Georgia's gain in AP test improvement and participation could hit pitfall

Annie Chow has cut back on hanging out with friends, chatting on Facebook and lounging in her living room to make more time for her load of Advanced Placement courses that can earn her college credits.

The Northview High School senior is taking four and she says the demand is daunting, but worth the social life sacrificed. More Georgia teens are taking Advanced Placement tests to earn early college credits and they may be paying more for them.

“Taking an AP course is not an easy thing,” said Chow, who hopes that Columbia University will notice her commitment. “I’m sacrificing a lot. It is a good way to test your capabilities.”

In Georgia the number of AP test-takers increase by 13.4 percent last school year, higher than the national average of 9.5 percent. But six years of gains on test participation could hit a wall in 2010-11 now that thousands of Georgia students will have to pay for the tests.

In the economic downturn, the state reduced the fund that covered the costs for at least one AP exam for every Georgia student and paid for low income students to take as many as they wanted. The move, a $4.09 million savings, could hamper the Georgia Department of Education's push to get more students enrolled in the rigorous classes that can earn them college credit.

This school year, only one test for students on free or discounted lunch will be free. All other students will have to pay. If low income students want to take another AP exam, they also must cover the cost. Students do not receive college credits for AP courses unless they take the exam and pass it with a score of 3, 4 or 5.

"They can still take the AP course," explained Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education. "The course itself is extremely valuable for whatever they are going to do after high school."

AP exams cost $79 each. Students on free or discounted lunch also receive a break on the fee for AP tests, which cost them $57. Some students take as many as four to six AP tests in high school.

Snellville mom Monise Seward, who has a sophomore at South Gwinnett High School,  said paying for her son's AP exams could get expensive, but she will make the sacrifice to give him a leg up in college.

“Eighty dollars is a lot of money when you have to think about about paying for the SAT, ACT, college applications and senior fees," said Seward, who is unemployed. "I can buy a week's worth of grocery's on $80."

Some metro Atlanta school officials are concerned how the AP budget reduction could impact their district’s success in moving the needle on exam participation. Several school systems report an increase in test-takers and scores, including among the poor.

Cobb County Schools has an aggressive program to steer students into AP courses, beginning the conversation with kids in middle school.  The district launched a program in 2004 called Advanced Placement Certified Schools to prepare students for challenging work in high school and college.

In 2010, approximately 7,063 students took 13,449 exams in Cobb, up from the previous year when 6,621 students took 12,312 exams.

“The state pulling some of that funding has made it a little more difficult,” said Kathleen Busko, who oversees advance learning opportunities in Cobb Schools.

At Atlanta Public Schools, some campuses will be leaning on community supporters to cover AP test fees for those who need help.

Vincent Murray, principal of Grady High, said that more students are interested in the rigor of AP courses than they have slots for in the school of 1,492 students. About 42 percent of the population receives free or discounted lunch.

“We will definitely find a way to accommodate our students,” Murray said. “We will be reaching out to our community partners and the Grady Foundation. .”

Gwinnett County Schools officials say they also will strive to give all students access to the test. This year, the district will fund an additional three exams for low income students and one for those who aren't. Last school year, 20,150 students took AP exams with nearly 58 percent qualifying for college credit. The previous year, 16,040 students took AP exams.

Berkmar High School principal Ken Johnson said his was the only campus in Georgia to have a freshman AP scholar last year that at least passed 3 AP exams in one year. This year, Berkmar has five. More than one-third of Berkmar’s 3,000 students take AP courses. The majority of the school receives free and discounted lunch.

“So many of our students at Berkmar simply did not realize that they are capable of high-level course work," Johnson said.  "Our kids last year passed over 800 AP exams. Regardless of where the student is from, our job is to help them reach their full potential. We are doing it."