Starting this fall, the Bethel school district will cover the full cost of Advanced Placement exams for every student — with no cap on how many AP courses each student can take.

The school district, located just south of Tacoma, already pays for only one roughly $100 test per student. And the state also subsidizes the cost for low-income students who can’t afford to pay for the tests, which could earn them college credit if they achieve high enough scores.

More than half of the students attending Bethel schools come from low-income families, but even if they qualify for the state program, many don’t complete the paperwork to take advantage of it, said Jennifer Bethman, assistant superintendent of secondary schools. And in middle-income households, she added, families may still struggle to spare hundreds of dollars if their high schoolers want to take multiple AP courses.

“We have a large population (of students) who can’t afford to pay for all of their AP classes, so this is to try and level the playing field,” Bethman said.

“If we take away that barrier, we hope that more students are ready to take the challenge,” she added. She expects the AP expansion to cost her district less than $40,000.

It’s possible similar policies may spread across Washington as a new law soon will require every school district to automatically enroll students in advanced courses if they perform well on state tests.

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Across the country, more than 2.8 million students took an AP test last year. The exams, graded on a point scale of 1 to 5, can help students save money on tuition in college, as many universities grant automatic credit for a passing grade of 3 or higher — which means they would need to take fewer courses in college to graduate.

The number of AP exams taken each year has grown about 78% over the past decade, according to the College Board, the organization that develops and administers the tests.

How much does that growth help students? It’s hard to say. As Chalkbeat reported last year, research remains murky on whether students who enroll in the advanced courses actually benefit from them.

“There’s definitely no consensus there,” said Suneal Kolluri of the University of Southern California.

Last year, Kolluri authored a review of the existing research on the AP program and whether its rapid expansion comes at the cost of its intended goal to prepare students for college. He said it’s unclear whether the college-level courses boost student performance after high school or if the classes mostly attract students already on the path to success.

“That’s always really hard to tease out,” Kolluri, a former high school teacher, said.

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“If you take an AP class, you’re going to do better in college, but when you control for all these other things,” such as grade-point averages and scores on college-entrance exams, he added, “kids who take AP classes don’t get that big a boost at all.”

In a paper released this year, Kolluri did find two high schools in the same low-income neighborhood that both expanded access to their AP offerings and increased student scores on the exams. One school, he said, revised the curriculum to better reflect the cultural backgrounds of its students, adding relevancy between the coursework and their lives at home.

In Bethel, the district plans to send all of its AP teachers to a national training over summer break. It also will start covering the cost of college-entrance exams that every junior in high school will be required to take as of this fall.

“Again, it’s about equitable access,” Bethman said. “Our kids are not necessarily taking the (ACT or SAT) exams and then they aren’t prepared for that next step to go into college.”

Even if students don’t plan to enroll in college, she added, taking those tests in the 11th grade will help educators gauge how prepared they are for life after high school and how best to spend their final year with the district.