experience with the College Board has been nothing but positive. “I have seen an organization that has been incredibly responsive and flexible when it comes to our needs.”
Even so, he should heed this advice from Fair Test, which sees limited benefits to the sorts of products peddled by the big three testing companies. “As is the case in dealing with any other self-interested business selling products, the rule for dealing with exam-makers should be caveat emptor, ‘let the buyer beware.’ ”

Andrea Neal is adjunct scholar and columnist with Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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