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An open letter to the College Board about online, at-home AP tests

A technology services worker with the Tacoma School District cleans laptops that will be distributed to students for remote learning. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

With high school students across the country working from home since the coronavirus crisis forced the closure of schools, the College Board is going ahead with administering tests in the Advanced Placement program — online, shortened exams that children can take from their bedrooms.

But the decision to go ahead with AP tests has drawn concerns from skeptics, who say it won’t be fair to students who have no computer, access to Internet or quiet work spaces from which to study and work, or to students with disabilities who do not have appropriate accommodations — challenges the College Board has acknowledged. Issues about test security have been raised, as well, with critics saying there is no foolproof way to ensure students aren’t cheating.

Dozens of educators and others in the college admissions world wrote the College Board an open letter about why they are worried about equity issues with the organization’s online AP test plans, which you can read in full below.

The tests, as my Washington Post colleague Nick Anderson reported here, will be only 45 minutes long — they are usually between two and three hours — and, the College Board says, will be monitored so students can’t cheat.

They will be administered from May 11 to 22, with each subject taken on the same day at the same time worldwide with makeup sessions for each test from June 1 to 5. Students can use computers, tablets or smartphones to take the exams and either type and upload responses or write them by hand and submit a photo via cellphones.

While nobody knows how many students will actually take AP online tests this spring, more than 2.8 million students took them in 2019 in a variety of subjects. Some colleges give credit to students who earn 3 or higher on the 5-point AP scale.

The College Board responded to the authors of the letter, according to Ken O’Connor, an author and admissions consultant who helped spearhead the initiative, but he said the concerns raised were not sufficiently addressed.

For example, the College Board this week published on its website an update on accommodations for AP students with disabilities who want to take the test. But the statement itself says it is not complete: “Specific information about accommodations for AP world language and culture exams will be available the week of April 27.”

And it further says, “This year the way accommodations are provided may be different because the exams are shorter and will be taken online at home” — a statement that raised concerns among skeptics of the online AP test plan.

Asked to respond to the letter, College Board spokesman Zachary Goldberg said in an email that the College Board is aware of the concerns and is working to address them. You can see his entire email below, but here is part of it:

Since we announced online, at-home AP exams, we’ve been providing updates to students and educators as soon as we have them. We’re sharing additional information about accommodations ( [].
Students will be able to use their approved accommodations for 2020 AP Exams. This year the way accommodations are provided may be different because the exams are shorter and will be taken online at home. Specific information about accommodations for AP world language and culture exams will be available the week of April 27.

At home or at school, in May or in June: Advanced Placement exams will go on despite coro navirus

And here’s the open letter:

