LA JOLLA — After juggling midnight feedings and homework and struggling to pay for diapers and books, Sofia Sanchez thought she was near success last spring. She had studied hard for the Advanced Placement test in Spanish and was certain her score would impress college admissions officers and allow her to accelerate her college program.
There was only one catch. She did not have the $65 test fee.
Jose Morales, another La Jolla High School student bused to this affluent neighborhood from low-income neighborhoods of south San Diego, saw what such jarring news did to his friends. "A lot of them didn't take the test because they couldn't come up with the money," he said.
As increasing numbers of minority and low-income students use the Advanced Placement program as a ticket to college and course credit, educators nationwide have expressed concern about the test's daunting cost. As school superintendents and even President Bush look for ways to encourage high standards in public education, one proven method of doing that is facing a cash crunch.
The situation has caused an uproar in this affluent university town north of San Diego where many residents strain to find private money for low-income test-takers and chide the San Diego school district for refusing to help.
"You do your best and you knock yourself out and so do your kids, and then they run into a brick wall," said Sandra Scherf, chairman of the high school's foreign languages department.
"It hit a lot of the people in the gut at the university," said Sam Popkin, a political-science professor at the nearby UC San Diego, who helped to raise funds.
The Advanced Placement program, including 28 subjects with psychology to be added next year, offers special classes that prepare students to pass examinations leading to course credit in most American universities. Low-income students can decrease tuition bills and complete college in three years if they pass enough Advanced Placement tests.
The program was designed in 1954 with elite, private secondary schools in mind, but 330,080 students in 9,292 schools took the examinations last spring. They have become a popular way of motivating students and teachers in even the most disadvantaged public schools.
La Jolla High, which had 13 National Merit Scholarship semifinalists and 16 valedictorians with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages last year, seems an unlikely place to find the children of janitors and auto mechanics from south San Diego. The small, hilly campus dotted with pines and beige stucco buildings occupies expensive real estate. Graduation parties are abuzz with talk of Ivy League schools.
But 26% of the 1,450 students take 30-minute bus rides from the opposite end of the city as part of the district's Voluntary Ethnic Enrollment Program. Many have achieved academic success here rivaling that of much wealthier classmates.
Morales, whose father is a school custodian, is president of the senior class and is to begin studying industrial engineering at UCSD this fall. He scraped together his last test fee by borrowing from relatives. Sanchez, raising her 19-month-old son, also found money after a struggle and plans to attend San Diego State.
Phil Arbolino, associate director of the Advanced Placement program for the College Board, said administrators have tried to hold down the test cost and reduce the fee by $13 for low-income students. But because half the test involves free-response questions requiring human graders, it remains more expensive than machine-scored examinations such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
La Jolla High Principal J.M. Tarvin, who has led efforts to raise private funds to pay test fees, said district officials have expressed discomfort at paying for a test that is not a required part of the curriculum. At the same time, however, the district urges schools to challenge their students. The result is, he said, "We have set up a program whose logical conclusion is the expenditure of funds that the schools cannot supply."
La Jolla residents such as Popkin said they were particularly upset to learn the district was spending $4 million a year on consultants while refusing to pick up $65 test fees for a few hundred poor, hard-working students. School district spokeswoman Norma Trost said the consultant fees have been cut back but the system still cannot afford to subsidize Advanced Placement.
The Educational Testing Service, which administers the test, said Florida and South Carolina pay all Advanced Placement fees and a few other states, such as Indiana and Utah, provide subsidies. California state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) has proposed a bill to set aside $300,000 to pay test fees for disadvantaged California students.
In some schools throughout the country, Arbolino said, students do odd jobs or wash cars to earn the test fees.
To some people in La Jolla reading about new national educational initiatives, that seemed strange. "We spend thousands of dollars trying to find motivated minorities and then we don't help them because they're motivated," Popkin said.