On a short list of priority items in next year’s proposed budget, Harford Schools Superintendent Robert M. Tomback has requested a pilot program to pay exam fees for students who take Advanced Placement Exams. The idea is to increase participation in the AP Program offered at all county high schools. The AP Program, devised by the non-profit College Board, includes college-level courses offered in a variety of subjects followed by optional exams each spring.
The $225,000 price tag for Harford’s pilot program is enough to pay one exam fee for each HCPS student taking an AP Exam. The budget figure uses 2,566 students as a basis, which Tomback has said is the number of students who took at least one AP Exam last year. Students who qualify for free and reduced meals can already get fee waivers from the College Board, according to Tomback, so the pilot program is geared to eliminating cost as a factor for students at higher income levels.
For students who pay their own way and pass the tests, AP Exams are a good investment. The $87 cost per exam can lead to college credit for students who score a 3, 4 or 5 on the test. So the question arises, should taxpayers foot the bill for families who can afford to pay for AP Exams? And if providing 2,566 free exams increases student participation in the AP Program, will the benefits be worth the cost overall?
Coming down squarely on the side of more is better, Newsweek magazine produces an annual list of “America’s Best High Schools”, determined by AP Exam participation. A school makes the list based on the number of AP Exams given at the school, divided by the number of graduating seniors.
Both Fallston and C. Milton Wright high schools have made the list in the past, but Newsweek has been criticized because AP Exam results are not a factor in the rankings. In other words, schools with high exam participation rates are labeled “the best”, while schools with high passing rates may be left out.
Jay Matthews, creator of Newsweek’s “America’s Best High Schools”, defends the rankings, saying the idea is to encourage more than just the top students to take AP Exams. Matthews points to studies showing that among the best predictors of college success is academic rigor in high school, and he cites research indicating that students who got only a 2 on the AP Exam did better in college than those who hadn’t taken an AP Exam at all.
Harford Schools Superintendent Tomback appears to agree in principle. Even students who don’t pass the test benefit from the “academic experience”, Tomback said at a recent budget work session.“ In an earlier press conference on the budget, Tomback offered overall support for the AP Program saying, “Participation in the AP Program is important for students getting ready to graduate.”
On the other side of the coin is Philip Sadler, a Harvard University researcher and author of the 2010 book “AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program”. For students who are unprepared, Sadler questions the value of expanding the AP Program, both in terms of resources expended and the benefits to students who might be better served by courses tailored to their needs. In an article about his book on the Harvard Gazette Web site, Sadler offers the following conclusion from his research: “AP classes give a lot to the top students, but pouring money into the program and trying to give every student an AP education is not efficient or effective.”
School Board Member Bob Frisch raised questions about the Harford County program at a recent budget work session. Frisch, who is also a high school teacher in Baltimore County, wanted to know if students who were doing poorly in AP courses would still have their exams paid for under the pilot program, and whether AP courses were open enrollment. In response, Superintendent Tomback said that the intent was to pay for the tests irrespective of students’ grades in AP classes, but that students might pay up front and be reimbursed after the fact. Tomback also said that enrollment in AP courses was determined in consultation with teachers.
A school board vote on the entire HCPS budget was delayed last week due to the weather, and has been rescheduled for January 24. As board members consider whether or not to approve the pilot program to pay for AP Exams, here’s a look at the latest AP participation and performance data for each high school, provided to The Dagger by Harford County Public Schools.