AP Exams – Return on Investment

On Monday, the School District Administration will be asking the DeKalb Board of Education to approve $425,000 to purchase one AP exam for all students currently enrolled in an Advanced Placement Course.

The Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) will pay for one Advanced Placement exam for students who qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch program. Additionally, the GaDOE will cover the cost of one Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) focused Advanced Placement exam for all non-free and reduced lunch students.

Return on Investment
The school district has paid for these additional AP exams for many years. Is this money well spent? What results are we seeing? Unfortunately, less than 10% of the students in half our high schools score high enough on these AP exams to receive college credit. Given this, combined with the fact that many DeKalb students will already get 2 free exams provided by the state, is this the best use of $425,000? Could this money be used in another way that improved educational outcomes and produced a higher return on investment?


DeKalb Schools AP Exam Scores

Any score that’s 3 or higher is considered a passing score, though some colleges only accept 4s and 5s for credit. I drilled down into exam results of Towers HS and MLK Jr HS to better understand their performance. Towers has a 1% pass rate and MLK has a 4% pass rate. Here’s how that breaks down.

Given these numbers, I was curious about the distribution of grades in these AP classes. In theory, your class performance should be a good predictor of how likely you are to pass the exams. The class average information that I was provided shows that these schools have class averages of 83% to 89%. The class averages do not seem to correlate with, or predict, success on the AP exams. It would be interesting to see the class average data for schools that have higher AP success rates. What if the grade averages are similar even though they have much higher AP success rates? What would that tell us about instruction and grading across the district? How can we use this data to drive more AP exam successes? Is the best use of resources to pay for more exams or improve instruction?

The following are the class final grade averages for each subject.

I asked DeKalb Schools Chief Academic Officer, Stacy Stepney, and the DeKalb Schools Interim Associate Superitendent of Accountability, Dr. Linda Frazer, to explain the rationale for this expense.

Question: The school district is asking for over $400K for Advanced Placement exams. Almost half the schools had less than a 10% pass rate. Is this the best use of our money? Wouldn’t that money be better spent on remediation?

Answer: According the 2014-2019 Strategic Plan, the District’s strategic goal area 1 is “Student Success with Equity and Access”. (See the attached 2018-2019 Strategic Plan Profile.) One of the identified performance objectives is to provide equitable access to academically rigorous courses and programs. As a result, the District considered the baseline data in 2013-2014 to identify targets for 2014-2019. The District has implemented several initiatives and developed performance measures to address equity and access. The performance measures included:

• Increase the percentage of graduates earning high school credits for accelerated enrollment via ACCEL, Dual HOPE Grant, Move On When Ready, Early College, Gateway to College, Advanced Placement courses, or International Baccalaureate courses
• Increase the number of males of color taking advanced courses (i.e. Honors, AP, and IB)
• Increase the number of females of color taking advanced courses (i.e. Honors, AP, and IB)
• Increase the percentage of students scoring 3 or higher on the Advanced Placement exam

The most important predictor of college success is an academically rigorous high school experience. AP, IB, and dual enrollment provide students access to academically rigorous coursework; therefore, the District is requesting to purchase one AP exam for all students.

Question: If the experience of taking advanced placement exams is extremely valuable, couldn’t we do mock examinations much cheaper?

Response: CollegeBoard has released questions, so teachers may create free, mock exams to prepare for the AP examinations in May. Mock exams will not afford students the opportunity to exempt equivalent college-level courses if they earn 3 or higher.

14 responses to “AP Exams – Return on Investment

  1. Yes, it is worth it. For the 2,270 who are passing. My bigger question would be what is the county doing to improve instruction for all of those students who qualify for AP courses but are not prepared enough to pass the exam and have the benefit of being prepared for college-level courses and earn credits where available.

  2. I agree that it’s worth it for the 2,270 that are passing and even for those that try and come close to passing. The budget is a zero sum game, so we can’t just go to the money tree and remediate the poor performing classes. While I’m working on procurement and the numerous other items we waste money on, perhaps remediating these classes is a better use of the money than spending where we know the students are not learning the material. Perhaps we could pay for the passing exams.

  3. It is increasingly hard to predict whether the fee is worth it when sign-ups for the test are early October. Not sure whether my student will be ready or not, so I am happy for option of the 2-3 funded tests. If no testing data under controlled environments, then how would one assess whether the content was taught?

  4. What is the difference between 1 and less than 60 percent passing

    Stan, looking at your report every high school needs to improve. Why single out two schools?
    Data supports taking one AP class improves your chance to graduate from college. Keep using the money!
    The principal at Towers High is she scheduled to return next week? What ever programs that Chamblee uses make them mandatory at the low performing schools. We waste dollars in every other capacity give our kids the opportunity. Please break down every school like Towers and MLK to allow the transparency. Thanks for all you do. Did you receive the feedback from Towers Staff?????

