Is the College Board a NINO (Nonprofit in Name Only)?

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Laurence Gough /

October 13, 2012; Source: The Atlantic

Writing for The Atlantic, former teacher John T. Tierney takes on advanced placement (AP) courses, the purportedly college-equivalent high school courses that we all want our kids to take and ace. Ultimately, his concerns get to the question of whether the College Board, which most people know for its SAT and PSAT tests, is really operating as a nonprofit at all. Tierney, who is not to be confused with U.S. Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), calls AP courses “one of the great frauds currently perpetrated on American high-school students.”

Tierney ticks off a number of charges against AP courses:

  • They “are not…remotely equivalent to the college-level courses they are said to approximate;”
  • “Increasingly, students don’t receive college credit for high scores on AP courses…[but] simply are allowed to opt out of the introductory sequence in a major…[which] more and more students say…[is] a bad idea;”
  • “[I]ncreasing numbers of the students who take them are marginal at best, resulting in growing failure rates on the [AP] exams;”
  • “[L]arge percentages of minority students are essentially left out of the AP game…[and therefore] are at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to college admissions;”
  • To offer AP courses which often have smaller class sizes and better teachers, “schools have to increase the sizes of their non-AP classes, shift strong teachers away from non-AP classes, and do away with non-AP course offerings, such as ‘honors’ courses;” and
  • “[T]he most serious count against Advanced Placement courses is that the AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification—a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.”

According to Tierney, the College Board earns half of its revenues from AP courses. For the period from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011, according to its most recent available Form 990, the College Board had $720.65 million in revenues (96.5 percent of which were program service revenues) and expenses of $684.98 million, yielding what Tierney would describe as a “profit” of 9.9 percent (he says that the College Board’s “profit” in 2009 was 8.6 percent).

Tierney argues that the College Board may be a bit thin in its nonprofit DNA. He cites Americans for Educational Testing Reform’s (AETR) criticism of the College Board’s profit margin; the organization gives the College Board a “D” grade. AETR’s position is that the College Board and two other major testing organizations, ETS and ACT, should have their nonprofit status repealed. Among AETR’s complaints about the College Board? Political lobbying to “expand its monopoly,” its “massive profits,” and “exorbitant” salaries paid to executives. The latest numbers on the College Board show total compensation for Gaston Caperton, who was scheduled to step down as the organization’s president yesterday, at $1.45 million, well more than twice the compensation of the organization’s second-highest paid executive.

To Tierney, “It’s clear the College Board has the mentality of a voracious corporation.” It may be a voracious nonprofit corporation, but do its growth, profitability, and executive compensation levels really make it a for-profit?—Rick Cohen

  • Nikki

    I LOVE IT! You did’t even hit on access. There are a limited number of waivers, but tons of low-income students with parents who can’t afford the $50 a pop for those test. What about the fact that for whatever reason, minority students don’t fare as well as non-minority students, meaning they can take the test up to 10 times before high school graduation? The test is linked to college admissions. What about the “selective offerings” of AP course at high schools (especially rural ones where I live). Guidance counselors and teachers share this information with students that have “potential” for fear those numbers will interfere with AYP on annual report cards? Something surely needs to be done about these test. They are very biased, don’t take into consideration the various learning styles and learning curves (male vs. female, and geographical location, etc.). It should be gone as of yesterday. I never understood how anyone or group came up with those College Board exams as “the standard” on college readiness. It’s so unfair on so many levels. Thanks Rick.

  • Trevor Packer

    The Advanced Placement Program® invites AP® teachers and students to examine multiple sides of an issue — thinking critically, examining evidence, and then arguing with precision and accuracy — and this invitation extends to their views of the AP Program itself. Accordingly, AP evolves from year to year, thanks in no small part to insightful and incisive feedback from educators and youth.

    So when I read a recent blog post by John Tierney, I was disappointed that he hadn’t demonstrated the same critical thinking skills we see so effectively deployed by AP students, who recognize that hyperbole and overstatement should be used sparingly, that intellectually honest arguments must be grounded in evidence, and that complex issues require careful thinking.

    On behalf of the tens of thousands of AP teachers and students whose classroom experiences Mr. Tierney so unilaterally condemns, I’m writing to provide some evidence intended to describe a much more diverse set of AP experiences than Mr. Tierney allows.

