Test . . . Optional?

Posted by on May 5, 2020 in Education

Last month, btw took a look at the way many college admission offices are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by canceling their standardized test score requirements, meaning that students don’t need to take the SAT or ACT in order to apply. Now, several other schools have gotten on board with this plan. At the same time, however, one important standardized test will still go ahead as planned. Here, btw takes a closer look at why this decision was made, and how it could affect today’s college-bound high school students.

The Case Against Tests

Standardized testing began out of a desire to “level the playing field” across different school districts. The thinking was that by making every student take the same test, it would be easier to measure them against one another, rather than just using a measurement like grades and GPA, which can vary widely from district to district or even from teacher to teacher. But over time, experts began to realize that the reverse is actually true. Some studies show that standardized testing actually emphasizes the achievement gap between students from high-income and low-income districts. This is because of biased questions, as well as student access to resources such as tutors and test prep materials.

Multiple choice test form
Multiple choice test form Credit: Lew Robertson/Getty Images

Because of this, roughly a thousand colleges across the nation had already made the decision to put an end to requiring standardized test scores before the coronavirus pandemic even began. And now, the global crisis has given more than a dozen other schools the opportunity to change their admissions practices as well. Some of the colleges have called their new “test-optional” policy temporary, while others have committed to making it a permanent change.

Not on Board

There is one notable exception to this plan, however, and that’s the AP (Advanced Placement) exam. AP exams are different from SATs and ACTs, because they’re not college entrance exams, meaning that you don’t need a certain score on them in order to get into college, and colleges don’t ask for them when deciding whether or not to admit you. Instead, AP exams are used to award college credit to high schoolers. The tests are scored on a scale of 1 to 5; scoring a 4 or 5 on the exam–which is broken down by subject, such as Biology or U.S. Government–will likely get you some college credit at whichever university you ultimately decide to attend.

Normally, the AP tests are grueling: they last about three hours, contain both multiple-choice and essay writing sections, and cover an entire year’s worth of subject matter. AP high school teachers spend months preparing their students for the test. However, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the AP Board has made the decision to switch to a 45-minute-long, online format instead. That means neither students nor teachers will be familiar with the test’s format for this year.

To Take or Not to Take

AP tests are completely optional. On the one hand, students may still opt to take it the test in order to justify all of the months of work they have already put into studying. But on the other hand, the world looks very different than it did when the school year began. Many students now find themselves worrying about illness, financial insecurity, and global concerns. They may be experiencing increasing family responsibilities, or not have reliable access to the Internet or a computer. All of these factors make it difficult, if not impossible, for students to study for the test.

There are other concerns as well. The tests will be administered at the same time across the globe, regardless of time zone–meaning that in some parts of the world, students will be taking them in the middle of the night. Also, the new format means that the tests won’t cover as much material as they usually do, which has led many colleges to say that they might not award as much credit for a high score as they would have in the past.

What Do You Think? In your opinion, is the AP Board right to offer this year’s tests in an adjusted format, or should they have canceled the testing altogether? Explain.