AP Exams – Tax Dollars

Question: Should tax dollars be used to pay for Advanced Placement (AP) Exams?
The State of Georgia covers the cost for one AP exam for students who are served by Free & Reduced Lunch (F/R Lunch). The DeKalb School District traditionally pays for an additional exam for students. Why?

Some studies show that students who take AP courses in high school are more likely to graduate from college within four years and have higher grade point averages in college. However, I contend that students who voluntarily choose to take AP courses and exams are the types of students that are already better prepared and highly motivated. Success in college perhaps is not attributed to the AP class and exam themselves, but to the personal characteristics that led them to participate in the class to begin with.

The situation where two variables move in like fashion suggests correlation. But, correlation cannot be interpreted as a cause and effect relationship. Many things are correlated. For instance, the number of Nicholas Cage films and the deaths by drownings correlate nicely from 1999 through 2009. Yet, no one thinks that we can prevent drownings by keeping Mr. Cage out of the movies. We know instinctively that there are other “confounding” variables that are driving one or both variables. With the case of AP classes/tests and college success; perhaps both are explained by other characteristics of the student self selecting to take such classes. Additionally, perhaps even within like groups of students (same socio-economic status, same academic achievement levels, etc.), there is likely a significant confounding variable that for which the effect (better college performance) is dependent. I would argue that intrinsic motivation drives both AP participation rates and college success, holding all other variables the same. This idea is born out in studies and discussed in the book, “How Children Success: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.”

Related Posts
  Mar 6, 2016 – March 7, 2016 – Board approves Purchase of AP Exam for all students
  Mar 4, 2016 – AP Courses/Exams And College Graduation Rates

Knox Phillips is the Director of Research, Assessments, and Grants at the DeKalb County School District. Knox Phillips answers some questions to help us understand a little more about AP research, data collection, and why he thinks tax dollars should be used to pay for AP Exams.

Question: What aggregate data does the school district receive? Does the school district get the results for every student, for every test they take?

Knox Phillips

Knox Phillips: The school district system office receives electronic aggregate data reports directly from the College Board that provides several data snapshots in addition to course exam performance, such as performance by ethnic group, free/reduced vs non free/reduced, and gender. Schools also have access to both aggregated and disaggregated data for their individual schools so that they too can have access to pertinent data needed for the analysis of student performance on AP exams. The District has the test results for every student for every test they take.

Question: The school district’s rationale makes various claims without references. For example “Student performance in AP courses and on AP exams has been determined to be a valid indicator of success at the collegiate level.”  Please explain who determined that and how.

Knox Phillips: According to the largest ever study of the effects of AP on college success, University of Texas researchers found that students who take AP courses in high school are more likely to graduate from college within four years and have higher grade point averages in college than similar students who did not take AP courses. Hargrove and Dodd (2007) found that students who successfully participated in one or more AP exams and courses significantly outperformed their non-AP peers. These comparisons were made among peers with similar levels of academic ability and family economic status. Students who took one or more AP courses and exams had higher college GPAs, earned more credit hours and were more likely to graduate in 4 years or less. The findings indicate that even AP students who took the course and scored two out of a possible five points on an AP exam will still tend to do better in college than a student who did not take AP courses or who skipped the AP exam (Hargrove and Dodd, 2007).

The exposure of rigorous academic settings by the AP program proves beneficial in preparing high school students for similar situations in college and university. Mattern, et al (2013) suggest that the high correlations between on-time college graduation and former AP students is directly related to the unique learning environments AP students experience prior to entering university.

Hargrove, L. Dodd, B. (2007). College Outcome Comparisons by AP and Non-AP High School Experiences
Mattern, K. Marini, J., Shaw, E. (2013). Are AP Students More Likely to Graduate from College on Time?

[Note: It is important to note that the University of Texas Hargrove-Dodd study is not without its criticism. First, the study itself was funded by The College Board; the business that authors and administers the tests and financially benefits from more test takers. This was not an independent piece of scholarly research. Additionally, researchers at Harvard and the University of Virginia did not find significant difference in college outcomes between students taking AP courses/tests and those that did not. When asked about the UT study discussed below, Philip Sadler, a Harvard researcher said, “I remain unconvinced that the study controlled for enough variables to rule out alternative hypotheses,” such as previous preparation and parental education, for the AP students’ performance. ]

Question: The school district’s rationale states “District student performance in AP courses and on exams allowed DCSD to be recognized as a recipient of College Board’s AP District Honor Roll in 2012.”  How is honor roll determined?

Knox Phillips: Inclusion in the College Board’s 6th Annual AP District Honor Roll is based on the examination of three years of AP data, from 2013 to 2015, for the following criteria:

  • Increased participation/access to AP by at least 4 percent in large districts, at least 6 percent in medium districts, and at least 11 percent in small districts;
  • Increased or maintained the percentage of exams taken by African American, Hispanic/Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native students, and;
  • Improved performance levels when comparing the percentage of students in 2015 scoring a 3 or higher to those in 2013, unless the district has already attained a performance level at which more than 70 per-cent of its AP students are scoring a 3 or higher.

When these outcomes have been achieved among an AP student population in which 30 percent or more are under-represented minority students (Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian/Alaska Native) and/or 30 percent or more are low income students (students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch), a symbol has been affixed to the district name to highlight this work.

Question: By those metrics, can every student in a school district fail every test and the school district still make the Honor Roll if enough of the students take the test?

