Rethinking AP exams

Austin Lee

With most of the U.S. beginning to enact strict social distancing orders due to COVID-19, the College Board announced in late March that it would administer all 2020 Advanced Placement exams online. Perhaps due to the rapid turnaround between the president’s lighthearted predictions and the shutdown of society, the first announcement seemed to surprise the College Board itself as much as it did students. The grid on the new website, created to inform potential test-takers about the exams’ contents, was full of asterisks denoting forthcoming information. With less than two months remaining before the exams would typically be administered, the College Board scrambled to provide a convincing reason as to why students should take the shortened tests that will cover only a portion of a full year’s material. Ultimately, the organization was never able to justify the exams, and students should carefully consider the glaring flaws present in the online testing system before signing up.

The Advanced Placement program began in the early 1950s as a way for high school students to show their “advanced placement”—mastery at the collegiate level—in certain academic subjects. Throughout the school year, students in AP classes learn a designated “college-level” curriculum created by the College Board. However, because many high school teachers’ schedules were thrown into disarray as schools switched to remote learning and a substantial amount of class time was lost, the College Board has significantly decreased the amount of material covered by the exams. For example, the AP United States History test, historically one of the most popular, will include only five of the nine typically tested units. Although the College Board website shows that some subjects cover nearly 85 percent of their usual units, several will include as little as two-thirds of the standard yearly material, and Latin will test only four of its eight units. Students cannot claim to have mastery of these subjects at the collegiate level based on the results of this year’s exams even if they score fives due to the fractional amounts of content covered and tested.

As if the shortened curricula were not enough to prove that these exams will not accurately measure students’ levels of familiarity with a full year’s material, all tests have been shortened to 45 minutes. This time limitation has forced the College Board to substantially decrease the number of questions on each exam; for example, the AP Biology Exam previously comprised 63 multiple-choice questions, six grid-in questions, two long free-response questions and six short free-response questions. In May, biology test-takers will answer just one long free-response question and one short free-response question. Because the tests are a fraction of their typical lengths, luck will likely play a considerable role in students’ results; if an AP biology student better understands “cell structure and function” than “gene expression and regulation,” for example, their score will depend heavily on which unit the test writers decide to include. Longer tests are usually better for the well-prepared, as a single mistake carries less weight. Extremely short tests, such as those being administered this year, will inaccurately reflect students’ levels of mastery.

Aside from studying, another method students may use this year to improve their test scores is cheating. Despite the elimination of multiple-choice questions and the College Board’s declaration that they will “use tools to detect plagiarism,” it will be impossible to prevent students from gaining unfair advantages. Having access to notes and the internet during an exam, even though permitted by the College Board, will be significantly beneficial to students. And, plagiarism detection software is neither foolproof nor entirely accurate. With hundreds of thousands of students answering the same questions, it is unlikely that the College Board will be able to accurately pinpoint plagiarism or unauthorized cooperation on the exams, provided that students vary their answers from published sources of information. The vague description of anti-cheating measures also suggests that the College Board is relying heavily on the threat of severe punishments for exam security violations to deter students from attempting to gain unfair advantages.

Because the tests will not be able to prove students’ proficiency in the various subjects this year, fewer colleges may give credit for this year’s exams. According to its website, the College Board states it is “confident that the vast majority of higher education institutions will award credit as they have in the past,” and they have “spoken with hundreds of institutions across the country who support our solution for this year’s AP Exams.” Yet according to a 2016 by Paul Weinstein Jr., a senior fellow and board member of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington D.C. and director of the Graduate Program in Public Management at Johns Hopkins University, 86 percent of the top 153 universities and colleges in the U.S., as ranked by U.S. News and World Report in 2016, restricted the awarding of AP credit that year, and that percentage has only increased since. The circumstances surrounding this year’s AP testing will likely cause many of the schools still doing so to stop. Therefore, students should carefully consider the many issues with the testing plans for this May before deciding whether or not to take the exams. The College Board’s determination to hold the tests comes across as a cash grab, an attempt to keep them relevant despite many schools’ eliminations of the classes from students’ curricula. Perhaps this year’s modified exams will function as a call to reexamine the Advanced Placement program in its entirety.