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Low-income students struggle with AP exam fee waiver cuts

In December, Congress slashed funding for Advanced Placement fee waivers for low-income students, leaving them scrambling to find the cash or forgoing the exams.

March 31, 2012|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • Rocio Ramirez of El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera is planning to take six Advanced Placement tests. She and her mother are looking for ways to come up with the extra money.
Rocio Ramirez of El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera is planning to take… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

Because of a federal budget cut, tens of thousands of low-income high school students will face steeper price tags for their Advanced Placement exams this May — forcing many to scramble to meet costs and others to forgo exams that could save thousands in college tuition.

At El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, where nearly two-thirds of would-be test takers are from low-income families, anxiety over passing is being replaced by worries that students will not be able to afford the college-level exams they have studied for all school year.

Rocio Ramirez planned on taking six tests, which now ring up to $204. Gerardo Artega has begun chipping away at his $151 bill for five tests by saving and paying the school $10 a week. And Alexis Lemus, who planned to take four exams, will now take only three — reluctantly dropping the English literature exam he feels certain he could pass.

In December, Congress slashed funding from $43 million to $29 million for the federal Advanced Placement programs that fund fee waivers for low-income students.

Such students now must pay $15 for each of their first three exams and $53 for each subsequent one. College credits typically are given for passing exam grades — an important jump-start for many.

The regular fee is $87 per exam.

The College Board, which administers the exams, will increase its subsidy for low-income students' fees this year from $22 to $26 per exam. Still, the nonprofit estimates that about 29,000 low-income students nationwide will be deterred by the $15 cost and will not take AP exams this year.

Last year, 375,439 low-income students nationwide took 615,315 exams. At least six states — Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, South Carolina and Texas — will use state funds to offset the reduction in federal funding, leaving students there unaffected.

Others — Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, New Mexico, New York City andWashington, D.C.— plan on at least partly covering the fees for students.

In California last year, 91,009 low-income students took 160,605 exams. At schools and districts that participate in a state program that provides additional funds for AP fees, those students will pay $5 each for the first three tests, as required by California law. For subsequent exams, however, the price will also jump to $53. L.A. Unified, the state's largest school district, participates in the program.

But at schools like El Rancho that do not receive those state funds, low-income students must foot the entire bill.

In May, Rocio, a senior, plans on taking the English literature, physics, statistics and government AP exams. And although she's not taking the AP courses in Spanish and French, she figured she'd take those tests as well, possibly receiving college credit and freeing up time next year for courses geared toward her goal of becoming a doctor.

The fees, however, have left her and her mother looking for ways to come up with the extra money.

"It is a lot of money, especially since it was unexpected," she said. "But I talked with my mom and she said that we'll find a way — she knows how important it is to me."

Gerardo, who plans on taking U.S. history, biology, English, calculus and Spanish exams, has begun making weekly payments. Only a junior, Gerardo now figures he'll face more fees next year. "The cost for the last two is more than I expected to pay, but the school is helping me out with a payment plan," he said.

To soften the blow, the school allows cash-strapped families to pay the fees in installments, rather than a lump sum, said Herb Ortiz, a college and career counselor.

Joe Radding, administrator of California's exam fee reimbursement program, said states have made clear to Congress the importance of this funding, but lawmakers simply did not appropriate enough to help all of the students in need. The cuts deny a vulnerable population of students access to rigorous testing that prepares them for college and potentially awards them college credits, he said.

"We can't impose on these students the burden of offsetting the federal government's failure to provide adequate funding," he said.

At El Rancho, a school of about 3,500, 497 students will take 878 exams this year; 307 of them are low-income.

Alexis, 16, a senior who skipped a grade and is probably headed to UC Riverside in the fall, said the cost of a fourth test would be too much for his family right now. His parents, both immigrants from Mexico, are currently putting his older sister through college.

He will still take the psychology, statistics and government exams as planned, but will forgo English literature, a test he has studied for all school year.

"I'm pretty sure I could pass it," he said excitedly, noting that he was especially riveted by Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."

"A lot of kids like me are going to be discouraged from taking AP classes now," he said, before hustling to his government class to take a midterm.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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