An open notebook sits on a table.

College Board Struggles to Provide Fair Online AP Testing for Students

  • March 18, 2021
[Photo: Creative Commons] Reviewing notes in preparation for an exam.

A nationwide student-run organization emerged on social media earlier this month, calling out the College Board’s alleged mistreatment of students and unfair testing system.  The organization, named Youth Against College Board, was founded by high school junior Riya Sharma based in Seattle, Washington.  I reached out to the group via their Instagram platform, and Sharma gave me some more insight into her dissatisfaction with the College Board.

Sharma recounted scanning through the College Board’s digital testing policies after receiving them in an email from her school.  She first found that students would not be permitted to return to previous questions on the exam once making a selection.

“[This] immediately frustrated me,” Sharma said.  “It’s a basic test strategy to prioritize your questions based on the content you know, and how to check your work.”

Another policy to be implemented this year will not allow students to submit images or PDF scans of their scratch paper.  Instead, all work must be inputted digitally.  Students taking AP math exams may find it difficult to enter integrals and equations into the system efficiently.

“It is evidently going to take much longer than a written test,” Sharma said, referencing her upcoming AP calculus test.  “The fact that they aren’t giving us more time than usual to take the test, despite all these barriers, was the tipping point for me.”

Additionally, classes following online curriculums have covered significantly less material than is covered in a typical year.  With limited class time, many teachers have been forced to reduce daily lesson content, so students are ultimately at a disadvantage in comparison to previous years.  The College Board has yet to acknowledge these shortcomings.

Sharma collaborated with several classmates to make a change for AP test-takers worldwide.  “We decided that students deserve better than [being tested on] a full year’s worth of content when many of us have only met about 70% [of it], despite having been in online school all year,” she explained.

They created a petition that garnered nearly 7,000 signatures to date, demanding that the College Board “cancel the current digital exam policy of being unable to return to previous questions” and make more accommodations for virtual testing, among other requests.

Reaching over 25,000 people nationally, Youth Against College Board has influenced thousands of students to voice their frustrations with the College Board and call for a fairer testing system.

For one, purchasing a single AP test costs upward of $100, which poses issues for low-income AP students and their families.  “They continue to profit off a complete disregard of students and their health,” a statement from Youth Against College Board declared.

Mrs. Moore, LCHS’s teacher of AP English Literature and Composition, pointed out that the tests are expensive because they serve as a substitute for college classes.  

“I do understand how it can be frustrating for students, though, not knowing whether the college they will attend would accept the test as a replacement,” she said.  She also mentioned that fee reductions are in place for low-income students who are unable to afford the tests.

“There is a lot of peer pressure for students to take AP classes for college [applications], and that can become a burden,” said assistant principal Mr. Ito, who has been managing communication between the school and the College Board.  The burden is financial as well as emotional, and with the introduction of COVID-19, it has become physical as well.

“Taking a long and difficult written test after not having left the house in a year is going to be hard for a lot of us, I think.  Being in an itchy mask for so long won’t help our focus, either,” said one anonymous student.

Another student stated, “I wasn’t planning on taking [the exam] in person because I don’t feel safe or comfortable with it.  But I found out the other day that I won’t be allowed to take the essay portion of my test unless I go in person.”

The student is referencing a new policy for the AP European history exam which will prohibit online test-takers from writing the graded essay.  It will be replaced by two short-answer questions, while students taking the in-person test will still write the essay.

“[Our class] spent the year preparing for that essay,” the student continued.  “I know I won’t perform as well overall without it, so I think I’m going to go in.  I don’t want to fail such an important test, you know?

“I never thought that choosing between my safety and academic performance would be a choice I’d have to make here.”

As a student taking AP European history myself, many of my classmates and I are faced with the same decision.  Mr. Lively, who teaches the class, stated that he is “very dissatisfied” with the policy as well.

“To deliver examinations with different formats in the same subject is against all standards of fairness and objectivity,” he said.  He explained that while the essay “has a well-defined six-point skill-based rubric,” its online replacement, the short-answer questions, “are simply graded on the accuracy and sufficiency of the content provided.”  This makes the two versions of the test “very different” in nature, which deviates from the basis of standardized testing.

While most of the students I spoke to seemed most concerned about in-person testing, the majority of teachers I interviewed seem to have a different perspective.  “What I’m worried about is whether kids will do as well on the online test [as they would in person],” said Mr. Powers, teacher of AP English Language.  “Nobody really knows how it’s going to work.”

Mrs. Moore voiced concerns of her own, saying, “I think the effects of virtual testing vary for different subjects.  For instance, “in Spanish, poor connection might affect orals, and in English […], annotations can be hard to do on a computer.”

To the idea of standardized testing in general, AP chemistry teacher Mr. Geckle said, “They don’t necessarily offer a whole lot of value, but they do offer a lot of stress.”  Standardized testing “doesn’t really test a student’s ability. […] I think there are considerably more negatives than positives.”

Sometime over the next few months, AP students worldwide will enter what may feel like a Catch-22 situation.  It’s difficult to make decisions when health is at risk, but at the same time, we will have to start returning to pre-COVID life eventually.

For some students, the choice is easy.  “I’m much more comfortable and less stressed at home,” said Max Ratcliff.  “The mask makes it hard to concentrate because I’m not used to wearing it while doing school work […] and my glasses fog up.  Also, my handwriting is really [messy].”

“I don’t recheck my answers when I’m doing multiple choice – usually I have no time – so that’s why the online test is okay for me,” agreed another student, Kayla Perez.

On the other end of the spectrum, sophomore Chia Matuska said, “I plan on taking the test in person because I’d like to have the ability to return to questions I’m unsure about. […] I think the in-person testing environment is also much more conducive to better results in my case, just due to the minimized distractions, not having to worry about my (terrible) WiFi, and returning to the method of test-taking I am most used to […], given my experience with it.”

For students still on the fence, Mr. Lively suggests “to determine whether they prefer to handwrite or type their answers. Since the majority of the examination will require written responses of some kind, it is vital that students feel comfortable with the manner in which they construct their responses as it would likely increase their efficiency.”

“I think students are in a tough situation,” said Mr. Ito, “but I believe La Cañada is prepared.”

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