AP Exam relevancy is shrinking by the year

When the school year hits May, you can almost feel the stress in the air. Finals are approaching, grades are being finalized, and then there’s the most dreaded test of them all: the AP exam. 

AP, or Advanced Placement, classes were originally introduced in 1955 as a way to improve American education in the midst of the Cold War. These classes are run by the College Board, the same non-profit organization which offers the SAT. Over time, the AP program has grown from offering 10 classes to 38, with even more classes currently being developed. These classes are meant to imitate a college curriculum, and if a student scores high enough on the exam given at the end of the year, they can earn college credit.

AP classes are a great opportunity for ambitious students to challenge themselves. The idea of earning college credit, and therefore being able to save time and money by skipping prerequisite classes in college, is appealing to many high school students. However, whether they earn college credit is based entirely on a single exam. Because of this, many students who work hard and do well in their AP classes are still unable to achieve college credit, because of a poor exam score. The AP exam system assumes that the only reason for a bad test score is inadequate understanding of the curriculum, but this is untrue. There are many reasons a student could perform poorly on an exam, including test anxiety, unexpected test questions, or distractedness due to something in the student’s personal life. Because of this, this dependency on test-taking can be incredibly frustrating to hardworking students who are only offered a single opportunity to showcase their skills. 

AP exams also fail to take into account that timed tests are far from the only method through which finals can be administered; projects or papers are also very common. The only AP classes which are not assessed through an exam are AP Art classes, which are assessed through a portfolio, and AP Research and AP Seminar, which are assessed through research projects. It would be more similar to college classes, as well as give students an opportunity to showcase their best work and utilize the skills learned to their fullest ability, if instead of an exam, some classes assessed credit through a final project or paper. This would be especially useful for the AP English classes, such as AP English Literature and Composition and AP English Language and Composition. 

In addition to the tests themselves being flawed, they can worsen the classroom experience. AP teachers spend the entire school year preparing their students for the AP exams. Because teachers are bound to a very specific, predetermined curriculum, they are given very little creative liberty in teaching their own class. Additionally, the focus on a few specific skills can make class repetitive, as students continuously practice only the types of skills or questions that will be on the exam. 

Essay questions are a dominating part of many AP exams. In the AP U.S. History exam, for example, there is a 90-minute essay section with two required essays, which make up 40 percent of the student’s final score. These essays are graded on a rubric, and are constructed to encourage specific skills, such as document analysis or constructing claims. While these rubrics are usually effective in teaching their intended skills, they also produce formulaic essays. If students are given more time, they may be able to elaborate within the rubric, and produce a more creative, innovative essay, as advanced students should be encouraged to. But as it is, AP exams do not teach students how to think critically; they teach students how to write according to a formula. 

There are many problems with AP exams that could be fixed; however, their main problem is their purpose, which is to determine whether a student receives college credit for an AP class. The only way to solve this problem without rendering AP exams completely useless is to get rid of them altogether. Getting rid of AP exams and instead determining college credit from the grade earned in an AP class would not only be more fair to students, but it could broaden and improve teaching in AP classes. And this is not a very radical move, either. Colleges in the U.S. have been taking a much more test optional route in recent years, with many colleges refusing to take AP class credits at all, and 80% of colleges not requiring high school applicants to submit SAT and ACT scores. The importance of tests is dwindling, and it is time that the College Board follows suit.