College Board loses AP tests

Chronicle Staff


Sixteen students received letters this summer informing them that part or all of their Advanced Placement French Language exams had been misplaced.

The letters, sent on Aug. 8 by the Educational Testing Service, which processes and grades the AP exams for the College Board, informed students that they “were unable to locate” certain portions of the test. Not all students’ tests had the same sections missing; some were told their entire multiple choice or free-response section was missing, while others learned their entire test had been lost.

The Washington Post reported that hundreds of students across the country, along with students in Canada and Israel, received similar letters.

In recent years, the College Board has “outsourced” its scoring work to ETS and rival companies such as Pearson Education, which scores the SAT. Pearson received criticism from the educational community this past year for errors in scoring due to damp answer sheets.

This “options letter,” as referred to by ETS staff, outlined students’ choices as to how to proceed. All students were given the option to either retake the missing portion of the exam free of charge or cancel their test. In the case where part of an exam was found, the student was given the option to accept a “projected grade.”

A statement from ETS said that an “AP grade can sometimes be reasonably projected from a student’s scores on the remaining portion of the exam.” The statement added that grades are only projected in situations where the found portion counts for at least 50 percent of the total score and a correlation has been proven to exist between the multiple choice and free-response sections of the exam.

According to the College Board-issued course description for AP French Language, the multiple choice section counts for only 40 percent of the exam whereas the written section counts for 60 percent.

The letter also said that in the case where students elect to either cancel or accept a partial score, the final AP score report is to reflect that that particular test had a “portion lost.”

ETS representative Robin Benedetti estimated that less than one-half percent of the more than two million AP exams taken this year, or 1,000 tests, had some portion missing.
The Washington Post article quoted another ETS representative saying the number was “in the hundreds, not thousands.”

Benedetti couldn’t provide a reason for the missing tests but said it wasn’t an issue with Harvard-Westlake’s administration.

According to the College Board’s website, all of the tests arrive at a single warehouse at the company’s headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey.

“If I knew where they were, I’d make sure we’d find them,” Benedetti said.

When asked about the chances of the exams being recovered, Benedetti remarked, “Anything’s possible.”

Dean Coordinator Jordan Church organized the AP examinations last May, stepping in with little notice to fill the position former Performing Arts Deptartment chair Dan Fishbach left vacant after his mid-second semester departure.

Church received word in mid-July that there might have been some problem with the AP French Language tests.

“One day we got a call saying there was a problem with one test,” he said. “Then a few days later, it was five. By the end of the week, they were telling us there were problems with 16 out of the 22 French Language exams.”

Church and Head of Upper School Harry Salamandra spoke with high level officials at the College Board to trace the roots of the problem.

The official explained that there is always a 2 percent margin of error in the scoring of AP exams.

“For a normal for-profit company,” explained Dean Sharon Cuseo, “that might have been all right. But [the College Board] is making tests.

“We would have liked to have seen better customer service. It’s just so frustrating because they’ve given us so few options.”

According to College Board policy, schools are not allowed to make copies of any portion of students’ tests. Cuseo said there is little the school can do to ensure the College Board processes exams correctly.

Before tests arrive at College Board headquarters, they are counted three times by two different coordinators to minimize error, Church said. “We got tracking numbers and received confirmations that the tests had arrived.

“In fact, those French tests were sent in the same boxes with the English Language exams, which had no problems at all, so we know they got there.”

Pat Goldsmith, dean of admission at Scripps College in Claremont, expressed her frustration with the situation.

“None of us have been in this situation before,” she said. “The whole process has been polluted.”

Goldsmith commented that while AP scores aren’t supposed to be used in a predictive manner, they do play a role in the admissions process.

“Any highly selective school has to take every piece of information into account,” she said. “You can’t help but see [AP scores].”

“From an admissions standpoint, this really isn’t the end of the world,” Cuseo said. “AP exams are meant for placement purposes, not assessment.”

AP transcripts are not mailed directly to the schools to which a student is applying. At the student’s request, they can be added to his or her transcript, Dean Beth Slattery said.

AP grades, especially from language tests, are used at the college level for placement and, increasingly less, for credit.

Goldsmith pointed out that most colleges allow some placement into language classes from SAT Subject Test scores.

Last year 580 upper school students took roughly 1,900 AP exams, at a cost totaling upwards of $190,000, Church said.

The College Board is registered as a 501(c) not-for-profit corporation according to the company’s tax records.

“Our main concern,” Church said, “is what will prevent this from happening in the future. This could happen again.”