Ohio makes up difference in low-income AP funding

The Ohio Department of Education reached into its own pockets to close a funding gap for a program that helps low-income high school students pay for Advanced Placement tests after the government decreased its support.

The Advanced Placement Test Fee Program, operated by the U.S. Department of Education, distributed $21.5 million in funds to states earlier this month to help low-income students pay the $87 per exam for last May’s testing period. Ohio’s share of $284,938 was a 25 percent decrease from last year, a much sharper drop than the 8 percent cut nationally.

ODE covered the difference this year with about $150,000 of its own funds, said John Charlton, a department spokesman. It did so to continue encouraging low-income students to become involved in Advanced Placement classes and take the tests, which are given once a year and can earn students college credit if they reach a certain scoring level.

Participation in the exams has increased significantly in recent years, among all students as well as those who qualify as low-income, meeting guidelines similar to the National School Lunch Program.

“We’re concerned there is a drop in funding, but we think it’s a good program and have financed it the best we can,” Charlton said.

States apply each year for funding. This year, citing a 290 percent boost in low-income students taking AP exams from 2005 to 2011, ODE asked the government for $363,660. It received 78 percent of that amount and had to cover even more expenses than it expected when applications for reimbursement arrived.

Statewide, the number of students taking exams and the number of exams more than doubled in the past 10 years. In 2011, 51,530 Ohio students took 85,580 exams, including 4,881 low-income students taking 7,251 exams.

“It’s more and more each year,” said Dan VonHandorf, Fairmont High School principal. “We track those numbers, and we know the date they’re released each year so we can go online and track them. We get reports breaking down how the students did in certain subjects, which helps us prepare for the future.”

Providing access

State and school officials said they have organized efforts to inform low-income students that help is available to take the AP exams, which are scored on a scale of 1 through 5. The closer to 5 the score is, the higher potential a student has of earning college credit.

Attention to AP classes has increased as the cost of attending colleges and universities has risen. Students do not receive letter grades for AP exams, so they cannot affect grade-point averages. The only consequence of earning high enough scores on the tests is saving money, administrators said.

Schools said they work with teachers to operate AP classes that will prepare students for the rigors of college work, including increased reading and studying responsibilities. Many schools that have significant low income-qualifying student rates said the possibility of receiving help in paying for tests will encourage those students to take AP classes, which will help them no matter the test’s scoring outcome.

“They do better in college because they took the (AP) course in high school,” said Carmela Cotter, principal at Middletown High School. “So we try to encourage them to look into the classes. The curriculum prepares them for a higher level of rigor and relevance.”

The College Board, which administers the AP tests, requests reimbursement from individual states for their low-income student tests. Charlton said ODE was able to cover differences this year, but it does not want to do so in the future. It hopes future federal funding will cover the costs.

“The department of education has indicated it is hoping to raise that level of funding,” he said.

AP booming

The College Board began the AP testing program in 1955 to allow students to earn college credit by proving their level of knowledge in certain subjects. In its first year, 1,229 students at 104 high schools took tests nationwide.

Last year, 1.97 million students took 3.45 million AP tests throughout the country, and they came from 18,340 schools. Ohio has seen a similar increase, giving more 1 million exams from 1974-2011 to more than 700,000 students.

Preparing students for the tests provides challenges, administrators said. Those who teach AP classes often acquire increased training. Because some of the AP classes draw relatively few students, they often are on districts’ lists of possible programs or classes to cut in financially difficult times.

“Any class where you have 10 or 12 students, you have to ask, do you want to keep that class, especially if it’s a high-cost class?” said Thomas Ash, director of government relations for the Buckeye Association of School Administrators. “Obviously that’s something superintendents and school boards try to avoid, because you want to challenge your students.”

It’s possible for students to jump nearly two full years ahead in college with credit received from the exams if they take enough tests and receive high scores. That means administrators are trying to educate students and parents earlier about the exams’ availability.

“We had a freshman parent meeting (earlier this month), and I told every parent, if you want your kid to go to college, set a goal of taking at least one AP class while in high school,” said VonHandorf, of Fairmont. “We try to give them as much help as we can.”