Knox Phillips: No. The AP Honor Roll Metrics also stipulate that there must be improved performance levels when comparing the percentage of students in 2015 scoring a 3 or higher to those in 2013, unless the district has already attained a performance level at which more than 70 percent of its AP students are scoring a 3 or higher.

Question: The school district’s rationale states “National research studies overwhelmingly submit that students who successfully complete an AP course are more likely to graduate high school and graduate from college.” Which national research studies?

Knox Phillips:
Dougherty, C., Mellor, L., Jian, S. (2006). The Relationship Between Advanced Placement and College Graduation.
Hargrove, L. Dodd, B. (2007). College Outcome Comparisons by AP and Non-AP High School Experiences.
Mattern, K. Marini, J., Shaw, E. (2013). Are AP Students More Likely to Graduate from College on Time?
Mattern, K., Shaw, E., Ewing, M. (2011) Is the AP Exam Participation and Performance Related to Choice of College Major?
Morgan, R., Klaric, J. (2007). AP Students in College: An Analysis of Five-Year Academic Careers.
Murphy, D., Dood, B. (2009). A Comparison of College Performance of Matched AP and Non-AP Student Groups.

Question: The school district’s rationale states “The increase in students completing AP exams will also help to mitigate potential disproportionalities in AP course enrollment and academic outcomes.”   What does that mean?

Knox Phillips: Access to AP coursework is particularly staggering among students who are participants in the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) program. These FRL students may often times approach enrolling in AP courses with hesitation because of the applicable costs associated with said course (e.g., cost of AP examinations required at the completion of a course). As such, high schools in DCSD with larger populations of FRL students often have fewer eligible students enroll in AP courses due to financial barriers which, in turn, has perpetuated many of the disproportionalities existent between the AP course completion and examination success rates both within and among DCSD high schools. If greater access to subsidized AP course exams was provided to FRL students, the existing disproportionality between non-FRL AP completion and FRL AP completion would decrease significantly.

Question: The school district’s rationale states “AP course will provide greater access and equity for students.”  How does buying a test for all students not based on need provide greater equity?

Knox Phillips: In addition to the potential for a subsidized AP exam for FRL students through DCSD, the Georgia Department of Education is also completely subsidizing an additional examination for FRL students as well, which means that an FRL student in DeKalb could receive up to two fully subsidized examinations. The subsidization of AP examinations for non-FRL students proves advantageous for the district as well. For example, several high performing non-FRL students in AP programs may often have to take up to three to four examinations, which can amount to approximately $370 for students in this scenario. While purchasing a single exam may not prove difficult to a non-FRL student, multiple exam costs could become cost-burdening for these students and their families as well. AP Enrollment trends in the District typically indicate that students in AP programs often take multiple AP courses in a single school year. This phenomenon may prove challenging for non-FRL students when considering the shear scope of cost expectations which may, in turn, lead to a lack of student interest toward enrollment in AP courses.

4 responses to “AP Exams – Tax Dollars

  1. Lisa Victory

    Given the extremely low percentage of scores at 3 or above, it seems that many of these students are taking the AP exam merely because it’s being offered, at no cost to them. Oftentimes, these students know, going in, that they won’t do well on the test, but they take it anyhow, because it costs them nothing. I would propose having non-RFL students pay up front for their own AP exams, beyond the one that the State pays for. Those students who score 3 or above on an AP exam could be reimbursed from DCSS for the cost. An alternative to that could be that DCSS only pays for AP exams for those non-RFL students who have at least a B in the AP class at the time of registration. I have proctored AP exams where kids have shown up in their pajamas, literally brought their pillow with them, spent 10 minutes on the test, and then put the pencil away, put the pillow on the desktop, and slept the rest of the exam time. That is a complete waste of DCSS funds, and happens more often than you’d think.

  2. To Lisa’s point, in 2015 only 16% of the students from Title I schools received a C or higher on the AP Exam. These students would be better served by more/better instruction and not another AP exam paid for by the district. One size doesn’t fit all … everybody needs something different. We could accommodate everybody by lowering the millage rate and let everybody decide for themselves how best to spend that money.

  3. Is this a correlation or cause and effect:
    Stephen Green was National Executive Director of the CollegeEd Program for the College Board.

  4. There are so many things wrong with this proposal that it would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

    First of all, the “studies” cited by Mr. Phillips are all provided by The College Board. What do you expect them to recommend? They are in the business of testing students. These are marketing tools, not bona fide research. Is he that naïve or does he think taxpayers are?
    Second, as Stan has pointed out, correlation does not equal cause and effect. That’s simple logic. It’s a little scary that these are the people in charge of educating our kids. The suggestion that taking an AP course will result in a student completing college in four years is absurd. The greatest incentive for me to finish college was that I was paying for it.

    Third, I assume that passing an AP exam still results in a college course credit. Based on the current inflated college tuition rates, I would think that $83 for a college course credit is one of the best ROI’s in academia. If you can’t afford that, how are you going to afford four years of college? I know, there are lots of grants and scholarships, as well as the Hope Scholarship here in Georgia, but few people get by without having to at least feed, clothe, house, and transport themselves for four years.

    Fourth, if we look at passing an AP exam as a college course credit, why not make a philosophical change and tap into Georgia Lottery funds to pay for them? I like Lisa’s suggestion: you pay for your exams, and if you pass them, you get reimbursed for the cost. At least we’d be getting something for our money.

    And lastly, if the school system is having to come up with new ways to spend taxpayers’ money, maybe it’s time to think about giving some of it back, in the form of a millage rate prescribed by Georgia law.