High school students are graduating into an uncertain world. As a high school physics teacher in Boston Public Schools (BPS), I have seen the many ways that the pandemic has robbed our seniors of rites of passage and created confusion about what’s next. However, I want to talk about an under-discussed source of heartbreak and confusion that arose recently: inequitable facilitation of Advanced Placement (AP) exams that exacerbated gaps for Black and Brown students.
As the pandemic worsened, I watched as the College Board cited inequities, undue stress, and logistics as their reasoning for canceling other tests they facilitate. It made sense that the AP test (including the subject I teach, AP Physics) would be canceled next, something I called for multiple times. For me it was simple: There was not enough time to radically redesign this test in an equitable way in just under two months.
In May, the College Board rushed their redesigned AP exams online for hundreds of thousands of students around the world, resulting in access issues and submission errors that required some students to take the test again (resulting in at least one pending lawsuit against the College Board). It is clear that these tests should never have taken place.
The organization claims it made its testing decision based on survey results from under 2% of the over one million AP students worldwide. When I asked for racial demographic and socioeconomic data on the students who responded, I was simply given the number of students who identified as receiving free and reduced lunch. This lack of transparency is not acceptable, and it does not show the commitment to equity that the College Board has touted for years.
I am disappointed in the College Board’s failure to account for our most vulnerable learners with this response. When I have been able to get in touch with my students they all told me that they really wanted to be focused on the AP test, but many of them are instead working 40-hour workweeks as essential workers or needing to get their younger siblings through the day while parents are at work. When they do have time for school, they often need to focus on assignments that are more essential than a potential shot at college credit. When the College Board determined that the test must go on, did they consider the new reality—as a breadwinner or caretaker—faced by my students and many others across the country?
By going forward with the AP test, students who have historically had access to resources will continue to excel. There is already a disparity in AP access among racial groups. The recent state audit of BPS found that in our district 81% of White students had access to AP courses, but only 51% of Black students and 55% of Hispanic or Latino students had that same access. By refusing to make accommodations during a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting Black and Brown students, the College Board is expanding that gap.
To be clear, I am not saying that we should deny these students a chance for college credit, simply that the mechanism should have been reconsidered this year. The College Board said that their survey indicated students wanted to go forward with testing, but in my experience kids have never said, “I want to test.” Students wanted the college credit, and assumed that the only way to receive it was by taking the test. The equitable path forward that still preserved college credit would have been for the College Board to cancel the AP tests, and then work with colleges to offer subject-based entrance exams for AP students who enroll.
It is clear that the College Board did not prioritize hearing from all voices in this decision-making process, and that their actions will likely exacerbate opportunity gaps that already existed. We know that the COVID-19 pandemic is not going away anytime soon. It is my sincere hope that as the College Board continues to operate in this new reality it works harder to increase transparency, invite marginalized voices into its decision-making process and demonstrate a true focus on equity.
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