New AP exam registration isn’t all that bad

Starting this school year, students must register for AP exams before November 4, unless they want to pay $40 in addition to the $94 baseline fee. Students canceling their exam will be refunded all but $40. Last year, students could register until March, paying, in the relatively rare case that they registered late, a $55 late fee in addition to the $94, and receiving all but $15 as a refund for a canceled exam. The College Board’s announcement of these changes earlier this year evoked much fury and scorn for the company as we all shook our fists at the non-profit, denouncing their money-grubbing ways. 

Though it’s possible that the College Board was mainly guided by profit in implementing these new changes, the AP updates may actually benefit students.

When I heard of the changes from teachers and friends, I thought it was completely ridiculous: just another cash grab for the College Board as they coerced more students into signing up for the exam. The fact that the College Board was going around saying that studies have shown that students will perform better on the exam if they register earlier seemed like a joke – how could it prove that if they have never tried the early testing deadline? Computer simulations?

After doing some research, I realized I was wrong. Besides the fact that at least half of schools offering AP already have fall registration, the College Board piloted these changes with 40,000 students in the 201718 school year. It reports that it saw an increase in scores of 3 (the lowest score which can count for college credit) or higher across the board, but especially saw an increase in traditionally underrepresented groups for AP. Scores of 3 or higher increased by 12% for underrepresented minority students, by 20% for lower income students, and by 14% for female STEM students. 

Based on feedback from teachers and students, the College Board reports that students committing to an earlier deadline will be more engaged and less likely to give up in their studies. It’s possible that the College Board moved the deadline largely because of money rather than a desire to enhance student learning. Nevertheless, they have a point. Committing earlier to taking the exam will motivate students to try harder as they will now pay the considerable exam fee earlier on, and, with the new fee change, will receive less of a refund for a canceled exam. This increases the penalty for just coasting along and seeing how the class goes, then making the decision in March.

It’s possible that the College Board moved the deadline largely because of money rather than a desire to enhance student learning.

“And what’s wrong with just coasting along and taking the class without taking the exam?” you may ask. Well, in general, if you want to take an AP course, it only makes sense to get college credit for it so as not to take it again later on, this time paying a hefty college course fee for it; ergo, take the exam if you take the class, and commit to taking the exam somewhat early on. 

A major concern of those in opposition to the changes involves the effect on low-income students. According to Total Registration, which facilitates AP exam registration, while there was a 20% increase in scores of 3+ for low-income students, there was a 33% increase in the total number of low-income students taking the exam. This means that although there were more passing scores with the new deadline, there were a lot more low-income students taking the test, so some increase in passing scores is to be expected. And the majority of these additional students actually scored a 1 or 2: a non-passing grade. 

“Clearly an early commitment to the exam does NOT cause students to ‘. . . earn a score on the AP Exam that qualifies for college credit and/or placement’ as the College Board claims,” Total Registration’s website said.

While that calls into question just how promising the College Board’s statistics are, the focus should be on why these low-income students spent a whole year struggling in an AP class, not retaining enough information to at least get a 3 and earn some college credit. If a student is taking an Advanced Placement class, chances are very high that she plans on going to college, so it is important for her to earn as much college credit as possible beforehand to save money in the long term. 

If, as some who oppose the changes due to their effect on low-income students said, low-income students only want to take the exam if they are highly certain they will do well on it, with the cost of exams so high, it just doesn’t make sense that more low-income students would take the exam knowing that they may not be fully prepared. 

“How could they know if they were prepared if the deadline is so early?” you might ask. Well, though the November deadline is earlier, the students will have completed the first quarter of the academic year. This gives them a pretty good indication of whether or not they will do well on the exam, helping them decide if they want to take it if they want to use their performance as the deciding factor. This goes for middle- and high- income students as well. Having taken several AP classes myself, I can attest that the level of difficulty tends to stay constant; it doesn’t suddenly skyrocket after quarter one.

Besides, if those in opposition for the sake of low-income students say that there is an added level of uncertainty since students won’t have enough time to gauge if they will be able to do well, then why did so many more low-income students sign up?

It’s possible that this happened because at least part of the cost was covered by state subsidies or the College Board itself, as one or the other offers at least partial coverage for those in need. I believe that this coverage is a very good thing, which must help many ambitious low-income students, but it is possible that this coverage, coupled with higher rates of optimism in the fall, made low-income students more open to signing up even if they weren’t doing well in the class. Maybe some who were struggling thought that they should take the opportunity if someone covered their exam fee: they didn’t have much to lose, and they optimistically vowed to work hard until the exam. That optimism may have waned by spring. Then in previous years, fewer low-income students may have signed up because they were more realistic and understood that they wouldn’t do well. But why didn’t they just take the exam anyway, if it was covered for them? And does this suggest that a later deadline would be better for all students since it seems they actually need the extra time to be more realistic in their choice? 

Regardless of the reason behind the increase in low-income student registration, low-income students in most states will continue to be able to receive partial if not full coverage for their exams, 

So – do I think these changes were necessary? Probably not. November registration and a lower cancellation refund did not absolutely need to happen.

But will these changes be completely horrible? Though a few months ago I would have replied with a firm “yes,” now, I again say “probably not.” Even if the changes weren’t necessary or desirable, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be any consequential benefits. 

 The changes have the potential to be beneficial if they do in fact keep students motivated and focused on mastering the material. Though I believe that registering in November gives students enough time to decide, the data concerning low-income students may suggest otherwise, or it may suggest that the new deadline will not keep students motivated and engaged. 

 The changes have the potential to be beneficial if they do in fact keep students motivated and focused on mastering the material.

Whatever the case, the College Board’s new practice resources, which include unit guides, personal progress check-ins and access to a library of practice questions should hopefully help facilitate this studying process as we begin this new AP exam studying cycle. But only time will tell.