We recognize that these are extraordinarily unprecedented and challenging times. Such a calamitous disruption as the COVID-19 Pandemic requires major adaptations and creative approaches by schools and organizations to business as usual. We also recognize that difficult times require difficult decisions but we believe the College Board has not made the right decisions for the AP Exams this year.
On April 2nd, the College Board released the AP 2020 Exam Updates in a webinar presentation by Trevor Packer. There was, however, a jarring disconnect between two aspects of the testing that he referred to frequently –the welfare of students, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the strict time limitations proposed for the exams – 45 minutes for most, and 25 minute and 15-minute sections for others. Mr. Packer also announced a schedule for the exams that has many students scheduled to take the exams between midnight and 6 AM. Mr. Packer spoke eloquently about the differences in student access and went to great lengths to explain how the College Board intends to ensure that every AP student has the device and the internet connectivity that they need to participate without any restriction. We are grateful that the College Board recognizes how student differences may impact their testing experience, particularly those from lower-income households who may have slower internet speed or bandwidth, and for those who have no device or internet connectivity. However, the updated format for the 2020 AP exams fails to support these goals, and the unreasonable timing and time restrictions proposed make equal access impossible.
On July 18th, 2002 the New York Times published an op-ed by Howard Gardner, an esteemed psychology professor at Harvard, in which he said the following:
“Nothing of consequence would be lost by getting rid of timed tests by the College Board or, indeed, by universities in general. Few tasks in life -- and very few tasks in scholarship -- actually depend on being able to read passages or solve math problems rapidly. As a teacher, I want my students to read, write and think well; I don’t care how much time they spend on their assignments. For those few jobs where speed is important, timed tests may be useful. But getting into college, or doing satisfactorily once there, is not in that category."
"Indeed, by eliminating the timed component, the College Board would signal that background knowledge, seriousness of purpose and effort -- not speed and glibness -- are the essentials of good scholarship. What matters is not what you have at the starting point, but whether and how well you finish.” (Our italics)
Almost exactly the same considerations have always applied to the timed requirements of AP exams but the issue is exacerbated this year by the COVID-19 pandemic. Students are learning in crisis, not only learning at a distance, and many have to look after younger siblings, compete for time on one household computer, care for ill parents, or work in places like grocery stores to support their family finances. The exams will be in unfamiliar formats and in different situations and at different times than those to which students are accustomed. Furthermore, there will be vast differences in the nature and quality of the preparation students have received due to the different circumstances and different requirements around the world. Timed exams have always been problematic for students who write or process slowly (not poorly, just slower) but the issues identified above put extra stress on almost all students this year, which will result in scores that will be less likely to reflect their actual abilities. It is well known that when we are under stress we do not perform at our true ability level. Stress is increased for students when they are taking exams with strict time limitations and during a time when they are usually asleep. As a result, the exams are almost certain to produce widely inaccurate results this year.
Students who have IEP’s, including those with chronic health conditions, are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting school closures. Those with underlying health conditions are more susceptible to life-threatening illness or death if they contract COVID-19, and many have lost access to their caregivers and other support professionals due to stay-at-home orders. Students with disabilities are less likely to fully access remote education, and in many cases, special education services have been severely compromised or even discontinued.
Students with disabilities and their families are facing unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety concerning educational access. Students with disabilities who have been approved for the College Board-approved accommodations have not received any information from College Board about how or if their exam accommodations will be provided for the upcoming AP exams. The College Board has publicly stated that students with disabilities remain a priority. However, students with a wide range of disabilities, their families, high school teachers, AP coordinators, and school counselors have repeatedly requested specific information from the College Board about if and how AP test accommodations will be provided; there are still no answers. Within the community of students with disabilities, there is also the same digital divide that all students are facing. However, these students may need assistive technology in order to test with accommodations at home and will need time to secure this technology.
We believe the College Board has the opportunity to demonstrate that it really does care about equity, the welfare of students, the legal rights of students with disabilities, and all students being able to perform their best. Will it continue with its plans to enforce strict (and unproven) time limits and an oppressive exam time schedule? We recognize the extraordinary situation that the College Board is in, and that it has to make moral, ethical, and financial decisions, as we all do during this time. However, it appears as if the College Board opted for security protocols and its own convenience over equity, and it has unfairly prioritized students in the Americas, and given little or no consideration to students in other parts of the world.
We propose two simple changes in the 2020 AP exams:
1) The College Board should provide students with a flexible time period, not a fixed time, to take their AP exams.
The proposed time limitations have not been tested under these extreme conditions. With the extra stress associated with this year’s tests, many students fear they will not be able to complete the tests in the allotted time frames. We expect this to cause widespread anxiety and panic from minute one. If students know they have enough time, they may still be stressed, but they will be able to relax a little and may even complete the tests with a small amount of extra time, time that may be necessary to accommodate differences in access.
2) The College Board should allow for asynchronous testing.
At a minimum, students should be permitted to take their exams between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. These are the hours during which most students are accustomed to learning and taking assessments. In addition, students are more likely to have family responsibilities after 5 p.m. The College Board is able to administer its exams (including ordinary AP exams) this way, and there is no reason it should not be able to administer the 2020 AP exams keeping this in mind.
In addition to the above solutions, ALL students, parents and high schools should be informed no later than April 20th, in the same detail as they are informed for ordinary AP exams, if and how disability accommodations will be made on the 2020 AP exams.
Over and over again on April 2nd, Mr. Packer spoke of his concern for the welfare of individual students and at the end, he made a powerful call for ‘care, nurture, and support in this unique situation.’ The College Board plans to ensure that all students have access to technology, but it must keep in mind the differences among these students that will affect their testing environments. If the College Board maintains the proposed strict time limitations and synchronous testing during fixed hours, these are just empty words.
As the AP exams are scheduled to take place in less than a month, we believe that the College Board must address these inequities no later than April 24th, so that students and parents can make informed decisions about whether they will take the exams or withdraw.
Dr. Lisa Andrejko
Former Superintendent and member of the College Board’s Superintendents’ Advisory Council
Cape Coral, FL
Kevin Bartlett
Founding Director
The Common Ground Collaborative
Akil Bello
Senior Director of Advocacy and Advancement
FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing
Laura Benson
Director of Curriculum and Professional Development
International Schools Services
Nate Bowling
AP Government & Politics Teacher American Community School of Abu Dhabi
Brent Brayko
Associate Principal for Teaching and Learning
Hong Kong International School
Arthur Chiaravalli
Dean of Students
Lansing Catholic High School, MI
Damian Cooper
Plan, Teach, Assess
Kathy Dewsbury White
Education Consultant
Innovate and Educate
Myron Dueck
Myron Dueck Educational Consulting
Melissa Deutsch
Director of Instruction
Milwaukee, WI
Rosemary Evans
University of Toronto Schools
Joe Feldman
Author and Consultant
Oakland, CA
Trent Grundmeyer
Associate Professor, Educational Leadership
School of Education, Drake University
Connie Hamilton
Author/Education Consultant
Caledonia, Michigan
Karin Hess
Educational Research in Action
Madeleine Hewitt
Executive Director
Danny Hill
Chief Manager
Power of ICU
Lori Jeschke
Director of Education
Prairie Spirit School Division, SK
Lee Ann Jung
Chief Executive Officer
Lead Inclusion
Josh Kunnath
English Teacher & Department Chair
Highland High School, Bakersfield, CA
Lorraine S. Lange
Former Superintendent
Roanoke County Public Schools, VA
Kili Lay
Director of Curriculum & Staff Development
American School of The Hague
Nancy Lhoest-Squicciarini
Head of Community Relations
International School of Luxembourg
Garth Larson
President and Consultant,
FIRST Educational Resources
Scott McMullan
Daegu International School, South Korea
Marci Lerner Miller
Attorney at Law
Miller Advocacy Group
Ken O’Connor
Assess for Success
Josh Ogilvie
Secondary School PHE Department Head
Burnaby, BC
Fanny Passeport
Director of Learning and Curriculum
Anglo-American School of Sofia
Douglas Reeves
Researcher and Author
Creative Leadership Solutions
Emily Rinkema
Teacher, Instructional Coach, Author
Champlain Valley Union HS, Vermont
Diana Rosberg
Academic Director
International School of Kazan, Russia
Starr Sackstein
The Core Collaborative
Nancy Lhoest-Squicciarini
Head of Community Relations
International School of Luxembourg
Tom Schimmer
Vancouver, BC
Wayne Sproule
Course Director and Instructor
York University, Faculty of Education,
Brian M. Stack
Sanborn Regional High School, Kingston, NH
Rick Stiggins,
Retired President
Assessment Training Institute
Matt Townsley
Assistant Professor
University of Northern Iowa
Nicole Vagle
Hopkins, MN
Dana Watts
Director of Research and Development
International Schools Services
Katie White
Author and Educational Consultant
Melfort, Saskatchewan
Stan Williams
Teacher, Instructional Coach, Author
Champlain Valley Union HS, Vermont
Nathan L. Wear
Chief Academic Officer
Linn-Mar CSD, IA
Greg Wolcott
Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning
Woodridge School District 68, IL
Rick Wormeli
Author and Consultant,
Herndon, VA

