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Should students pay for AP exams?

The second redesign of the SAT this century is scheduled to take effect in early 2016.
The second redesign of the SAT this century is scheduled to take effect in early 2016.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A common pastime in the Washington metropolitan area is looking at rankings invented by Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews. Known as the Challenge Index, it “ranks schools through an index formula that's a simple ratio: the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year, divided by the number of seniors who graduated that year.” Barely forty-eight hours ago, Montgomery County Public School System (MCPS) claimed that “MCPS Graduates lead the Way in AP.”

The simplicity of the ranking method lends itself to easy manipulation by schools seeking to improve their rankings. In Montgomery County, Maryland, the largest school system in the state doesn’t shy away from encouraging students to participate in AP examinations. Incentives include being excused from final exams and, if appropriate, the Maryland High School Assessments (HSA) on the subject.

However, unless a student demonstrates financial needs, the fees for the exam are a student responsibility. At $89 a pop, these fees can be outside the reach of many families struggling to make ends meet.

In any case, should schools be allowed to charge these fees when in fact the AP exam is a substitute for both the HSAs, if appropriate, and the final exam? That is not to minimize the fact that the school system gets to exploit AP performance to support its claims of excellence. After all, Maryland does guarantee students a free education and there is something distasteful, perhaps downright wrong about charging fees for an exam that does qualify as part and parcel of a student’s education.

The Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County has long been a leader in challenging the illegal fees charged by the MCPS. Despite their efforts, the school system continues to charge fees, which are sometimes waived when students or parents protest. AP fees, however, are not subject to this waiver unless financial hardship is demonstrated.

The fees charged by MCPS schools can range from $805 for an IB Diploma to $83 for an “IBDP Extended Essay.” Free education, at least in Montgomery County, can add up.

MCPS is not shy about announcing that it is “committed to educating our students so that academic success is not predictable by race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, language proficiency, or disability.” Wouldn’t that commitment alone justify a waiver of AP fees? Surely, we don’t want AP to be accessible only to those who can afford the fee?

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