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Expert: ED Grants for AP Exams ‘More Pyrite Than Gold’

Akil Bello of The Princeton Review said he’s not sure low-income and students of color will be the main beneficiaries of the initiative.Akil Bello of The Princeton Review said he’s not sure low-income and students of color will be the main beneficiaries of the initiative.

The Department of Education Wednesday announced $28.4 million in grants to assist low-income students with the costs associated with taking Advanced Placement (AP) Exams.

The grants, which will be available for students in 38 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, will seek to encourage students across the country to not just enroll in higher level courses, but to take (and pass) the tests, which could grant them college credit and reduce the time and expense associated with obtaining a college degree.

“Participation in the course isn’t enough,” said John King, senior adviser delegated duties of deputy secretary of education. “We want students to be able to pass the test” and get college credit for their efforts.

King sees the grants as a vehicle for not only expanding opportunities in high school, but for expanded success in college as well.

“These grants are a smart investment in equity and a way to eliminate barriers for low-income students, level the playing field and allow more students to access the college-level critical thinking and reasoning skills taught in AP courses,” he said.

“We want to see a college-going culture in all of our students, and we particularly want to see that culture … in our low-income students and in our African-American and Latino students,” said King.

But Akil Bello, director of strategic initiatives at The Princeton Review, said he is not sure the announcement will mean more low-income students and students of color in college.

“This is another last-minute … program that will help those already decently positioned to pursue higher education, rather than a program that will be a game-changer or field leveler,” said Bello. “Since the program is paying only for AP testing, this, by nature, does nothing to provide better preparation for low-income students to be ready for the AP test, have access to AP classes, or understand the benefits of the AP program.”

Bello has worked for years with programs designed to provide access to high-quality test preparation and educational services to underserved and disadvantaged communities and does not believe the new ED initiative will make much of a difference for bringing new students into college from underserved communities.

“In essence, this will grease the wheels for those already rolling on the track, but it does not add anyone new to the college-bound pipeline,” he added.

The federal dollars were allocated to states based on the projected number of low-income students who will be taking the test in their states. California by far tops the list of grant recipients with more than $10 million allocated to the state through the program. The program, which uses congressionally-appropriated grant monies to expand upon an already-existing program to help low-income students increase their educational opportunities, also has ties to President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. Recommendations from the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force suggested that expanding access to college-level courses would equip more low-income students and students of color with the tools they need to succeed in college.

“Advanced Placement classes and the corresponding exams come with very high expectations for our students, as well as important early exposure to the demands and rigor of college-level courses, all while still in high school,” said King.

But Bello said the correlation between college readiness and enrollment in AP classes is a false-positive.

“As with all of these tests, people love to conflate cause and correlation,” Bello said. “Any student who is registered for an AP class is already on college track so performance on AP tests … is by nature drawing from a self-selected group of college tracked students.”

“Given that AP classes are known to be challenging, if a student enrolls in an AP class it stands to reason that he would be the type to have some success in college,” he continued. “So, yes, a direct correlation is likely to exist between AP test performance and college admission, enrollment, aspirations, success, knowledge and any other college metric you care to look at.”

Bello pointed out that fee waivers already exist for low-income students seeking to take the AP Placement test and suggested increasing funding toward such efforts is not the best use of government resources.

“The practice of paying for testing … will likely increase the conversation around college, will likely increase the students taking a chance on taking these tests, and will likely make students less concerned about the costs of applying to college,” he conceded. “However none of that is relevant to the student who has not considered college a possibility. All of these considerations are for students who are considering college but are concerned about access; if a student doesn’t think college is attainable or affordable (once you’re admitted) why would they pursue the actions necessary for admission?”

“I don’t think that simply paying for a test is an adequate or large-scale solution. Having access to the test and being prepared for the tests are distinctly different things,” he said, adding that more appropriate perhaps would be investing more in K-8 education to strengthen students’ opportunities at the ground level.

“This reminds me of Oprah’s ‘You get a car,’” continued Bello. “All the poor people ended up with tax problems and [struggled] to figure out how to pay insurance, gas, etc. This seems to be a similar fix. It’s attractive on the surface, but unless you consider all the other factors, it’s more pyrite than gold.”

“If we continue to implement policies that address the testing and last-minute hurdles and try to fix things from (grades) 10 to 12 nothing will change,” he said.

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