Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Duncan Funnels Millions to College Board

This is how it works in our current form of government.

Suppose you make left-handed widgets. You are a major player in the market, but you do have competitors. You would like to both cement your role in the market while growing your share of the revenue. What do you do? Well, you could work on marketing, product development, basically making your case to the potential left-handed widget market.

Or you could get the feds involved.

You could use focused marketing, gamesmanship, or plain old cronyism to convince the feds to say, "We are going to address the shameful left-handed widget gap in this country by helping citizens purchase left-handed widgets from WidgetCorp." The feds aren't going to just buy the widgets direct from WidgetCorps and hand them out-- that would be socialism or corporate welfare or something Very Naughty to do with tax dollars. So instead the feds will launder the money through a grant program run by the states, and it won't be obvious that the federal government just handed WidgetCorps a giant windfall.

That's the cushy gig that's been set up for the College Board.

Tuesday, the Department of Education proudly announced its AP Test grant program. Forty states, DC and the Virgin Islands will be handing over $28.4 million to the College Board so that low-income students can take the AP test.

I will remind everyone, as I always do, that the College Board (home of the AP test and the SATs) is not a philanthropic organization, administering these tests as some sort of public service. They are a business, one of several similar ones, selling a product. This program is the equivalent of the feds saying, "Students really need to be able to drive a Ford to school, so we we're going to finance the purchase of Fords for some students."

What does the College Board get out of this program?

Huge product placement. David Coleman's College Board has been working hard to market the AP test as the go-to proof that a student is on the college path. Some states (PA is one) give extra points to school evaluation scores based on the number of AP courses offered. The new PSAT will become an AP-recommendation generator. This program is one more tap-tap-tap in the drumbeat that if you want to go to college, you must hit the AP. The program can also be directed toward IB tests or "other approved advanced placement tests," but it's the AP brand that is on the marquee.

The product placement represents a savvy marketing end run. The AP biz has previously depended on the kindness of colleges to push their product. But colleges and universities weren't really working all that hard to market the College Board's product for them. Now, with the help of state and federal governments and their own PSAT test, the College Board is marketing directly to parents and students, tapping into that same must-go-to-college gut-level terror that makes the SAT test the must-take test. 

$28.4 million.

What do low-income students get out of this?

A chance to take an AP test. Not, mind you, more resources to get ready for it, nor do they get help with actually going to a college after taking the test (which may or may not give them any help once they get in).

"These grants eliminate some of the financial roadblocks for low-income students taking Advanced Placement courses, letting them take tests with the potential of earning college credit while in high school," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

"Potential" is the key word. Check with your chosen college; benefits for getting a high score on an AP test may range from dollar savings all the way down to no benefit whatsoever. And note that the grant program doesn't foot the whole bill.

Here are some things the DOE did not announce.

Arne did not announce that the government of the United States of America went to a private corporation and said, "Look, we'll give your product a little boost here, but in return, you are going to give up 65% of your profit margin on your product." Damn, guys. If you come buy $28 million worth of widgets from me, I will give you a bulk discount. Do not try to tell me that the price of an AP test is set strictly by the cost of producing it and not by what the market will bear.

Arne did not announce that the federal government will be cutting low-income students the same kind of loan deals for college tuition that they cut the big banks. Want to eliminate a financial roadblock for low-income students looking at college? Lowering the interest rate on student and parent plus loans to, say, 2.5% would be a huge financial help.

In fact, if we go back to last year's stories about the money that the feds made from college loans, we find that this new program basically takes about 6% of the DOE's college loan profits and hands it over to the testing companies (at, apparently, retail prices, no less). In return, low-income students get to take a test that may or may not help them with college.

There are other imponderables here. California is getting almost a third ($10 million) of the total funds while Montana makes do with $4K.

Helping low income students get into college (and succeed there) is a noble and worthwhile goal. But if you had $28 million to spend to make that happen, I doubt that this is the program you'd come up with. On the other hand, if you were trying to find a way to pump up the College Board's AP business, this would be a dandy idea.


  1. Isn't it interesting that Arne announced this just as the College Board (once more) is under fire for changing the AP US History course. The Republican Party has just denounced this change and called for a Congressional investigation into CB. not that I'm holding my breath. Just wait until parents truly understand the changes to the SAT; the focus on AP Algebra rather than AP calc, and, I predict! the replacement of AP English literature and language courses with AP seminar and AP research. A high ranking NYSED official recently told a group of educators that he thought (wished, hoped, pined for?) the EngageNY ELA modules to replace AP literature. We live in interesting times.

  2. Peter, this AP nonsense go its start in, you guessed it, Texas, thanks to Bush II. Arne is actually late to this dance.

    “ 'Tom Luce showed remarkable foresight when he led the team that passed the most comprehensive public education bill in Texas history,' O’Donnell said. 'Tom founded Just for Kids to make data on school performance available to Texas parents and was a founding director of Advanced Placement Strategies, a Texas nonprofit program that is increasing the number of students — especially those in low-performing schools — who now pass AP exams in math, science and English.'
    Luce was chief of staff for the Texas Select Committee on Public Education, which produced one of the country’s first public school reform efforts in 1984. He was appointed assistant secretary of education by President George W. Bush in 2005 and will continue his work as chairman of the National Math and Science Initiative."

    I saw this “miracle” of the AP performed here in Boston. The Mass Math and Science Initiative set up shop in my school (89% of our students were minorities). We already had an outstanding track record of well-prepared kids diligently working their way toward scores of 4 and 5 in a host of AP classes. But the goal was not to have kids do well, the goal was simply to get more kids to take AP classes. Why?
    Well, although teachers had long taught AP courses successfully, no outsider consultants were involved. Suddenly, we were inundated with “verticle alignment” workshops, AP workbooks, CD’s, mandatory extra time for teacher AP training (including Saturdays) and cash payments to students taking the tests, as well as “merit pay” to AP teachers for high scores. In other words, what had been an in-house effort to take our most talented students a step forward toward distinguishing their academic records was co-opted to make bank for test fees, materials and consultants.
    In the same time period, the College Board began to require that AP teachers write up and submit an AP curriculum to them for approval (un-reimbursed, of course), and AP training courses began to be required of teachers so that they would be “qualified” to teach those “endorsed” classes. More “ca-ching” at the cash register.
    Remember that our faculty and students had a long track record of success in this arena. Under pressure from the school department, our numbers of students taking AP classes expanded exponentially, until nearly every student was enrolled in some AP class or another. So we met the goal of more kids, but of course our percentage of high scores fell off precipitously.
    It so happened that my own kids were applying for college during this time period. I noticed that though AP had been on the lips of admissions officers of “elite” schools four years earlier for my older child, now there was little interest. Every admissions person I asked about this at competitive liberal arts colleges had the same answer – that credential has been devalued.
    Follow the money.

  3. As a long time AP Chemistry teacher, I can attest to the value of an AP course. My students do, in fact, receive the equivalent of a first-year general chemistry course while they are in high school and many receive actual college credit. However, this is due to a few key factors that are unlikely to be present every time a kid takes a class with an AP label: (1) I am highly qualified to teach the course (2) My school has provided the tools needed to do the course well (3) The students come to me prepared well enough to survive the rigors of this class, and (4) I care about their real education, beyond the AP test. Naturally, increasing demand for AP classes will not duplicate these features of my classroom in many cases.