States and districts now get to decide if low-income students get a break on AP and IB exams: Will they make the right call?

In my home state of Illinois, more than 112,000 high school students took at least one Advanced Placement course last school year, and more than a fourth of those students are from low-income families. An even greater proportion of low-income students were able to to access International Baccalaureate last year–of the 4,500 students taking IB classes, more than two-thirds are low-income.

This is the first time Illinois has ever collected and published data on early college coursework, and it’s a promising sign that our high schools will be accountable for offering demanding college-level courses to students of all backgrounds–from cities, suburbs and small towns.

All that progress could soon go up in smoke, given a provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that wiped out dedicated federal funding for AP and IB exams for low-income students. As Jay Matthews explains in the Washington Post:

The most challenging courses in American public education have been expanding rapidly since the federal government in 1998 began subsidizing disadvantaged students’ exam fees in college-level courses, particularly the Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. In 2016, 941,557 AP exams were taken by students from low-income families.

At that moment of startling success, the congressional sponsors of ESSA killed the program. Nobody knows yet what will happen as the students scramble to find money for those tough exams in May.

Of course, there is value in taking these advanced courses, even for students who don’t take the test or pass the test. But yanking away subsidies will only create new barriers to college for the half-million low-income students currently enrolled in AP courses. We know middle-class parents will pay the $93 for AP exams and the $116 for IB exams, because high scores on these tests often translate to early college credit and a break on state tuition bills (and sometimes because their students are guaranteed an A on their AP finals if they take the test).

Low-income families surely see the potential long-term payoff of these tests, but that doesn’t mean they will be able to cover the cost–and it will surely discourage students who aren’t fully confident they can pass the test.

Here’s the rub: The money didn’t disappear. ESSA allows states and districts to determine if they want to set aside money for AP and IB test subsidies. For now, the money is sitting in a big pot of federal education dollars (called Title IV) that is shared by 40 other educational programs, all competing for a piece of that federal pie.

So this is a chance for states and districts to do right by aspiring college students who already face monumental financial barriers when paying for a college education. This is the time when states and districts can commit to making these tests free or affordable, by announcing they will use these federal dollars for what they’ve been used for since 1998.

So far 19 states  have agreed to cover the costs temporarily until they see how the this smaller pool of federal education dollars shakes out. That means most states haven’t done anything yet. So if you are a parent or an educator who cares about improving equity and giving all students a path to college, this is the time to pressure your state and local education leaders, who have been entrusted with tremendous power and responsibility under ESSA.

In future posts, we’ll be digging deeper into how states are living up to their promise to protect students who too often fall through the cracks. AP/IB funding could prove an excellent litmus test of whether states will honor or break that promise.

What do you think?
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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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