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How much harm comes from taking AP exams during a pandemic?

A student takes notes in an Advanced Placement physics class at D.C.’s Woodrow Wilson High School in 2014. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

I’m having a friendly argument with Pete Bavis, a fellow supporter of the college-level Advanced Placement program in high schools. He is the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at the much-admired high school district in Evanston, Ill. — Evanston Township High School District 202.

I think the return of full-length AP testing is good for American education. About 2.7 million students this spring are taking 4.8 million of the three-hour-plus exams, full of demands for analysis and critical thinking. The exams motivate AP students and teachers to do their best work.

Bavis disagrees with me. He thinks this is a bad year to give kids hard tests. He says the trauma of the pandemic, especially for disadvantaged students, will outweigh any of the academic advantages of studying for AP. I suspect many educators agree with him. In a well-argued piece for Education Week, he said college credit should be awarded this year based on how AP teachers judge the quality of student class work, and not on the results of the year-end AP exams written and graded by outside experts.

“The College Board’s insistence that this school year is normal has transformed the AP exam from an instrument of upward academic mobility to one of our students’ greatest mental-health risks and will negatively impact many of their transitions to college,” Bavis wrote.

I haven’t heard the College Board call the year normal, but the desire to take its exams has shown remarkable resilience during the pandemic. After the coronavirus forced schools to close in February and March 2020, AP exams given in May that year were reduced to just 45 minutes of free-response questions done online at home. Despite the disruption, the number of students participating in 2020 was only 6.5 percent less than in 2019. The number taking full AP exams this year either digitally or on paper at schools or homes is expected to be just 2.2 percent less than 2019. A College Board survey of all AP teachers last summer found 80 percent wanted to return to the full exams. Fourteen percent wanted the 2021 exams canceled.

A test of critical thinking: Why don’t all AP students take AP tests?

The much smaller International Baccalaureate and Cambridge International college-level course programs in high schools canceled their independently graded exams last year. This year, their schools have the choice of using the independent final exams or evaluating each student based on class work.

Bavis said he wishes that choice had also been offered by AP. He told me that would have provided “a real opportunity to test the validity of AP course grades as a proxy for college credit this year.” If students who earned college credit through grades given by their teachers did as well in college as those who gained credit by taking the independent AP exams, that might lead to changes in the AP credit system.

There is already much research on this question but from a different angle. Students who take AP courses but don’t take the three-hour exams do no better in college in those subjects than students who do not take AP courses at all. Taking the AP exams appears to motivate more work by both students and teachers. That leads to better college performance if they pass the AP exams with scores of 3 or better on a 5-point scale.

A new College Board study says even AP students who score 1 or 2 on the exams have better college outcomes than academically similar college students who did not take an AP course and exam. The students with 1s or 2s are more likely to take more AP courses, score higher on them and enroll in four-year colleges. Students who score 2 do better in college introductory courses in those subjects than non-AP students.

Some schools or teachers require all AP students to take the AP tests. But most allow students and their families to decide. In an average AP class, about 80 percent of students take the exam.

Bavis said in his Education Week piece that “success on AP exams can mean shaving off a semester or two of pricey college tuition. The College Board knows this and markets the AP exam as a game-changer for students, particularly students of color. And their marketing has worked.” He noted that the cost per exam was $94, and so 4.7 million exams added up “to nearly half a billion dollars.”

AP lists online several reasons for taking AP, in this order: improving study habits, gaining creativity and problem-solving skills, impressing colleges, improving college performance, and completing college on time or completing college early.

Trevor Packer, director of the AP program, said the actual fees received by the College Board, after subtracting discounts for low-income students and money kept by local schools, total about $300 million. The organization’s expenses exceeded revenue by $69 million last year, as they rolled out pandemic-era supports for educators and students, such as free video lessons from master AP teachers that have been viewed 21 million times to date. Another deficit is expected this year.

Students wanted AP tests. The tests they took weren’t perfect. Now the College Board is being sued

AP’s largest expense is funding the grading of free-response questions by independent readers, usually veteran AP teachers and college instructors. Their high standards make AP courses difficult to dumb down without producing low scores. Students who do poorly can’t reach the graders to complain. Independent grading by IB and Cambridge International readers has the same effect. All three programs are exceptions to the American high school tradition of trying to make everybody happy.

I like Bavis’s plan to find ways other than AP tests to encourage deep learning. Many people agree with him that standardized testing has gone too far. There are enough of his students admitted to college in December to use them as a control group. Ask them to skip AP exams in the spring and see how they do in university courses the following year.

That might be difficult in schools like Evanston Township High, where AP is part of youth culture. Some academic stars may be traumatized if they don’t get to take the exams. This is one of many issues raised by the pandemic that will take time to resolve.

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