Here is the complete response from the College Board, from spokesman Zachary Goldberg:

Since we announced online, at-home AP exams, we’ve been providing updates to students and educators as soon as we have them. We’re sharing additional information about accommodations ( [].
Students will be able to use their approved accommodations for 2020 AP Exams. This year the way accommodations are provided may be different because the exams are shorter and will be taken online at home. Specific information about accommodations for AP world language and culture exams will be available the week of April 27.
We’ll add more information for international test takers to our website [] [] by the end of the week, to echo what we’ve been sharing through direct emails and webinars. Here’s some background:
While normally AP students can test at different times, the unique security protocols required for at-home testing only allow one global time for tests and makeups. Because no single time is convenient for all students, the specific times were selected to enable the largest number of AP students worldwide to test in daylight hours. Our only other alternative would have been to cancel exams in certain time zones entirely. We hope that for the students in time zones with inconvenient test times, having the chance to test outweighs concerns about the unusual times. If not, any student can choose to cancel the exam, with no cancellation fee. If a student does choose to test, they can choose not to report their scores to colleges.
We understand the concerns of families outside the United States, including students of military families stationed overseas. Students outside the U.S. with nighttime schedules who are not satisfied with their scores will receive a voucher for a free CLEP exam, a second opportunity to earn college credit. When students reach U.S. colleges, they will be able to take CLEP exams at test centers on a college campus of their choice through the end of 2020. Children of military personnel in DoDEA schools may be able to take CLEP exams on a date and time convenient to them at existing CLEP test centers on their bases. Additional information will be provided to students by email in the coming weeks.

(Updating/correcting statement from College Board)