Unfair testing fees hinder education across the board

March 10, 2011, 2:50 p.m. | By Claire Boston | 13 years, 4 months ago

Excessive registration fees create an automatic disadvantage for low-income students

By most students' junior year, the bills begin to pile up. It usually starts with $13 for the PSAT. A couple months later, it might be $47 for the SAT, then another $18 to see a score report that's more than just three numbers out of 800. Factor in $21 for SAT Subject Tests, and in May, throw in a couple of Advanced Placement (AP) exams at $87 each. In a single school year, a student may shell out over $500 to the College Board, all in the name of college preparedness.

The College Board claims it has but one goal – to ensure that every student has the opportunity to prepare for, enroll in and graduate from college. But there's a catch – student success seems to come at a price, even in the years before college tuition bills are mailed. Despite its near-monopoly in many aspects of the college preparation industry, the College Board falls woefully short in actually helping students be successful in college.

In January, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli ruled that requiring students to pay their own AP fees, a common practice in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), was illegal. In MCPS however, it is still legal that students pay for their own exams. While many students are fortunate enough to be able to afford the $87 fee to take an AP exam, those who cannot are at a disadvantage. While the College Board makes an effort to accommodate low-income students by providing fee waivers to all students who receive Free and Reduced Meals, extra paperwork and waiver restrictions can keep students from enjoying the same success as their higher-income peers.

Low-income students who wish to take AP tests can receive only a $22 discount on each exam. This brings the cost down to $65 per test, which is still more than the cost of the SAT, which the College Board will waive in full for eligible students. If the College Board recognizes that a $47 SAT may be too much of a financial burden for low-income families, it is illogical for them to expect families to be able to cover the cost of a $65 test, especially considering that many students take multiple AP exams at the end of each year. Even the College Board recognizes that this partial waiver plan makes little sense. So instead of fully funding AP tests for low-income students, it simply expects individual schools to foot the rest of the bill. This is unrealistic. In tough economic times, schools are looking to cut budgets, not add to them.

In 2010, MCPS budget documents indicate that MCPS students took nearly 30,000 AP exams. While it would be ideal for MCPS to follow the FCPS model and pay for students' AP tests, doing so would set the county back over $2 million. Therefore, the blame for inadequate funding and waivers still falls on the College Board. By refusing to fully subsidize AP tests for low-income students, the College Board denies students the opportunity to save money and earn college credit – an important component of college preparation. In addition, the cost of AP tests may deter low-income students from signing up for the courses in the first place. According to the College Board's annual AP exam report, low-income students took only 21 percent of total AP exams.

If increasing AP participation among low-income students were a primary goal of the College Board's, it's not as if the organization lacks the funds to further subsidize APs.

The College Board says it spends $30 to $50 million on fee waivers each year, but that's barely a dent in their yearly revenue. Their 2009 tax returns indicated nearly $615 million in revenue, with a discrepancy of over $55.3 million between generated revenue and expenses.

Perhaps the millions in pure profit come from the slew of other fees the College Board charges students. Apart from test fees, almost every other College Board service – even the college financial aid search program – comes at an additional cost.

This is excessive. If the College Board's mission is as simple as its claim – just to help students prepare for success in their college years, there are few reasons for a non-profit to charge so much, waive so little and act at all like a multi-million dollar for-profit corporation.

Claire Boston. Claire Boston aspires to one day be as cool as Grace Coddington, Meryl Streep and Zelda Fitzgerald before she went crazy. Claire's interests include wearing neon tights, shunning serial commas and coming up with nicknames that distinguish her from the two other Claires on Silver … More »

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