Assessment Opinion

AP Exams Can’t Be Business as Usual This Year

The College Board’s collateral damage
By Pete Bavis — March 10, 2021 5 min read
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High school seniors are stressed. Their lives have been turned upside down from the pandemic. The process of applying to college, learning, and socializing have all changed. This is a year of disrupted routines. Students and teachers are grappling with new instructional models. Compounding this education challenge is COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on students from families with low incomes and for students who are Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other people of color.

In this turbulent time, there is a constant: In May, students across the country will sit for Advanced Placement exams. Those exams can feel like a golden ticket. The coveted 3, 4, or 5 score on an AP exam means earning college credit while in high school. These exams are a rite of passage for many high school students and a path to academic upward mobility for others.

Success on AP exams can mean shaving off a semester or two of pricey college tuition. The College Board knows this and markets the AP exam as a game-changer for students, particularly students of color. And their marketing has worked: Last school year, 2.6 million students from 22,152 secondary schools took more than 4.7 million AP exams during the pandemic. Each AP exam was $94. The total adds up to nearly half a billion dollars.

In addition to exams, AP courses go through a strict audit process so that, as the College Board explains, “admissions officers and college faculty can be assured of the rigor of the courses that carry the AP label on student transcripts.” There are no federal regulations or oversight: The College Board determines which students earn AP credit, and those AP credits have a positive impact on those students’ transition to college.

I know AP well. I serve as the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in a diverse suburban school district just north of Chicago. Over the years, I have been a vocal advocate for Advanced Placement exams. I’ve written about the importance of an inclusive AP program. In fact, my district has gained national prominence by increasing access and success in AP courses for students of color. I know that taking AP courses can change a student’s academic trajectory. We have dedicated teachers and hard-working students. But this year, we have hard-working and stressed-out teachers and students.

Last year, I was apprehensive when the College Board announced that it would provide 45-minute remote, online AP exams to students during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was remarkable that with no experience in online assessment, the College Board was making this commitment. However, I held out hope that the College Board could deliver a positive standardized-test experience to students. I was wrong. I received many calls from frustrated parents. Students were unable to upload responses. One hopes that the College Board will be able to resolve the widespread technical difficulties that negatively impacted students and improve test security so that this year online testing will go smoother for those students who cannot test in person.

Despite the problems of the past year, high schools are not being afforded flexibility for Advanced Placement exams this spring. According to the College Board, “Looking ahead to May 2021, AP Exams will cover the full course scope and content because colleges expect it.”

The message from the College Board is clear: Push through no matter the collateral damage.

"The College Board’s insistence that this school year is normal has transformed the AP exam from an instrument of upward academic mobility to one of our students’ greatest mental-health risks."

Pandemic education is not business as usual. Pretending otherwise damages the health and well-being of students and teachers. In the end, I’m left to wonder if, this year, in particular, AP exams will assess privilege rather than academic attainment.

Stop and consider that only 21 percent of students nationwide live in districts that started the school year fully in person, and many of those districts have had to toggle between remote and in-person instruction. From a racial-equity perspective, two-thirds of students of color live in school districts that started the school year fully remotely. Compounding this challenge is that many students have insufficient or no access to the internet.

As I write this, more than half a million Americans have died of COVID-19.

Yet, the College Board’s insistence that this school year is normal has transformed the AP exam from an instrument of upward academic mobility to one of our students’ greatest mental-health risks and will negatively impact many of their transitions to college. There is more than a score at stake this year.

In a perfect world, in this imperfect time, the College Board would award credit based on the grades earned in AP classes, not on the end-of-course exams. The College Board credentials AP courses through a strict audit process. It follows that the College Board should trust the grades earned in those courses. Dual-credit programs throughout the country seem to have figured this out already, but they don’t make half a billion dollars for their nonprofit.

However, we do not live in a perfect world. Instead, let’s at the very least acknowledge it is essential that the content of AP tests appropriately represent what is taught during the pandemic. This is a pillar of good assessment practice. That’s why it is essential to reduce the content covered on AP exams in the spring. While this is not a perfect solution, it will relieve some stress and is more responsive to the day-to-day uncertainties of schools across this country. In fact, it’s what the College Board did in spring 2020. It is far superior to revised pacing guides and videos designed to deliver 75 percent of course content between now and May. It’s just not an equitable solution given that a Pew Research study found that 40 percent of low-income parents reported that their children did not have reliable internet access at home.

One voice is not enough. In fact, in defending business as usual during the pandemic, the College Board says that it has surveyed AP teachers, and “the majority urged us to stick with the full exam.” Based on my conversations with AP teachers, that doesn’t sit right. If it doesn’t sit right with you, then make your voice heard; share your perspective with the College Board and the broader community.

Together we can work toward a change that preserves the promise of a golden ticket based on what students can do, not on the privilege they hold.

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as AP Exams Can’t Be Business as Usual This Year


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