Radnor, stop mandating AP exams

Ellie Davis, Editor in Chief

Payments for AP exams are due today. Every AP student has gone through the process of signing up for an Advanced Placement course and completing the testing registration each October. This process, as many of us know too well, includes paying nearly $100 dollars per AP exam. For anyone who wants to take an AP exam to get a passing score, this is a reasonable but significant amount of money. But students who want to take AP courses without taking the exam, most often seniors, have no choice but to pay up or give up the AP designation on their transcript. Despite nearly universal frustration from seniors, the district upholds this policy, which boosts its national rankings. 

According to RHS’s policy: “All students enrolled in an Advanced Placement (AP) course are required to take the AP exam for the course at the end of the school year. If a student chooses not to take the AP exam, the AP designation will be removed from the transcript/report card, and the course will be designated as Honors. (Example: AP World History will be listed as World History H)” 

Some families are paying upwards of $500 for their student’s AP exams.

Independent of high school transcripts, what value do AP tests offer students? According to the Princeton Review, there are two reasons that AP exams might be helpful. First, to let students show admissions officers that they have pushed themselves academically in high school.  For underclass students who are motivated to dedicate a large amount of time to studying for their AP exams, a score of four or five offers a solid addition to a college application. But underclass students who have no intention of studying for AP tests still pay, miss class, and sit for three hours to take a test that, unless they score a three or above, will have no benefit. Sophomore Will Meyers said “I feel that people should get the chance to make their own decision on what they want to do. Also, when I realized last week how expensive the tests are to take, it was shocking.” But, perhaps, requiring all underclass students to take AP exams could allow students who might have chosen to opt-out of the test to surprise themselves with a good score. For seniors, however, who have already submitted their college applications, AP exams offer no potential to help them with admissions. 

More relevant to seniors, the Princeton Review says that students should take AP exams because, in general, AP scores can be used for college credit. At Penn State, the most popular college choice for Radnor students, getting a four or a five on most AP exams means a student can get some credit — allowing them to save money and time in college. The University of Pennsylvania, another school that Radnor students frequently attend, has a stricter policy: roughly half of AP scores of five offer students the opportunity for some form of credit. For students who study hard to get good scores in AP courses that count for college credit, taking the exam can be a smart choice. But imagine you are a senior, already accepted to your top school, in an AP course for which your college won’t give you any credit — what value does the AP test offer? 

Senior AP student Reese Hillman said, “I have no intention to submit my scores for French because I want to take a French class in college. I’m going to sit through that test in high school and it’s going to be a waste of 100 dollars.” All other seniors in AP classes with whom I spoke expressed similar feelings. Emily Harris, who is in my AP Lit class, said that “paying for something that I’m never going to use is ridiculous to me. I know it’s my parent’s money, but that money could be going to something else.” For many families, paying hundreds of dollars for exams isn’t possible. According to Amy Wess, the high school’s AP exam coordinator, “students that have financial need that have free and reduced lunch automatically qualify for $20 per exam.” This is a significant discount, but if a student were taking five APs (a common course load for Seniors at RHS), they’d still be paying $100. Families who don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch but who would still struggle to pay the exam fees can reach out to the school’s social worker for financial assistance. The guidance department also offers payment plans for families, so they can turn in payment after October 15th. 

For many students who want to take AP exams, this financial assistance is necessary. But for those who would prefer not to, the easiest payment plan would be not taking the exam in the first place. “When I first started, that policy wasn’t around,” said Ms. Wess. “It was just students who wanted to take the AP signed up. It gave students the choice to sign up for the exam or not.” 

“It’s reasonable for students to be strategic about what tests they want to take in terms of their college education journey,” said Hillman. If a senior knows their college of choice offers credit for a high score on an AP, taking the test makes sense. But, according to Hillman, “forcing students to spend a large amount of money on tests that aren’t necessarily going to help them in the future seems illogical.” Each year, seniors pointlessly sit through three to four-hour test blocks in May. Comical stories circulate through the school about how these seniors spend their time: playing rock paper scissors across the room, doodling on their tests, writing jokes to their scorer, and anything other than answering the questions. As senior Michael Farhy stated, “I’m taking four [AP tests] and I’m not trying on any of them. I’m getting my scores back when I’m a month away from being in college. Why should I care if my school won’t even take my scores?”

Dan Bechtold, Director of Secondary Teaching & Learning, in response to stories of seniors’ lack of effort on AP exams, said “it is discouraging that certain students might be investing a year to learn the AP material and pay for the exam only to purposefully fail to do their best.” But, when students aren’t given a choice in the matter, can we blame them?

Some parents, the ones paying for the exams in most cases, would also like their students to have more freedom of choice. “The RHS Program of Studies shows flowcharts with AP courses as a path for high achieving students,” said Paige Maz, a parent of two RHS alums and one current RHS student. “A public school should not require families to pay for the AP exam when the course is shown as part of the normal curriculum. The school strong-arms parents and students into paying for the exam by threatening to change a transcript to show ‘Honors’ instead of ‘AP’ if a student fails to take the exam.” 