  5. Why not encourage students at the schools with lower passing rates on the AP exams to utilize Dual Enrollment? Smaller school systems in rural South Georgia are bringing dual enrollment courses to their schools so students have access to these courses without having to travel to a college campus. Those students earn actual college credit without having to pay tuition. An additional bonus is that they also do not use any of their HOPE Scholarship. Many of those students are graduating from high school with a full year or an Associates Degree when they graduate from high school. Others earn college credit and a technical program certificate giving them access to college level courses and technical training at the same time.

  6. Could a passing mock test score be a requirement for the 3rd free test?

    Can teachers with high pass rates be paid with the saved money to deliver Professional development to the other teachers?

  7. The reason class averages are a terrible predictor of AP exam scores is that the DeKalb grading requirements allow students who complete class and homework assignments to fail every test in class and still have a relatively high average. As an AP teacher, we have tried to change the grading policy to no avail. Taking away the paid exam will cause many students to choose not to take AP. The experience better prepares students for college and career, whether they score a 3 or not on the exam. To me, this seems a small investment in the future of our diverse student population. This is a much more valuable expenditure than Verge, which many teachers avoid due to its cumbersome nature and its poor integration with Infinite Campus.

  8. I agree with AP Teacher above. If you want the grades in an AP class to give you an accurate predictor of the score on the AP exam, then you have to allow AP courses to be exempt from the county’s grading policy of Guided/Group practice being 45% of the final grade. Do you realize the grading scale is standardized throughout the county from elementary school through AP classes? That’s right, an AP student’s classwork or homework is worth the same amount as a first grader’s work. You won’t hear parents complaining though…the students are able to maintain their A’s and B’s and keep their chance at the HOPE scholarship alive (even if they fail every test)!

  9. I agree 100% with AP Teacher and Curious about the silliness of using the standard DCSD grading scale for AP classes. This deliberately inflates AP grades. This is a terrible disservice to the students, who may genuinely believe that they are well prepared for the exam based on their class grade. But the exam doesn’t lie!

  10. AP classes are only as good as the teachers teaching them, and there are a lot of AP classes being taught all over this county that will never result in a test score above a 1, even with bright students. I don’t think this is a wise use of funds.

  11. Hey Stan,

    The above table is very telling but I believe it significantly undercalls the number of students that take an AP class but do not sit for the exam. Because many students take more than one AP class per calendar year, it would be more accurate to count the total number of seats in AP classes and then use that as the denominator instead of the Total # of students enrolled in any AP class.

    **For example, if one student were taking three AP courses but sat for only one exam, the above calculation would not capture the two AP courses that he/she completed but did not sit for the exam. Instead, if you report the total number of AP courses taken as the denominator and the total number of AP exams taken as the numerator, I think your statistics will be more accurate and even more telling.

    Students are enrolling in AP classes because they have been told that it is the ticket to getting into a competitive college. As illustrated above, this results in many inadequately prepared kids taking classes that are watered down and do not actually reflect the rigor of a college course. As a result, they either don’t sit for the exam or perform poorly. Unfortunately, it has been documented at our local high school that some AP courses yield as few as 20% of students that ultimately sit for the exam with an average score below 2.

    Dual enrollment is not the solution either. Correspondence courses or classes at technical colleges are also watered down and do not reflect the rigor of a course at a good four year college.

    **What is happening is that DCSD (and other districts) are ‘gaming’ the system by handing out AP GPA boosts like candy by decontenting AP classes and enrolling lots of kids; kind of like giving out free merit badges. This in turn makes them look good because they get to claim high AP enrollment on the US News rating system with the illusion that they are doing a great job preparing the students for college. In reality, the statistics show that this is smoke and mirrors – just like Dual Enrollment where most students are not really seeking academic rigor and are just looking to escape from their local high school on the taxpayers’ tab.

  12. Just out of curiosity – where is the kickback from the College Board going? This year at CCHS we are forced to pay a “convenience fee” of $4 to pay for the AP tests whether we pay online or through a check brought to the school. That brings the total to $98. Yet college board rebates $9 per exam. So $4 is going to CCHS, $9 is going to ?


  13. Meggan Wilcauskas

    Reminder – You can take the class without taking the test. Typically, students and their teachers know whether passing is likely. My own children did not take the test when passing was not very unlikely. Taking the test is arduous and exhausting. One comment reflected on data that states that taking one AP class in HS can be correlated to college success. I think I have seen that data before, but taking the course is not the same as taking a test. If everyone had a little bit of “skin in the game” such as the student paid part of the fee, then signing up for the test would not be taken likely.