Testing Monopolies, AP Curriculum Power & Education Inequality: A Deep Dive Into the CollegeBoard


A sample of 3 AP and SAT prep books – which combined, cost almost $80 – acts as a symbol for the high cost of succeeding in both standardized tests and college admissions.

Elisha V

“The College Board’s mission is to connect students to college success and opportunity. We are a not-for-profit membership organization committed to excellence and equity in education.”


This is the CollegeBoard’s mission statement, the organization that administers the SAT and AP exams. Standardized tests are important metrics in the college admissions process, and thus, students feel obliged to take them and will pay whatever it takes – and whatever they can afford – in order to perform well. When the price of both the tests – AP tests cost $93 each, the SAT costs $49.50, and SAT subject tests cost about $48 each – and the price of textbooks, prep courses, and private tutors are so unreasonably high, maybe it’s time to consider whether CollegeBoard lives up to its mission statement, or just exacerbates income disparities in the college admissions system.


The CollegeBoard is listed as a non-profit, meaning they are exempt from federal income tax. As a result, most of the revenue they generate, which is approximately $1 billion annually, goes straight into the pockets of CollegeBoard’s CEO and executives, who earn about $1 million and $300,000 – $500,000 annually, respectively. If CollegeBoard really claims to be committed to “equity in education”, then they should live up to their non-profit vision by putting their profit margins back into improving the equity in the education system. They could do this, for example, by expanding the eligibility requirements for fee waivers, lower the testing fees, or just scrap the fees altogether. 


Molly Porcher, the WESS College and Careers Counsellor, pointed out that “[CollegeBoard] does give fee waivers for students who get free and reduced lunch, but if you don’t get fee waivers you also have to pay to send your [SAT] scores to colleges”, which costs $12 for each college you apply to. There are many additional costs in the admissions process which most students aren’t aware of until they see the bills accumulate, many of which CollegeBoard run, such as the CSS financial aid form. 


“You don’t necessarily have the option to not take the SAT if you’re applying for college,” Molly said, which makes it seem even more ridiculous that CollegeBoard charges for a test which was initially created to enable anyone to easily apply to college. But now, the costs of doing well make the college admission process (and the higher education system at large), feel elitist and inaccessible to lower-income families. 


Test Prep

Importantly, Molly noted that standardized tests are not an accurate measure of a student’s true intelligence and capacities, but “they are instead a barometer of your ability to prepare: that you spent time studying, that you have the resources of support to help you study. That’s why there is a whole system of books, prep classes, and tutors that will all help you prepare for these exams because it’s proven that if you have these resources, they will help you get a better score.”


Princeton Review, Barrons, Kaplan, Mcgraw Hill: these are just a few of the most popular and profitable textbook companies which capitalise on the standardized testing system and students’ desires to achieve success. While it may seem like they are helping students by providing study resources, their unreasonably expensive textbooks only make it harder for students who can’t afford these resources to achieve success. 


With that being said, CollegeBoard has actually taken a step in the altruistic direction by partnering with Khan Academy to provide a free SAT practice website


Does CollegeBoard have a monopoly? 

While many claim that CollegeBoard has a monopoly on the standardized testing industry, they are in tight competition with the ACT, with both companies vying to get the most students signed up for their version of the admissions test. Markets-share competition would typically cause the prices to reduce, but instead, the prices of both tests have continued to increase slightly every year.


“I wouldn’t go as far to say that CollegeBoard is definitely a monopoly, but clearly they have a lot of power, and the decisions they make [about test pricing] affect a lot of students,” Molly said. “So I think it’s important to be thoughtful about how you use that power when you do control the fates and anxieties of so many students.”


AP Courses and Exams 

The CollegeBoard also runs the AP program. AP’s are valued in the admissions process to the point where roughly 7-12 exam scores are expected if you want any shot at getting into top, selective schools. 


Luckily for WESS students and students all across NYC, the AP For All initiative provides us with AP opportunities and covers all fees for our AP tests. But this initiative is only one unique partnership between the NYCDOE and CollegeBoard, and with other schools across the country, families do have to pay the $93 for each AP test. 


The price is not the only issue surrounding the AP program: some educators argue that the widespread participation in AP courses means that CollegeBoard has immense power over what is being taught in classrooms.


In 2014, CollegeBoard began rolling out in-depth Course and Exam Description documents (CED) for each AP course, replacing the previous 5-page frameworks which loosely guided AP teachers on what to include in their lessons. The CEDs equip AP teachers with specific content that will appear on the exam, organised into convenient units and subunits which they can utilise in planning their lessons and semester timings. 


Since AP courses and exam participation is increasing every year, more and more students across the country are following the same subject-specific curricula set by the AP program. Critics say that these 300 page long CED’s turn the CollegeBoard into a de-facto national school board. This in turn could mean that AP teachers are forced to impose any CollegeBoard biases present in the CED’s. However, the non-partisan nature of CollegeBoard, as well as their recent efforts to make history courses more truthful, make the concern of biassed teaching seem unlikely to play out in reality. 


In my opinion, detailed CED’s only benefit students and teachers. They eliminate any ambiguities in what needs to be taught and learnt, and even if some teachers don’t strictly follow the CED, students can independently access it and determine exactly what they should study for the exam. 


With that being said, the main issue I see around AP tests is the variations in AP offerings from school to schools: some students may have opportunities to take numerous courses, while others may not have access to any AP courses at all, thus lowering their merit in college applications.



“Coronavirus has challenged a lot of these assumptions [about the importance of standardized tests], and will change people’s relationships to [standardized] tests”, Molly said. ”I think we’ll see a lot of schools going test-optional permanently, and I’m interested to see what happens to CollegeBoard [and the power that they hold] because of that.”


Even though SAT/ACT testing is becoming less valued in college applications, in large part due to the pandemic, richer students still have profound advantages in getting into more reputable institutions: their parents can afford extracurricular activities, pre-college summer schemes, private schools which often have more AP offerings, and private tutoring, all of which bolster college applications to make students appear more ‘well-rounded’. 


Price is the biggest blockade for low-income students to partake in extracurriculars, but time also plays a part. Many high school students have to work part-time jobs to help support their families, leaving scarce time for schoolwork, extracurriculars, and developing strong college essays. The unfortunate reality is that even if SAT and AP test prices were erased, income disparities would persist and continue to impact the college and career road for students all over the world. 


College is already daunting enough when sticker price tuition can be upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. But the price of taking several AP tests, several SAT/ACT attempts, and the actual application submissions themselves (which cost around $60 per college applied to), makes access to higher education feel like something reserved only for families with ample disposable income. Standardized tests are just one facet of the complex system of how class affects education and employment prospects, and hopefully, CollegeBoard will soon take steps to help combat this system of educational inequalities. Although many students and families don’t bat an eyelid when they have to pay for testing and applications, it can place an extreme financial burden on others, and it’s important that WESS 11th graders recognise this as we start to embark on the college admissions journey.