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Should we be easy on students after the pandemic? Maybe not.

Data shows those who commit to hard final exams earlier learn more

Senior students wait to be released to their classrooms on April 8, 2021, as they return to in-person school at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Md. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Many think the disastrous educational effects of the pandemic mean we should let up on our kids, at least for a while. That’s one of several reasons many schools are reducing homework and making good grades easier to get.

Could that be the wrong approach? The College Board has compiled data indicating that students should be given more of a challenge, rather than less. Results suggest that students who were required to commit early in an AP course to the difficult final exam did better than those allowed to decide later whether they would take the big test.

The data comes from the College Board’s college-level Advanced Placement program for high school students. Even in 2020, during the worst of the pandemic, 2,642,630 students managed to take 4,751,957 exams in more than 35 subjects. This year 2,659,914 students took more than 4.8 million exams. Those numbers are likely to grow next year.

Five years ago, AP researchers noticed that 97 percent of White male students, 95 percent of Black female students and 93 percent of female students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) surveyed at the beginning of their AP classes were confident that they would complete the courses and take the daunting exams. Other gender and racial groups were similarly upbeat.

But only 77 percent of White male students, 65 percent of Black female students and 70 percent of female students in STEM actually took the exams, written and graded by outside experts so they cannot be dumbed down as regular high school course finals often are. AP and International Baccalaureate exam results decide whether a student will get college credit for those courses, giving AP and IB courses and exams unusual depth and breadth. Many schools do not require AP students to take the AP final exams.

Black and Hispanic students overall also had disappointing AP course completion rates five years ago, the data showed. Educators and researchers speculated that some may have been low-income students and had trouble managing homework loads and other family responsibilities. They suggested the female students in STEM courses might have been hurt by sexist hints from adults and other students that they would not succeed in the rigorous courses.

Will there be big education changes after pandemic? No, but look deeper.

But the researchers noticed something else. Certain schools had impressive AP completion and exam-taking numbers when they ignored the College Board tradition of letting AP students wait until mid-April to decide whether they would take the exams. AP head Trevor Packer said those schools were “putting in place a very firm deadline at the start of the school year, so that students decided right from the start whether they were going to focus and persist — and their teachers knew they needed to then help those students make it across the finish line.”

Could committing early to the exam be good for students? Some people looking at the data thought that explanation was too simple. They also worried that students might be less likely to sign up for AP if they had to commit to the exams long before they took them.

College Board officials decided to test the theories. For the 2018-2019 school year, they randomly assigned about 600 schools to a mandatory early registration deadline (Nov. 15) for the May exams.

The results surprised them. Every ethnic and gender group in the early registration sample increased in the number of students completing the AP course, taking the final exam and earning scores of 3-plus or higher on the 5-point scoring scale. Low-income students and female students in STEM did particularly well.

The College Board trustees, many of them school counselors, administrators and college admission officers, then approved what Packer called “the largest investment I’ve ever asked for in my 19 years in this role.” They spent $90 million, Packer said, “to overhaul all of our annual operation systems and technologies to enable everything to revolve around this new fall registration process: exam printing, shipping, scoring, etc.”

After they set a Nov. 15, 2021, national deadline for exam registration, they saw a big surge in students taking the exams in spring 2022 — 350,000 more than expected. White and Asian students were up just a little — about 1 percent. Black and Hispanic students were up a lot, 13 percent and 10 percent, respectively. The portion of scores reaching 3-plus or above went from 56 percent in 2021 to 60 percent in 2022, the highest percentage in years.

I have interviewed hundreds of students who said their worries about taking the difficult AP exams made them work harder in the classes than they would have done otherwise. Even those who failed the exams said the struggle made them better prepared for college. So far, only one student has ever told me the AP stress hurt her.

Is it wrong for schools to give students a break from difficult academic work in the aftermath of the pandemic? Opinion on this will continue to be mixed, but many students who have challenged themselves in this way say they were happy they did.