By The Des Moines Register
Families worry about the cost of higher education. Parents save what they can. Some also encourage their teens to sign up for college-level courses during high school. Earning college credit ahead of time can significantly reduce the expense of tuition down the road. Fortunately, Iowa schools offer many opportunities.
Each year thousands of teens sign up for “concurrent enrollment” classes. These are community college courses taught in high schools by teachers who have met specific requirements. A science or foreign language class in a Des Moines high school, for example, might also earn students credit at Des Moines Area Community College. Both institutions send a report card. High schools receive millions of dollars in additional state aid for offering these classes, and students pay nothing for the college-level classes.
Then there are Advanced Placement courses. These are not technically college courses, but some colleges will give students credit if their end-of-class score on the AP exam is high enough. Colleges set their own minimum score. To earn AP credit, students must score at least a 3 on a 5-point exam at the end of the school year (even if they finish the course in December). The problem: Last year only 9.7 percent of Iowa high school students did well enough to possibly be granted credit for the course by a college later.
This painfully low rate, which is about half the national average, raises obvious questions: Are instructors prepared to teach AP courses? Are students being pushed into classes they do not have the foundation to succeed in?
John Tierney, a Boston teacher who taught both college and AP high school courses, is among those asking such questions. In an Atlantic article last month titled “AP Classes Are a Scam,” he wrote that these classes are not equivalent to college-level courses he has taught. He noted that the College Board, which earns half its revenue from the AP courses offered in 39 subjects, “has the mentality of a voracious corporation.” Schools shift strong teachers from other classes and forgo opportunities like “honors” classes which he believes better prepare students for college.
Schools should do all they can to give students challenging academic options. But offering more AP courses may not be the best way to do that.
Families may not realize that many classes are designated as both AP and “concurrent.” A passing grade will earn students credit at a community college, regardless of how well they do on the AP exam. In these cases, do the students really need to take the AP test? (Probably not, a college admissions counselor said, unless the student plans to attend an Ivy League school. Community college credit is the better option.)
Also, families pay $89 for each AP final exam. A student at Central Academy in Des Moines could rack up hundreds of dollars in test expenses. If students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the College Board cuts the cost of the exam by $28. Schools give up the $8 they would usually receive for administrative costs and then struggle to come up with the money to cover the final $53 price tag.
It is important to provide high-level courses to students, but students should not be asked to pay for a test to complete a class in a public school. It is especially concerning when about 90 percent of them do not do well enough to earn AP credit for it — and they may be receiving community college credit for it anyway.