Razor’s Edge: AP Courses Have Got to Go
Advanced Placement (AP) courses administered by the College Board have run since the 1950s, and allow students to place out of entry-level college courses if they score well enough on their final exam. As the pandemic changes education and the ways in which students and teachers cover material, the College Board has consistently failed in reevaluating course material and adapting the exams. It’s time for high schools and colleges to look away from APs and into alternatives.
AP courses are notoriously rigorous, moving at a fast pace and covering a wide range of content. Because they’re designed to teach at a “standard” college level, all AP courses must cover a set curriculum so that students are prepared to take their AP exams at year’s end. Scores on the AP range from 1-5, and colleges can elect to exempt students from entry-level college courses based on their exam score.
In 2020, the typical three-hour AP format wasn’t sustainable. The College Board pivoted to 45-minute, open-note exams to compensate for the classroom time lost with school closures. The educational system in 2021 has been just as, if not more, disrupted. High schools have been forced to pivot to virtual and hybrid learning models, and many adapted their schedules. Hopkins, specifically, lost one class per two-week cycle due to the pandemic. These changes forced teachers to adapt their typical lesson plans to fit in less time, and with a standard curriculum like that which the College Board requires for their Advanced Placement courses, teachers spent less time on each topic, disadvantaging their students.
The College Board offered two different options for the administration of their AP Exams in 2021, in order to ensure that students across the country would be able to safely take them, no matter the degree to which the pandemic affected their schooling. Digital exams allow students to take exams from home, using a lockdown browser developed by the College Board and with a few modifications to the exam format. Paper exams resemble typical APs, administered and proctored in-school.
In order to “preserve the integrity of the exam,” the College Board made several modifications for students taking digital exams. Most significantly, the software eliminates a common test-taking strategy: checking over work. Digital AP exams eliminated students’ ability to move back and forth between questions, forcing them to tackle every question in the order they’re presented. By forcing students to answer questions in this way, the College Board made it impossible to take the time to think and circle back to questions.
There are several issues at play here. Firstly, students taking exams at home are not monitored. The AP software uses anti-plagiarism software on student writing, but no camera or microphone monitoring is used. This allows students to essentially take the exams without the threat of being caught using their notes. Exams offered in-person had proctors as they normally would, preventing cheating. The AP’s employment of unequal levels of monitoring for the two groups of students taking tests of comparable difficulty does exactly what they claim they want to avoid, producing inaccurate scores.
As high schools adapted their curricula and schedules for the pandemic school year, so did colleges. College simply doesn’t look the same as it did pre-pandemic; many students weren’t given a choice as to whether or not they would learn virtually for part of the 2020-2021 school year and others faced shortened schedules and strict quarantine policies. The College Board, in their AP FAQ section, addresses the reasonable follow-up question: “With the disruption to teaching and learning due to the pandemic, why didn’t you shorten the exams or remove content coverage requirements?” Their answer? To paraphrase - colleges are expecting AP scores to line up with those from years prior, so AP exams need to cover the same content to keep up with colleges.
Last year, the majority of the school year for colleges and high schools was normal. Two to three months of their year was affected by the pandemic. This year, the entire school year has been impacted in every sense. The College Board is positioning their AP exams as if nothing has changed, when everything has. Seeing as colleges have had such abnormal years, why should high school students, who had equally less time in the classroom, be expected to cover the same amount of content as if the past school year has been like any other?
The College Board’s response to the pandemic with their Advanced Placement exams shows that it’s time for schools to reevaluate their participation in the program. A handful of top colleges no longer accept AP credit, and there are other ways to deliver more strenuous curriculum to students without AP designation. It’s time for schools to shift their focus to higher-level courses that are more exploratory, allowing students and teachers to design programs that fit the needs of their institutions and let students delve deeper into what interests them.