Education

New AP exam fee hitting Wichita parents in wallet

Syed Shamiun, right, and Vivian Pham take part in an International Baccalaureate course at East High in February.
Syed Shamiun, right, and Vivian Pham take part in an International Baccalaureate course at East High in February. The Wichita Eagle

Families in the Wichita school district are paying more for Advanced Placement courses this school year – as much as $92 per class – but prices vary depending on which high school your child attends.

As part of a 10 percent across-the-board budget cut to nonpersonnel areas, Wichita’s public high schools eliminated about $125,000 in spending for AP test fees.

That means the district no longer will pay for Advanced Placement exams. Many universities award course credit to students who obtain high scores on the year-end tests – designed and administered by the College Board – so the classes are popular with students preparing for college.

“It used to be district-funded. We wanted open access (to AP courses and tests), and we’ve always believed in open access,” said Bill Faflick, the district’s assistant superintendent for secondary schools.

“Unfortunately, that was a cost that we could no longer bear, so we had to pass it on,” he said. “It’s not ideal.”

During enrollment at most Wichita high schools this month, students taking AP courses were charged $92 per class – the full cost of the AP exam – as part of their enrollment fees. Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch paid $15 at most schools.

Most Wichita-area suburban districts require students to pay for AP exams, though some don’t require the test as part of the class or collect the money upfront during enrollment.

The new fee surprised some Wichita parents, including Sonya Smith, whose son takes AP statistics at Northeast Magnet. Smith, who has four children in Wichita schools, paid $500 in total fees this year.

“It’s absolutely unbelievable what we pay for enrollment and supplies for what is supposed to be free public school,” she said. “Just because people might not qualify for free or reduced lunch doesn’t mean it’s not a hardship.”

Smith became more upset when she learned that the Advanced Placement fee at Heights High, where one of her sons goes to school, was only $46 per class – half the cost of the fee at Northeast.

“That doesn’t seem right,” she said. “If the cost is $92, it should be $92 for everyone. … Why should one school charge less for the same class, the same test?”

Faflick said principals at some schools, including Heights and Southeast, opted to tap into their building intervention funds to subsidize a portion of test fees.

Intervention funds are allocated to each Wichita high school each year based on its percentage of poor and at-risk students. Principals decide how those funds are used, within certain federal and state guidelines.

Matt Creasman, principal at Northeast Magnet, said he considered using intervention money to pay a portion of test fees but opted instead to finance a new ACT test-preparation program, tutoring sessions and a Saturday school that serves 60 to 70 students each week.

“We all just do what we think is best for our kids and what our need is for the building,” Creasman said.

“If I’ve got somebody that needs something that I can help them with, I will help. I just didn’t want to just scrap one of my other programs to do this.”

Open access

Wichita high schools offer dozens of Advanced Placement classes, including English language and composition, literature, chemistry, calculus, art history and foreign languages. Offerings vary significantly from building to building based on student demand and teacher availability.

Last school year, 1,557 Wichita high school students were enrolled in at least one AP class. Some take several courses their junior and senior years in hopes of earning college credit in multiple subject areas.

About a decade ago, as part of an effort to encourage more students to take Advanced Placement courses and exams, the Wichita district began underwriting the cost of the tests for everyone, not just low-income students.

The idea behind the strategy, known as open access, is that students benefit from being exposed to college-level coursework and taking the AP exam, even if they don’t score high enough to get college credit.

Sherman Padgett, principal at North High School, said he opposed passing AP test fees along to families this fall because that wasn’t the plan when students enrolled in the classes last spring.

The school offers 14 AP courses, and several have more than one section. In total, North High expects to administer 522 AP exams next spring.

“Kids who enrolled in AP enrolled because they wanted to take the most rigorous college-preparatory class,” Padgett said. “I am not comfortable with having it be based on their ability to pay when that wasn’t a criteria when they enrolled.”

This year, 34 North High students paid the full $92 fee for an AP exam during enrollment, Padgett said. Another 125 paid the reduced-price fee.

Padgett said he didn’t let North students drop AP courses during enrollment. If families balked at the fee, he told them to hold tight while he tries to find funding and work out a plan.

“I didn’t want to say, ‘If you can’t pay, you’ll have to drop the class,’” he said. “The folks who couldn’t afford it would be forced to drop it, and that’s not right.

“I believe that everyone who needs it should be enrolled in it,” Padgett said. “We should challenge them to the highest level of rigor possible, and we shouldn’t let their economic status be a determining factor in their ability to get the best education this school and this district has to offer.”

Faflick agreed, saying school officials have been urged to assist families who have extraordinary needs or students who are enrolled in several AP courses. Some have worked out payment plans or other options, he said.

“Our principals and counselors have done a decent job (saying), ‘Hey, if this is going to be a burden, just let us know,’ ” Faflick said.

Alternate test

One option being explored at some Wichita high schools is offering a free test that would count as a final exam in AP classes but would not translate to potential college credit.

Some suburban districts, including Andover and Valley Center, do not require students enrolled in AP classes to take the official AP exam.

Creasman, the Northeast Magnet principal, said an alternate test will be an option at his school.

Padgett said he’s talking with teachers to come up with a system that would let students opting out of the AP exam take a similar exam at the same time, such as an AP practice test or one created from previous years’ exams.

Smith, the Northeast Magnet parent, said she paid the $92 fee because she wants her son to take the official AP statistics exam in the spring. She said she understands the district having to cut costs but thinks lots of families will have trouble paying the additional fee, particularly if they have several high schoolers.

“If my kids were closer in age and I had more kids eligible for AP courses, I would have to make the tough choice to allow maybe one to do it,” she said. “There’s no way we could afford hundreds of dollars in AP fees.”

Faflick said the additional fee “is a change for families, and it’s not anything that we like.”

He said he hopes it doesn’t affect short- or long-term AP enrollment. Officials plan to look at data next spring and evaluate the decision again before next year.

“It’s just the unfortunate position that we’re in in Kansas schools right now under our current financial climate,” Faflick said.

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias

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