The College Board’s Sorry State of Affairs

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The College Board has come under a lot of criticism over the last decade or so. Back in 2012, John Tierney wrote this scathing opinion piece for The Atlantic. A few things have changed since then, but not really all that much. Other critics have focused on the various exams being culturally biased, resulting in the ill-advised and now largely abandoned “Adversity Score” proposal for the SAT exam from 2019. Two years ago they announced that they would no longer include history prior to 1450 on the World History exam, which many critics (myself included) felt was a horrible decision that de-emphasized the teaching of parts of the world that had developed without European domination. They rolled the date back to 1200, which was an improvement, but not a good solution. While all of these things are important, they aren’t the focus of what I teach — US History and US Government and Politics. Unfortunately, the missteps in those areas (in my opinion, of course) are just about as bad.

Perhaps another day I will write about the redesigns in each class, and the attempt to move far away from content and towards skills. And perhaps on that day I will explain why the Document Based Question in history classes is such an awful measure of a student’s ability. In the Government class, the College Board has attempted to boil down the curriculum to a narrow essence of nine required documents, fifteen Supreme Court cases, and a particular set of somewhat oddly chosen standards. While that is in some ways an improvement over an incredible vague curriculum where teachers had to guess what might be on the exam, it has led to some teachers using the provided binder as a bible of sorts, spending a day on each standard, and I fear losing the forest for the trees.

I’ll be blunt: last year was the first year of the redesign. I had two sections of AP Government and neither was filled with a murderer’s row of top students. I had a handful of strong students who I anticipated would get 5’s on the exam; and most of them did. But I had other students who demonstrated middling skills and a lack of work ethic. And yet, when I got our scores back, they did incredibly well, perhaps the highest scores of my career. I’d love to pat myself on the back for an incredibly well done job, but I don’t think that was it. I’d love to pay my students on the back for their outstanding effort and skill, but I’m suspicious of that as well. I just don’t think the exam was very challenging. Obviously not all students in the country crushed the exam; the range was a fairly typical bell-shaped curve. I think a large part of my students’ performance came from growing up in a privileged community where they’ve had outstanding education (and nutrition, health care, and so forth). And because the exam was pretty easy, akin to a driver’s test. Here’s the manual, memorize a bunch of facts and you’ll do well. And if you learn a handful of tricks from your teacher, you can do even better.

This last points raises another inequity. When I first became an AP reader I quickly learned how the College Board approached scoring the exams. While they provided examples in a PDF file, actually being at the reading and finding out what they specifically meant by “identity” or “describe” revealed certain tricks of the trade. Teachers who were in attendance and paid attention learned the tricks and of course would convey them to their students. Whereas students whose teacher had not attended would have no clue unless they heard from another teacher. The AP Government teachers Facebook group does a great job of spreading the word to those teachers who join, but how many students have teachers who don’t know about it (or refuse to use Facebook for any number of reasons)?

But none of that it really the crux of the intended focus. On March 20, the College Board announced that despite the existence of a pandemic which had led to tens of thousands of schools closing that they were forging ahead with the AP Exam. They indicated two things: all of the exams would be pared down to 45 minutes and students would have two dates to choose from to take their exams. They didn’t specify precisely what each exam would look like, but indicated that they wouldn’t test on the entire curriculum. For AP US Government, it was announced that only Units 1 to 3 would be tested because that’s what they believed most teachers would have taught up to this point. Never mind the fact that a large number of teachers don’t teach the curriculum in that order because we feel it doesn’t make a great deal of sense. I, for example, teach this order: 1, 4, 5, 2, 3. I had finished the first four units, but had only gotten through a single week of unit 3 before our school closed because of the coronavirus.

Yet I wasn’t all that worried because I took the College Board at its word, that it would give students the choice of two dates to test. Even if they continued to offer the originally scheduled date, if they repeated the cycle two weeks later, my students would have an extra two weeks to prepare. As a consequence I didn’t rush through the first couple weeks of distance learning. I didn’t want to stress my students out more than they already were due to the bizarre situation we all find ourselves in and the concerns they had specific to their own situations. I reasoned I’d have ample time to finish Unit 3 and start focusing on whichever free-response question types they’d announce for the test.

A little background: there are four different FRQs for AP Gov: concept application, quantitative analysis, Supreme Court comparison, and the argument essay. The first two are quite similar to the old-style questions I’ve been teaching for nearly 20 years and my students have practiced them dozens of times. The third is a little more complicated and relies on knowledge of one of the 15 required cases — but also has an annoying gimmicked portion. I figured they’d pick either the first or second kind and the court comparison, because the argument essay was one that normally took 45 minutes to write. The notion that they would just go with an argument essay was broached by someone in the Facebook group, but it seemed ludicrous, especially considering how poorly most students did on it last year.

