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Board weighs exam fee aid

The Baltimore Sun

Tricia Johnson knows how pricey it gets when four of your five children are in high school at the same time, preparing to take two or three Advanced Placement exams each, at $76 apiece.

That was about eight years ago, and the Anne Arundel County school board president remembers that she couldn't afford to let her children take every AP test they were eligible for, so they chose the tests that could get them the most college credit.

"It adds up and becomes a hardship," Johnson said.

Now, she and her colleagues on the board are weighing a proposal that would offer financial aid to families struggling to pay for college preparatory exams. International Baccalaureate exams cost $54 and AP exams cost $83.

The policy change would also allow students who take an AP or IB exam in a class to skip those final exams. The board is expected to vote on the proposal March 21.

The quest for exam-fee aid grows out of Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell's concern that only half of the students who take advanced classes go on to take the tests. He hopes that the offer for financial aid, combined with the chance to get out of taking final exams, will encourage more students to take the college-level exams.

"Research says that even if they get a 1 or 2 [on the five-point scoring scale on an AP exam], they stand a better chance of succeeding in college than a student who doesn't take the test," Maxwell said. "This is about increasing rigor for every student."

His 2007 budget proposal has set aside $250,000 to help students pay for the fees. Under the plan, high school principals would determine which families could use partial and full financial assistance with the fees.

States such as New York, Minnesota and Colorado have similar programs to assist with exam fee, though many reserve aid for low-income students and draw from a U.S. Department of Education Advanced Placement Incentive Program grant. It wasn't clear yesterday whether Anne Arundel takes advantage of that grant money.

At a school board meeting this week, how to establish financial need was debated. The proposal before the board doesn't limit need to families who are eligible for free and reduced lunch, a frequent standard for poverty.

"I'd like to see something with more teeth in it," said school board member Victor Bernson, one of two fiscal conservatives on the board. "The way it reads now, everybody's going to say, 'I have economic difficulty,' and then before you know it, we as a county will be paying an unbelievable amount of fees. It shouldn't be a situation where we're granting blanket waivers."

School board vice president Eugene Peterson balked at Bernson's concerns.

"The idea that some family out there with a Mercedes in their driveway is going to ask for some of this money is unrealistic. That's just not going to happen," he said.

Another conservative on the board, Michael Leahy, continued to call for a stricter standard for need.

"The expense of the test is minuscule compared to the college tuition they'll pay" if students don't take the AP test, he said.

Money is not the only concern.

Student school board member Brittany Walker is worried about the AP students who cruise through classes with low grades but could get out of taking their final exams.

She called for including a minimum grade of a C to be eligible for the final exam waiver.

"It should be a reward," Walker said. "You've got students out there who are making D's or failing AP classes, and they shouldn't be allowed to skip the final exam. The exam is the only way to tell whether they've understood what they've been learning. And they shouldn't get to skip it just because they've signed up to take an AP exam."

There is no way for school officials to tell how well students did on an AP exam until summer, Walker said, so theoretically, a student could sign up for an AP exam just to get the waiver and then not take the AP test.

The superintendent doesn't think that's likely.

"I don't think students are going to shell out $83 to skip a test," he said.


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