Future Tense

Cost Shouldn’t Keep Students From Taking AP Exams

One possible solution? Online textbooks.

By identifying cost-savings in other parts of their budgets, states might be able to find the funds needed so all students can afford to take AP exams.


This summer, news headlines have trumpeted new data showing the rapid increase of students taking Advanced Placement computer science courses. During the 2016–17 school year, more than 111,000 students took the class, up from more than 54,000 during the 2015–16 school year. Even better, unprecedented numbers of young women and students of color are taking the end-of-year exams. And it’s not just computer science—across the board, AP STEM course enrollment has been growing.

At the same time, the cost of these tests have increased for many students. In the past, low-income students received subsidies from the federal government that covered the majority of their AP test fees, now set at $93 per exam for students. But beginning in 2017, the Every Student Succeeds Act cut those funds. Some states have made up the difference, but others have not been able to find the additional dollars to ensure all students can afford to take their tests. While the College Board continues to reimburse about one-third of the test cost for eligible low-income students, only about half of states are now offering any further financial assistance for students.

But there may be a fix here. By identifying cost-savings in other parts of the AP budget, states might be able to find the funds needed so all students can afford to take the end-of-year exam, giving them the opportunity to earn college credit for their work. The state of Texas has set aside funds to support students for this upcoming school year—qualifying students will pay just $7 per exam—but the state may have identified a more long-term solution: rethinking how—and how much—it pays for textbooks.

In order to offer an AP course, states and districts must budget for a couple of primary costs. First, teachers are required to attend one of the College Board’s AP Summer Institutes in order to teach an AP course, with prices set between $400–$1,400 per teacher. Then there are the costs associated with textbooks, materials, and equipment—often the largest expense for STEM courses. On the high end, these resources can easily add up to more than $300 per student for courses such as physics, biology, chemistry, and environmental science.

To address these costs, in 2015 the Texas Legislature appropriated $10 million in its budget to develop educational resources that would be available, free of charge, to the more than 1,000 school districts in the state. Using half of the funds, the Texas Education Agency contracted with OpenStax, a nonprofit based at Rice University, to write textbooks for several popular high school STEM courses. OpenStax agreed to develop textbooks for high school physics and statistics, as well as textbooks for five AP courses: microeconomics,  macroeconomics, Physics 1, Physics 2, and biology.

OpenStax has already gained popularity with college students (and professors) for its open textbooks. Unlike traditional textbooks, open textbooks are freely available online for students to download, edit, and share. OpenStax has developed more than 20 peer-reviewed open textbooks for introductory college courses, including astronomy, algebra, and American government. According to OpenStax, hundreds of thousands of college students, both in Texas and around the country, have saved millions by downloading and using their books.

Now, high school students will have the same chance. This month, TEA will be releasing the OpenStax-created high school textbooks via Texas Gateway, the state’s online educational resource repository. (Promotional drafts are already available for some resources on the state education website.) Daniel Williamson, managing director at OpenStax, said that the funding from Texas allowed them to create innovative new materials for the seven courses. “There will be a ton of extra resources that the state contracted that are only available through Texas Gateway,” he told me.

While $5 million was a large up-front investment, purchasing textbooks for every student can be much more expensive. In 2016, nearly 20,000 Texas students took AP biology—with an estimated $132 per textbook, the cost of biology textbooks alone for these students would total more than $2.5 million. (These figures are based on College Board cost estimates.) More than 86,000 Texas students took one of the five AP courses now covered by OpenStax’ materials, which would require more than $8.1 million in traditional textbooks. Nationally, more than 650,000 students took an AP course in those five subject areas, requiring more than $65 million for textbooks.

Rather than updating old materials by purchasing new textbooks from traditional publishers, districts now have the option to adopt these materials free of charge—either replacing outdated materials or supplementing current resources. And as student enrollment continues to grow in these courses, the textbook savings will continue to grow as well.

Texas has provided a clear signal to teachers that these materials are high quality, certifying that the OpenStax materials meet 100 percent of its academic standards. OpenStax AP textbooks also meet the academic standards set by the College Board, the nonprofit organization that created the AP program. The College Board maintains a list of textbooks that meet the curricular requirements for its courses, and the OpenStax textbooks are now included on these lists. Unlike Texas academic standards, the curricular requirements for AP courses are the same across the country—which means that OpenStax AP textbooks could easily be adopted anywhere in the United States.

During the most recent legislative session the Texas Legislature appropriated another $20 million to create additional resources for students and teachers. According to Jennifer Bergland, director of governmental relations at the Texas Computer Education Association, those funds will primarily be spent on resources for English language arts, since that’s what most schools will be looking to replace for the 2019–20 school year.

The legislature has also signaled an interest in continuing to create materials for other high-enrollment high school STEM subjects. OpenStax, for one, is interested in expanding its offerings for AP coursework—and has considered tackling an interactive curriculum for AP computer science. Williamson also said that by tackling courses like Algebra I and Algebra II, which enroll hundreds of thousands of students each year, the funds could have a significant impact. “If you think about cost savings for the state, as well as the opportunities for introduction of new and innovative content, these areas are ripe for improvement,” he said.

Which brings us back to the high cost of AP tests. By rethinking how it pays for textbooks, Texas has highlighted an innovative strategy for saving money while providing more equitable access to educational materials. If textbook savings are reallocated to subsidize these fees for low-income students, states could expand access to AP coursework and exams.

And as young women and students of color increasingly see themselves as scientists, programmers, engineers, and mathematicians, they will also be able to clearly see what they need to learn in order to get there—simply by going online.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.