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State's low-income students get free AP exams

Beginning this month, the state of Oregon will pick up the entire tab for low-income high school students taking advanced placement exams and reduce the cost for others.

The funding will reduce the financial barrier for students who sometimes had to forego taking the tests, even though it could save them from paying for more expensive college credits later.

Most students have already registered and paid for this year's exams, which will be offered over the next two weeks. However, school bookkeepers have begun refunding the exam fees to public school students who qualify for free and reduced lunches and are providing a partial refund to all other students.

In 2013, the Oregon Legislature allocated a two-year, $2.6 million grant to the state Department of Education to provide additional support to students pursuing accelerated college opportunities, specifically, through AP and international baccalaureate programs. (There are no high schools south of Eugene that currently offer IB classes.)

Since 2002, the state has received a federal grant that partially offset the exam fees for low-income students. In April, the state learned that the grant — this year it's for $371,000 — would be available for another biennium, and ODE Educational Specialist Andrea Morgan got to work preparing the application, which is due Thursday.

"The federal government is offering the funding, which we didn't know we had at the beginning of April, and now the state is providing funding to go along with that," Morgan said.

The cost of the AP exam is $89, and many students are signed up for more than one exam. The federal dollars, combined with a College Board discount, reduced the cost of the test to $33 for low-income public and private school students. With the additional state funding, the test will be free for low-income public school students and $56 for other public school students.

"Until this year, it has been just the federal grant and just low-income students," said Morgan. "This is the first year we've been able to give all students some support."

"This is really going to level the playing field and allow access to students who have not accessed this opportunity before," she added. "We know (the federal test fee funding) has made a huge impact already because we have seen tremendous growth in the number of exams that have been funded."

In 2003, the federal test fee grant helped fund 423 AP and IB exams for low-income students in Oregon.

"This year, we figure we will fund 6,712 exams and, by 2015, we expect to fund 7,617," said Morgan.

The waiver was a welcome surprise to local high schools. Although it was too late for more students to register for this year's AP exams, the promise of free testing could lead more students to participate in the early-college credit opportunity next year, several educators said.

This May, 133 Ashland High School students are registered to take 176 AP exams, said Principal Michelle Zundel. Of those students, 15 will receive a full refund, which Zundel said the school will send out as soon as possible.

"It didn't increase the number of students taking the exam, but it was a welcome relief to families who had already paid," she said.

At North Medford High, 141 students are registered to take AP exams, with nearly 20 qualifying for the full refund. And at South Medford, 243 students are registered for the exams, with 55 qualifying for the full refund.

"With (students) knowing up front that it is free, I expect those numbers to go up ... for the regular students as well," said Michelle Dabbs, South's AP coordinator. "This year, we didn't know about the waiver until after we had ordered all the tests."

Twenty-one students, including seven low-income students, are taking the exams at Eagle Point High School and 118, including 75 low-income students, are signed up at Phoenix High School.

"We know there are a lot of students enrolled in AP classes who don't take the test," Morgan said. "Hopefully, with it being more affordable, more students will take the test and, hopefully, score high enough to earn college credit."

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.