Letting seniors who don’t stand to benefit from AP exams save money and time by opting out of testing seems like a no-brainer, so why does the administration insist on withholding the “AP” designation on students’ transcripts unless they take their AP classes’ exams? According to Bechtold, “District policy requires a student to take the corresponding end-of-year exam for each enrolled AP class(es) for many reasons that are beneficial to the student.” He referenced six different studies providing evidence for the benefit of AP exams, four of which were from researchers at the College Board, the organization which profits from the promotion of AP exams. (Read: “The College Board is Hardly a non-Profit”).

Each of these studies (Links: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6) highlights a correlation between taking and scoring well on an AP exam and future high school or college success, based on measures like higher four-year graduation rates and college GPAs, depending on the specific study. In other words, these studies demonstrate that, on average, students who take one or more AP exams do better in college, in some cases regardless of how they perform on the exams. This evidence, however, does not prove that taking an AP exam will in turn help a student in their future academic career. Rather, it only shows that students who happen to take AP exams are those who also happen to do better in college according to these studies’ metrics – a classic example of correlation versus causation. This correlation could possibly be explained by diligence on the part of students. Radnor schools teach talented students who are bound to succeed in college regardless of whether they take AP exams. Come May, these students might prefer to enrich their minds in arenas outside of the College Board’s domain.

Literature for the Radnor Democrats mailed to potential voters – This image has been cropped to remove the candidates’ names at the request of the RHS administration, referencing school board policy section 900 Community code 910.

RHS’s AP policy may or may not benefit students, but it certainly benefits the school’s rankings. In Radnor, rankings are no small deal, particularly for the elected school board. The top of a pamphlet distributed by Radnor Democrats, for example, reads in bold lettering, “Radnor is rated the best school district in Pennsylvania,” by “Niche 2021 and 2022” and “Newsweek 2021.”  According to the Huffington Post and The Atlantic Monthly, before 2011 Newsweek based its high school rankings solely on the number of AP tests taken per graduate. Since then, the formula has shifted, but Newsweek’s rankings still give strong consideration to AP tests using two metrics: how many AP tests each student takes (25% of the overall ranking) and how well students do on average (10% of the overall ranking). Since the number of students taking AP tests is more important to Newsweek than student average performance, no wonder Radnor and other districts hoping to improve their rankings choose to require AP exams. Even though they are forcing a group of seniors to sit in the test room for hours just to get ones and twos each year, the sheer number of students taking exams still helps their rankings.

Perhaps, students stand to benefit from the district’s high rankings. As Bechtold said, “School rankings might, in fact, have the most impact on the surrounding community, as they can influence the property values in a school district and the district’s standing when considered by stakeholders such as business owners, taxpayers, and institutions of higher learning.” The question is: is it worth it?

Data from the 2016-2017 Report on RTSD Data and Student Achievement confirms that the school district chooses to trade the quality of AP test scores for quantity. During the 2014-2015 school year, the high school first began requiring AP exams for AP students. The number of AP exams taken nearly doubled from the year prior: jumping from 577 to 958. Between these school years, the number of ones and twos also skyrocketed from 6.07% in 2014 to 14.5% in 2015. 

Mr. Miller, our one and only AP Macroeconomics teacher, observed firsthand the effect of implementing the AP testing requirement in 2015. In 2014, Miller had 35 students take the AP exam and only 11.4% scored a one or a two, scores that the College Board considers failing. In 2015, 41.6% of Miller’s 77 students taking the AP exam scored a one or a two. Since 2015, roughly 30% of AP Econ students who take the exam have failed. Mr. Miller said that “I believe only the students that can benefit should have to take it. I understand that Radnor gets ranked on how many people take the test, but I just don’t think it’s a good enough reason to make kids take it.”  

Dan Bechtold defends the AP policy, stating that, “the designation of Advanced Placement for a course on a transcript indicates to colleges and universities that a student completed the approved course and participated in the AP exam for which the course is designed.  In order to remain true to the rigor and purpose of the Advanced Placement curriculum, if a student chooses to not participate in the designated AP exam for the enrolled courses, the AP label is not included on the transcript.”  

Miller disagrees, explaining that “I think that just by being in an AP class a student benefits from the rigor of the content.” The RTSD website confirms the rigor of AP courses, saying that students “undertake a rigorous workload that involves extensive reading, writing, problem-solving and critical thinking.” Let’s allow students to earn the designation of AP on their transcript from their year-long classroom participation — not by writing a check and sitting at a desk for three hours. “I think that trying to push a nine-month-long course into a three-hour-long test seems like an inefficient way to measure the rigor of the course,” said senior Frederick Mehra. “It’s not like you didn’t take the class if you didn’t pay to take the test.”

Senior class president Justin Nourian echoed the same sentiment: “When I saw the total sum for all of my exams I gasped. I should not feel this strong pressure to pay $480 to take tests that I do not want to take. I take AP classes for their rigor, not to skip classes in college; the rigor of these courses should be represented on my schedule even if I have very little interest in the exams.”