Some fear change in AP exam subsidy slights low-income students

A new Georgia education policy could boost the number of elite students who go on to study math or engineering in college while also diminishing prospects for poor kids who are focused on the liberal arts.

In the recent legislative session, lawmakers quietly changed state policy for subsidizing the cost of high school Advanced Placement exams. Passing the test gives a student a leg up in college admissions, and results in college credit, which can reduce the time, not to mention the money, it takes to earn a degree.

Until now, the state ensured that every student from a low-income household got to take one AP exam regardless of the subject. Under the new policy, the subsidy is available to any student, regardless of household income, but only if they test in a “STEM” subject.

Jobs in science, technology, engineering and math have been fast-growing and typically well-paid. Georgia has been nudging students in that direction for years, and this latest policy emphasizes that by giving them a financial incentive. It could result in more engineering majors in college but it could also suppress interest in the humanities and erect a barrier between the less technically minded and college given the $93 cost of an exam.

Art, history and other non-STEM subjects are important, said a lawmaker at the center of the policy shift, but a STEM focus is pragmatic.

“The truth is that for employable skills … they need to be taking AP STEM courses in high school,” said Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “If they decide to take the others, that’s fine,” he said. “They can take the course without taking the test.”

The House got the Senate to agree to move the money for testing from the budget of the Georgia Department of Education to that of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. In addition to the $1.5 million in general funds, GOSA will be adding $1.2 million from its own “innovation” grant fund, for a total of $2.7 million available to pay for exams.

The overall cost is expected to rise despite the restriction to STEM subjects because the subsidy will be available to students who are middle- class or wealthier. Also, the cost to the state will increase for students who are not low-income, since the College Board, the organization that administers the AP exams, cuts the price for low-income students by about a third, and the state must cover the difference for students who don’t qualify for the price reduction.

Nearly 35,000 Georgia public school students took the AP exams in STEM subjects in 2017, with only about one in five of them from low-income households.

England said the College Board recommended the policy shift as a way to encourage students into STEM studies, since that’s been a long-term emphasis of the state. The College Board didn’t directly respond when asked about this, saying instead that the organization would like to see more support for the poor.

“We are hoping that in 2018 the legislature will expand this funding to include non-STEM AP exams for low-income students,” spokesman Zachary Goldberg said.

STEM-related careers not only pay well but are more reliable with lower unemployment rates, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. The agency tracked a 24 percent increase in STEM jobs from 2005 to 2015 compared with a 4 percent increase in non-STEM fields, though its projections show that gap closing to within a few percentage points by 2024.

Ernie Lee, who teaches history, government and civics at Windsor Forest High School in Savannah, said the STEM emphasis will come at a cost if it discourages interest in civics.

“You’ve got to know what’s going on in history or you’re going to repeat it,” said Lee, a former Georgia teacher of the year. Low-income students taking a non-STEM test will still benefit from College Board rebates and discounts that bring their cost to $53, but even at that price it could be out of reach. Lee said the loss of the state subsidy for non-STEM exams will accelerate the growing divide between the poor and the rich.

One of his former students, Sydney Tompkins, said rural students in particular will pay a price. She will major in chemistry — a STEM subject — at Georgia State University, and got a jump on her degree with college credit earned by passing her psychology and English AP exams last spring. Besides calculus, those were the only AP tests available in her school, she said. Though Savannah has money in the local budget to pay for AP exams and her family had the means to pay if necessary, low-income students in poorer school districts that can’t subsidize tests and offer few STEM courses could suffer because of the policy shift, she said. “I don’t think it’s inclusive.”

State officials know that. It’s why they put $600,000 in GOSA’s budget to help poor, rural school districts add AP STEM courses. There are a dozen to choose from, including biology, chemistry, physics and calculus. There’s also $13 million in federal funding that school districts can tap for AP exams, though some if not most of those block grants must go to other things, such as teacher training, counseling services or dropout prevention.

House Speaker David Ralston’s office noted these options, yet Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, is willing to tweak the testing policy again. “He is open to making changes in subsequent years if necessary,” spokesman Kaleb McMichen said.

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