On Thursday, April 2, Trevor Packer, the AP figurehead did a massive video conference with thousands of teachers around the country where he announced that the exam would consist of FRQ questions #1 and #4. The argument essay would be shortened to only 25 minutes, with the most difficult point (the rebuttal/ concession/ refutation) replaced by two easier-to-earn points. This came as a bit of a shock as AP Gov teachers tried to wrap their heads around having to teach students how to answer an essay in a way different from how we’d trained them to do it.

As luck would have it, I spent very little time on the argument essay. Once the at-home exam was announced, I was hopeful that I could just ignore it entirely, but that didn’t work out. However, I did teach students to write a concession, and ingrained in them a thesis formula that is no longer necessary, or perhaps even desirable considering the time constraints that they have. I think my students will be able to unlearn the formula easily enough, but it’s annoying, and I imagine more so to teachers who have drilled this all year long.

The College Board claims they have all sorts of sophisticated measures to catch cheating. I don’t really buy it, and frankly under these circumstances I don’t really care that much. I hope they’re telling the truth and I hope my students trust in their ability if they opt to take the exam amidst all of this uncertainty. A bit part of that uncertainty is whether their colleges will accept a 3, 4, or 5 for college credit. Although a handful of schools have indicated that they will give the College Board the benefit of the doubt that this 45-minute exam will magically be as rigorous as the usual three-hour exam, many more have not. Students who do not ask for a refund will hope that they do well, but also that the school of their choice opts to accept that score. If I were the decision maker at a university I would find it pretty risky to accept the results of an exam without having a really good idea of the scope and difficulty of these tests sight unseen. Maybe because of the pandemic, they’ll just take a flier and say, “Sure, everyone with an X gets the credit and we’ll hope it doesn’t result in really bad 300 levels classes next year.” Or maybe they’ll hedge their bets and students will end up with 4s and 5s, but no college credit. For some of my kids (or their parents), it’s no big deal. But for others, that is critical money that is now turning into a real gamble.

But where the College Board completely dropped the ball is dropping their promise of allowing students to pick which test date they wanted. Instead they took a poll of students and teachers about six possible dates for the exam (each week starting with May 11 through the week starting with June 15). The results of the student survey were surprising: students wanted the exam in May, not June. My guess is that this is largely due the number of seniors taking the course, particularly in schools that end their year in May. They didn’t want to extend their senior year and have to study after graduating high school. I get it. But it seems really short-sighted considering the many limitations that exist around the country on distance learning. Some districts prohibit teachers from grading any work or even assigning any work because of issues revolving around the digital divide and inability to abide by special education laws. The College Board, curiously (not really), did not choose to share the polling data from the teachers. I think we can make an educated guess on what the results of that would have been.

And then came the announcement that the AP Exams would start at the earliest date offered: May 11. Guess where AP Gov falls? Yep, May 11. So despite all of the disruptions and the difficult transition to distance learning (along with its overall limitations), the date has been moved back ONE week. The day after the announcement was our last day of school before Spring Break. My students will have four weeks to prepare for the exam and because I didn’t know I should have been rushing, I will still need to teach a week’s worth of material when we return next week before beginning the actual review. The exam has a makeup date of June 1, but students cannot opt to take the test on that date as was originally promised. This would be for illness or some other emergency.

I can’t help but feel like a sucker watching a game of three-card Monty. Every time I think I know where the ace of spades is, the College Board does its slight of hand and pushes forward with its agenda.

Maybe it’s my age or my time in the classroom, but I’ve really reached my limit. I never really felt they cared all that much about the integrity of the class or its exam, and a mountain of evidence seems to have been added in the last three weeks. As our culture finally starts to recognize the limitations and failings of standardized testing (still a long way to go there, though), I’ve begun questioning whether I want to keep teaching AP courses. I love working with the top students. They are highly motivated and well behaved (for the most part!). They keep me on my intellectual toes and I often learn from them, but I am so very tired of this rush to get early college credit (don’t get me started on the co-enrollment courses that are offered) which has become far more important than the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual curiosity. Maybe next year if I am assigned the class I will toss out virtually all of the exam prep from the required aspects of the course and instead get back to doing what I did when the course felt more rewarding. I’ll still offer exam prep tips to students who want them, but maybe I’m partly to blame for not pushing back sooner and more.

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