Want an A? That’ll be $86

UPDATE:  Theo Helm from WSFCS sent me an email with a response to some of my questions and I've posted the full text after the original post.  Thanks to Theo for taking the time to contact me and providing the info.

Our oldest son is a junior in high school and last night when I got home he asked me to co-sign a form with him that states that he will commit to taking an AP exam in May for each of the AP classes he's taking this year.  "No big deal," I thought, "of course he'll take the final for those courses. Why wouldn't he?"

As I read the rest of the form it dawned on me why they were asking us to sign a commitment form: each of the tests will cost us $86 for him to take.  Once I got over the shock I asked myself what the consequences would be if he didn't take the AP exam.  The simple explanation was contained in the next paragraph on the form: his grade would be reduced by one letter grade and he would lose the AP weighting of the course, which means his grade would essentially be treated as a regular honors course.  Best of all his curriculum and requirements would still remain identical to what they would be if he opts to take the exam.  In short if our son does great work all year and decides not to take the test the best grade he can hope for is a B.  Nice.

One issue I have with this whole setup is that I don't remember them telling us at the beginning of the year that AP exams would cost us anything.  Maybe they did and we missed it, but my wife is good about staying on top of those types of things and she doesn't remember seeing anything about it either.  You'd think they would have asked us to sign a commitment form at the beginning of the school year.  By waiting until now they've made it feel like a setup; why wouldn't you pay for the test now that your child is halfway through the school year and he really has no choice but to finish the class.  Would you really want to reduce his score by one full letter grade over an $86 fee? 

Speaking of the fee, last night I wondered where the cost came from and so I did what any good American would do, I Googled "AP exam fee" and found the website for College Board, the entity that administers AP tests and SATs, and found some very helpful information about AP fees here.  Especially interesting to me was this:

Fee reductions of $22 per exam are available from the College Board for students with financial need. In addition, schools forgo their $8 rebate for each fee-reduced exam, making the final fee for these students $56 per exam.

In addition, virtually all states offer exam subsidies to cover all or part of the cost for eligible students. Talk to your AP Coordinator to learn more about state and federal subsidies and other support that may be available to you.

For internal purposes, such as an audit or invoice verification, a state may request from the College Board the names of its public school students who receive fee reductions; in such cases, the state will agree to maintain the confidentiality of such data.

Check with your AP Coordinator to learn more about fee reductions and state and district subsidies.

I'm relieved that there is financial assistance available for children from lower income families, but I'm struggling to come to terms with the whole setup.  What if we don't want to pay for the test based on the simple principle that my child is going to a public school, we pay our taxes and it seems a little absurd that we have to pay $86 for our child to take a test?  Sure, I understand that taking an AP course is optional, but given the academic expectations placed on students by college administrators it would put our child at a severe disadvantage to not take the courses.  Realistically, it isn't optional if we want our kids to be able to compete for a slot in college. 

The College Board website also says that students may get college credit for their AP classes which means that in the long run we might actually save money, so there is that.  Still the whole thing makes me feel like we've once again been caught in the net of the education-industrial complex.  These folks make the Pentagon and Halliburton look like a bunch of pikers.

Response from Theo Helm received via email on 12/2/2009:

Jon: I just wanted to respond to your post about the cost of AP exams.

The school board began requiring students in AP courses to take the exams
in 2003. Its decision was based on three main ideas: 1., the AP exam is an
integral part of any AP course; 2., the College Board encourages students
to take the exams; and 3., it would allow us to monitor how our students
are doing compared to those in other schools, both in and out of our
district and state. The requirement and cost is included in each year's
High School Registration book. It was on p. 10 last year.

Since then (and until this year), students who did not take the AP exam had
one quality point deducted from their grades — meaning that the AP course
showed up on their transcripts as an honors course. We had to change the
way we handled it this year at the request of the Department of Public
Instruction. We were told that a state board policy does not allow us to
change how we weight the courses by deducting the quality point. We were
given the choices of dropping the exam requirement or lowering the final
grade by one letter grade.

In early September, the board voted to lower the final grade by one letter
grade for students because it wanted to continue to require the AP exam
(for the reasons mentioned above). This has the same effect as our previous
policy. A student who didn't take the exam last year and earned an A would
receive 5 quality points (4 points for the A, 2 points for an AP course, -1
point for not taking the exam). That same situation this year would again
result in 5 quality points (A reduced to B for not taking the exam equals 3
points, plus 2 points for an AP course). The one exception is a student who
earns a D in an AP class and does not take the AP exam would now not
receive credit for the class. Kim Underwood did a story about it that
appeared in the Journal on Sept. 9 (click here for the story), and we
posted news about it on our Web site the same day (click here). Schools
sent home a letter explaining this change shortly after the board voted on

So the requirement is not new, but the method of requirement has changed
this year. We would have preferred to keep our previous policy, but the
state board policy would not allow it. We'd also like to be able to pay for
all the AP exams, but (again) unfortunately, we don't have the money to do
it. Instead, we pay for the fourth exam and beyond, and as you pointed out,
other funds are available for those who can't afford to pay for the exam.

I hope this long-winded answer helps at least a little bit. If you have
questions about this, or other school-related issues, just let me know.

Theo Helm
Director of Marketing and Communications
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools
336.727.2696 phone
336.727.8404 fax
 All e-mail correspondence to and from this address is subject to the
North Carolina Public Records Law, which may result in monitoring and
disclosure to third parties, including law enforcement.   AN EQUAL

5 thoughts on “Want an A? That’ll be $86

  1. Jim Caserta

    When I was in HS, I think my school got bonuses from the state or county for each AP exam a student passed. So the school would shell out the $86/test, but would get a couple hundred dollars for each test passed. It gave the school great incentive to not just have kids take the tests but to pass. However, I saw a ranking of high schools which used number of AP tests ‘taken’ per student as a metric. Students just taking those exams is a worthless exercise, and a waste of money. For a school concerned about some ranking based on students just taking tests, then there is some value.
    The value I saw in taking AP classes was getting the college credit, which was all about passing the tests.
    As a side story, when I was in calc AB, there was a kid who failed the class – ‘F’ … but he ended up passing the AP exam! In nearly every AP class I took, the class was harder than the AP exam, and we took sample AP exams as tests for the course. It makes sense to me to have the course be harder than the exam and not have many students failing those AP exams, but if a school is grading itself solely on number of exams taken then there may be conflicting incentives.

  2. Jon Lowder

    Good thoughts on the possible motivations for the school district Jim. BTW, I agree with you about coming ahead if our son gets 3 credits from his school. That’s assuming he gets them, but I’d think that most schools would grant them since this is a standardized process. I still dislike the weight given to standardized tests, but I guess you could look at this as the positive side of the equation.

  3. Jim Caserta

    Not all standardized tests are created equal. AP exams are very good measures of understanding of material. They aren’t catch-all tests like the SAT, but very focused on a specific subject. Most, if I remember 15 years ago correctly, have written portions – even the math exams, that are graded as objectively as possible. As datapoints, my calculus teacher in HS had an impressive record having students pass the AP exam, I don’t know if any didn’t pass my 4 years at the school. I would be willing to be that the score on an AP calculus exam is a pretty good measure of knowledge of the material, and if you had a school averaging 4, their students in the class knew more than a school where most kids didn’t pass. My AP physics class had most students fail the exam, which I felt reflected the level of preparaing the students by the two teachers.
    From the update, it sounds like the school doesn’t want kids taking AP courses if they aren’t going to take the exams, which I think is fair. Paying for it could be a problem for low-income families, but I would imagine people would be willing to help out if there was a need.


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