    Mr. Tierney says AP courses don’t “hold a candle” to the college course he taught. I have no data about the quality of the course he taught, so can only compare AP courses to the introductory college courses at institutions like Duke, Stanford, University of California–Berkeley, University of Texas at Austin, and Yale, which are among dozens of institutions that each recently piloted AP Exam questions among its own students to confirm comparability of content, skills and rigor. In fact, 5,000 college professors from the nation’s leading colleges and universities participate annually in the review of every AP teacher’s course, the writing of each AP Exam question, and the scoring of the AP Exams. These professors consistently attest to the overall quality of AP teachers’ work and its comparability to the best outcomes of introductory college courses. These professors recognize that just as there is much variability among the thousands of instructors who teach introductory courses on college campuses, there is variability among AP teachers. And these professors express a wish that there were as much support for quality across the instructors of introductory college courses, many of whom are graduate students teaching their first courses, as there is for AP teachers, let alone a consistent external examination to serve as a reliable and valid measure of learning in such coursework.

    After castigating AP teachers, Mr. Tierney condemns AP students as well, claiming that “two thirds” of his own AP students did not belong in his course and “dragged down the course” for students who did “belong there.” Again, I will not claim visibility into his own experience with his own students, but I can say that nationally, there has been a great victory among educators who have believed that a more diverse population could indeed succeed in AP courses. In 2012, AP scores were higher than they’d been since 2004, when one million fewer students were being given access. These outcomes are a powerful testament to educators’ belief that many more students were indeed ready and waiting for the sort of rigor that would prepare them for what they would encounter in college.

    Despite educators having doubled the number of underrepresented minority students participating in AP over the past decade, we do share Mr. Tierney’s concern that “large percentages of minority students are essentially left out.” Our data show that among African American, Hispanic and Native American students with a high degree of readiness for AP, only about half of these students are participating, often because their schools do not yet offer the AP course. We call for continued commitment to expanding the availability of AP courses among prepared and motivated students of all backgrounds.

    This is not at all the same as claiming that all students, here and now, should be enrolled in AP courses. These are, indeed, college-level courses. The data show this irrefutably. But just as all American students are not yet prepared for college, all American students are not yet prepared for AP course work. We must be vigilant about fostering greater readiness for AP, and then we must care for students within AP courses by providing support, mentorship and encouragement.
    This also includes investments in addressing the balance of the breadth and depth required by AP courses. We engage professors and teachers regularly in the review of AP course content, and we find that in most AP subjects, AP teachers and students have significant flexibility to tailor the AP requirements to topics and issues of deep personal interest, while developing a rich understanding of the key concepts and skills in each discipline. But in science and history, two subject areas that, by their very nature, expand the amount of possible content with every passing day and new discovery, we have recognized a need to implement a significant redesign effort that frees teachers and students from the pressure to cover superficially all possible topics. This redesign has been embraced by higher and secondary education alike as the new “gold standard” in introductory college science and history curricula.

    Finally, Mr. Tierney’s financial claims are inaccurate. Contrary to Mr. Tierney’s statement, schools do not pay to offer AP courses. Instead, the not-for-profit College Board incurs the costs to register a school to offer AP courses and to authorize each locally developed AP syllabus, and we subsidize teacher professional development for schools unable to afford to send a teacher to one of the dozens of U.S. universities that train new AP teachers each summer. The AP Exams themselves are optional (80 percent of students opt to take them), and we cover all of our operating costs (developing, printing, shipping, scoring the exams) with the $89 exam fee, which is less than the cost of a typical college textbook, let alone the credit hours for that college course. For students unable to afford the $89 fee, the College Board partners with federal and state and local agencies to reduce the fee (historically to $0–5 per exam). After paying for our expenses with the exam fees, decisions about the use of any remaining funds are decided by our Board of Trustees, which is composed of educators from colleges, universities and secondary schools. Unlike a for-profit entity, where profits privately benefit investors, the College Board is obligated to reinvest remaining funds in educational programs, specifically because it is a not-for-profit organization. The College Board Trustees ensure these funds are used to improve educational opportunity and quality for a diversity of students. This year, they have approved the use of such funds to provide, for example, scholarships to teachers; increased subsidies to low-income students; creation of online score reports for AP students; and online learning supports for students.
    The AP Program is not a silver bullet. It is not a simple cure for all challenges we face within our education systems. But as educators use AP standards to help a diversity of students engage in rigorous work worth doing, I find myself inspired daily by what they are achieving.

    Trevor Packer
    Senior Vice President, Advanced Placement and SpringBoard Programs
    The College Board