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August 20, 2014

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Feds might have shortchanged Nevada on covering cost of AP tests

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Tiffany Brown

Advanced Placement calculus students crowd into a class at Clark High School in this January 2010 file photo. Lawmakers on Friday toured Clark High as they prepare for budget deliberations that could include deep cuts for public education.

More Nevadans taking the exams

Advanced Placement exam participation in Nevada has gradually increased over the past decade, according to Ken Woods, the CollegeBoard's executive director of strategic accounts, higher education.

In 2001, nearly 2,000 graduating high school seniors in Nevada took an AP exam, with 1,270 of them scoring a 3 or higher on the 5-point exam.

Last year, more than 6,200 students took an AP exam, with 3,451 students scoring a 3 or higher on the 5-point exam.

That represents a 172 percent increase in the number of students taking an AP exam over the past decade.

Call it a promise unkept.

State education departments across the country may be surprised to find they're on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in promised federal funding to help low-income students take the college-level Advanced Placement exams.

Since 1999, CollegeBoard — the nonprofit makers of the test — and the federal government shared the cost of waiving the $79 fee to allow thousands of low-income students to take the AP exam. High school students could obtain college credit for high scores on the 5-point exams, reducing the time required to get a degree and lowering the cost of college.

“Advanced Placement participation is an important element in creating a college-going culture in our high schools,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement released Wednesday. “AP courses help students develop the study skills, critical reasoning and habits of mind that prepare them for the transition to college. They give students — particularly first-generation college-goers — the confidence that they can successfully handle college-level work.”

In previous years, the CollegeBoard subsidized $26 and the federal government funded the remaining $53, making taking the AP exam free for low-income students. The money was usually doled out to state education departments in March to allow low-income students to take an unlimited number of AP exams in May.

Students were chosen for the federal Advanced Placement Test Fee program if they attend a "Title I" school with a high population of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches.

However, political gridlock in Congress delayed federal funding of the AP exam program earlier this year, prompting the federal government to issue a promissory statement in April assuring state education departments that the federal government would continue funding the program.

As a result, states encouraged thousands of low-income students to take the May exam under the promise it would be all paid for this summer.

However, the U.S. Education Department seemingly reneged on its promise when it announced on Wednesday that grants will only pay up to $38 per AP exam, instead of the promised $53. That leaves a $15-per-exam hole that would have to be filled by school districts and state education departments — unless CollegeBoard steps up its subsidy or the federal government can find more money.

The feds awarded more than $21.5 million in federal grants to help 43 states recoup the cost of providing AP exams to students in need. Still, that's about $8 million shy of the nearly $30 million AP exam cost incurred by state education departments across the country.

Some states — such as Nevada — didn't get enough funding promised by the federal government.

The Nevada Department of Education received $248,657 in federal grant money, which only covers 78 percent of the $317,576 cost that allowed qualifying Nevada high school students to take nearly 6,000 AP exams this past May, according to CollegeBoard Senior Vice President Trevor Packer.

Furthermore, the U.S. Education Department capped the number of AP exams a low-income student could take to three exams per student, instead of the usual unlimited.

U.S. and Nevada education officials were not immediately available for comment.

The news came as a surprise to Packer, who was buoyed by the feds' promise earlier this year to continue covering the cost of AP exams for low-income students despite the tough economic times.

"It's wonderful the U.S. Department of Education is administering these grants to states," Packer said. "Without these grants, it would be harder for low-income students to participate in the AP exam program.

"But, schools will say that this is really bad news," Packer continued, referring to Wednesday's announcement by the federal government. "How are schools supposed to collect this money?"

Packer — who said he plans to contact federal officials on Thursday — was confident, however, that the CollegeBoard and the U.S. Department of Education would come to a compromise over funding the cost of these AP exams for students in need. He was adamant that the $15-per-exam fee to make up the hole would not fall on students. That would be "highly inappropriate," he said.

"I know the Department of Education and the Senate Appropriations Committee are concerned about this," Packer said. "I'm confident that by working with the federal government, we can resolve this."

While Packer said he was hopeful the funding shortfall would be resolved, a bigger question remains over the fate of the Advanced Placement Test Fee Program next fiscal year with another round of political gridlock looming.

"Schools and colleges are very anxious about ensuring that this funding survives," Packer said.

Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones said he was also concerned about the fate of the program.

"Getting more students to take the AP exam should be a priority for our state," he said. "That ought to be a priority regardless of a student's financial circumstances. This shouldn't be based on haves and have-nots.

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