College credit from the couch

June 3, 2020, 9:12 p.m. | By Abby Brier | 4 years, 1 month ago

Shortened virtual AP exams do not allow students to demonstrate subject mastery

Many students looking for academic challenge or to lift the impending weight of student loans value the opportunity to earn college credit in high school. Advanced Placement (AP) exams began in the 1950s as a way for students to take college-level classes while attending high school. Currently, they serve as a means to skip introductory college courses in favor of those more specific to one's interest.

This year, students not only took AP exams from the comfort of home, but in a fraction of the previous three hour time limit. These limitations extend to restrict the number and type of questions on the test, and even the content covered. While the College Board, the for-profit “non-profit” that has monopolized the standardized testing industry, would like to believe that their blissfully shortened 45-minute AP tests will be enough to demonstrate students’ mastery of a subject, this is simply not the case.

Each AP exam consisted of one or two free-response questions, administered with multiple measures to detect plagiarism. But one question cannot adequately assess the many skills that students have learned throughout the entire course of the year.

For AP English Language and Composition, for example, students spent the entire year preparing for three essay prompts and approximately 55 multiple-choice questions. Now their exam has been shortened to one of those three essays, previously the one that students most commonly skipped. It is reasonable that the College Board has selected the most commonly skipped prompt because students should be able to demonstrate proficiency in all of the essay questions; however, the previous exam gave students the flexibility to prioritize different writing styles and thus provided a more comprehensive overview of individual students' capabilities.

These exams are also problematic because the College Board promised not to include several units for most classes. The reason for shortening the material on tests was to account for the fact that students would mostly be on their own to self-study the remaining material under extremely unfamiliar circumstances.

However, missing units on the exams allude to an even bigger problem with the possibility of granting college credit to current AP class-takers. The US Government and Politics exam only included information from units one through three of a five-unit curriculum. Colleges should not blindly accept that students have an understanding of the inner workings of their own political system based on a course that was only halfway taught and tested.

The reason colleges offer credit for AP classes is so students can receive credit for or test out of introductory courses. Then, by the time these students enter college, they can partake in a higher level course load.. In this way, colleges help students stay engaged in their education by exempting them from re-learning subjects they already understand. But introductory courses build the foundation for further knowledge, and without a strong foundation, there's not much building that can happen. By losing three months of essential learning, students are missing out on a strong basis necessary for their future college courses.

Further, students who took AP courses in high school and took the corresponding introductory course in college find the experience different from high school, often more engaging. Chaminda Hangilipola, a former Blazer who graduated in 2018, retook English Literature and Composition as a freshman in college and not only enjoyed the class more, but also performed better because of the more welcoming classroom environment. “I didn't talk at all in that class [in high school], because I was afraid I might get laughed at,” he said, “whereas in college, I was one of the main people who answered questions or talked.”

While college classes are not necessarily better than high school APs, they do entice tuition-paying students to make the most of their classroom environment. With different class sizes and teaching methods, college provides a different way to learn material covered by many AP courses that is sometimes engaging in new ways.

These concerns regarding the validity of this year’s exams and coursework are exacerbated by a much larger problem with online exams: cheating. With an entire realm of electronics at their disposal, from phones to tablets to computers and beyond, students had endless opportunities for collaborating test questions throughout the exam.

The College Board claims that though the tests are open note, no points will be earned from content that can be found online or in textbooks, but this is specifically the content that students are supposed to know after taking an AP course. The College Board also will be monitoring social media and potentially spreading misleading information about the test to deter cheating. These two methods for minimizing cheating are far from adequate, especially considering the inability to monitor student calls and collaboration throughout the test.

In addition, the College Board plans to send free-response answers to students’ AP teachers to verify academic integrity, depending on how familiar the teacher is with each of their hundreds of students’ writing. But not only is this an unreliable method, especially for those who have a new teacher this semester, it also would not be applicable for the thousands of students who self-study for exams and never take the class in the first place.

While it is understood that dishonesty will never fully disappear from the academic atmosphere, the ease of cheating on such highly valued tests should raise questions about the weight they hold in determining a student's capabilities. Hangilipola views AP tests as a benchmark that helps colleges foster a student’s specific learning environment, so this year’s test insecurity calls into question their value in assessing an individual's academic standings.

“You're taking these tests so colleges can understand the basis of your knowledge, just you, no external help,” he said, “Taking it at home, you have so many resources [that] you could use to cheat and present yourself better than what you really are.”

Google searches for words like "derivatives" and "critical value" peaked during the AP Calculus exam on May 12 Photo courtesy of Anika Seth.

These unregulated work environments call attention to inequalities between households. Many students live in very disruptive environments, required to watch over siblings or listen to parents working down the hall or in the same room, where finding a place to quietly work and concentrate is certainly a challenge. While the whole world may be required to adjust to this time of remote learning, it is not fair to assume the students have adjusted so well that a 45-minute free-response exam will be manageable without the proper environment and materials. 

“It's really hard when [my younger brothers are] always trying to come in my room and tell me stuff and talk to me,” junior Shalom Tsegaye said, alluding to a reality many students around the country have been faced with over the past couple of months: finding an environment conducive to learning while at home can be hard. “Sometimes during the day, I have to help take care of them and watch them, so that can be kind of hard to juggle.”

Although the College Board has worked hard to make sure students have the technological means to take their exams, delivering electronic devices and WiFi hotspots, the 2020 exams no longer hold their prior cumulative nature. The reduction of their length and scope should reduce the value that they carry for college officials.

Under normal circumstances, 86 percent of top colleges in America restrict granting of AP credit—this number should increase now that the standards for the test itself are lowered. The original goal of AP’s was to enhance student learning and engagement, not rush students through the knowledge of a chosen subject. Giving credit under these circumstances would be a mistake.

Last updated: Nov. 23, 2020, 9:16 p.m.

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