The Washington Post

Sad tales of AP tests gone wrong

With this region’s high concentration of Advanced Placement tests, AP stress, scores and credit are hot topics. Much less is heard about Patricia Palmer Dulman’s particular AP nightmare. Her son had to retake two tests at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County because of administrative errors.

I discovered the complications of AP testing 30 years ago while investigating the retesting of 12 calculus students in East Los Angeles. The pain such moments cause hit me again this summer when, while visiting the San Francisco Peninsula, news broke of 286 students at Mills High School in Millbrae, Calif., being told they had to take their AP tests again. The school had used round tables, ignoring the sacred College Board rule (unknown to me but distributed to schools and students) that test-takers must not face or be too close to each other.

Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses are the most challenging assignments in most U.S. high schools. The AP exams, written and graded by outside experts including college faculty, are usually three hours long and contain several essay questions. They are much tougher than typical high school course finals. It is exasperating to be told you have to do it again because of someone else’s mistake.

Dulman’s son did not get his AP English retest results until last week. “We got a call in mid-August saying half his test was lost by either the school or the College Board; no one will say,” she said. Two years ago, she said, “the proctor gave too much time on an AP government test in May, the test was declared invalid in September, and he retook it in October, and he was not as well-prepared five months after the course ended.”

The East L.A. testing mishap I investigated led me to become an education writer. It also inspired the only major motion picture about an AP test, “Stand and Deliver,” starring Edward James Olmos as math teacher Jaime Escalante. It took me five years to determine that the College Board had no choice but to order that retest. At least nine of the students had cheated on the first exam, even though their success in the retest proved they knew the material.

I think Escalante’s students, as well as Dulman’s son, were wise to retake the exams. Many of the Mills High students and their parents let their outrage get the better of them. They sought a temporary restraining order against the College Board and the Educational Testing Service, which administer the AP, and lost. U.S. District Court Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong pointed out they had signed a statement agreeing to the rules. She also said the Mills High staffer who oversaw the AP statistics exam that led to the first complaint of irregularities was not very cooperative with test company investigators.

In 2013, 1,064 AP exams were invalidated because of administrative errors. The most common mistake was giving the exam on the wrong date, said Deborah Davis, the College Board director of college readiness communication. There were 788 exams this year canceled because of reported student misconduct. Another 1,051 exams, like Dulman’s son’s AP English exam, went missing. About 74 percent of canceled exams are retaken, Davis said.

Arlington County schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos said Dulman’s son was the unlucky victim of two of only three such AP mishaps at his school in the past five years.

Davis said only four-tenths of
1 percent of the 4 million AP exams this year were invalidated. But that is little comfort to a student who has been told his three long hours don’t count.

The next round of AP exams is in May. Let’s assume you sit down at your designated place and find yourself looking directly into a nearby test-taker’s eyes. No matter how enchanting they are, call the proctor.

For previous columns, go to

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.



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