Ethical College Admissions: AP Registration

The explanations for the changes don't make a lot of sense, writes Jim Jump.

February 11, 2019
 
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The College Board is implementing changes in its Advanced Placement program for 2019-20, and those changes were the subject of articles last week in The Washington Post and USA Today.

The noncontroversial, even welcome, change is new resources for teachers of AP courses. Those resources include a bank of 15,000 old AP questions, more complete course and exam descriptions outlining important content and skills, plus advice on pacing and “Personal Progress Checks,” questions teachers can use to evaluate student understanding throughout the year.

So far, so good. But as they always say in infomercials for products that cost $19.99 and sound too good to be true, “But wait, there’s more.”

The “more” in this case is new registration procedures. Whereas registration for the May AP exams has up to now happened in the spring, beginning next year students will have to commit to taking the exams and schools will have to place exam orders by Nov. 15. Schools will still submit payment in June, but students who elect to add or not take an exam after Nov. 15 will have to pay a $40 fee on top of the $94 exam charge. The justification provided by the College Board for the new registration procedure and fees is that “more students succeed when they register in the fall.”

To no one’s surprise, the change has led to anger and anxiety among AP coordinators who will now have to oversee AP registration at the same time they are trying to help seniors navigate the college application process and also serving as unpaid agents for a different division of the College Board by administering the PSAT.

It has also led to suspicion on the part of the conspiracy theorists among us who believe that College Board decisions are always informed by economic considerations. That’s probably inevitable when you are a nonprofit raking in a billion dollars in revenues annually.

I’m far from convinced that the changes are either necessary or a good idea, but I’ll leave that debate for others. I’m more interested in, and bothered by, the rationale offered by the College Board for the change.

The AP page on the College Board website for educators makes the statement that “Schools that ask students to sign up for the exam in the fall boost their students’ chances of earning a score that translates to college credit. That’s why more than half of schools offering AP already do it. A new timeline for the 2019-20 school year and fees for late registration and exam cancellation will support students and schools in that effort.”

Another page on the AP website for educators with the heading “How we came up with these changes” lists as reason No. 1, “We were inspired by you” and states that more than half of all AP schools offer “some form of fall registration” and that “in these schools, students are more engaged and less likely to give up -- meaning they are more likely to earn a score that will translate to college credit.”

I certainly like being inspirational, and I like being in the majority even more, but I don’t recall demanding or begging the College Board to establish earlier registration, and if there has been a national outcry among my colleagues, I’ve somehow missed it.

I’m curious about the claim that half of all schools that offer AP exams offer some form of early registration. What, exactly, does that mean?

I work at a school with a robust AP program. My faculty colleagues generally believe that Advanced Placement courses and exams are a good thing, even though the demands of getting through the syllabus and preparing students for the exam limit a teacher’s discretion to go beyond the syllabus. After a group of independent schools in the D.C. area announced last spring their intention to wean AP courses out of their curricula, there was some discussion on our campus and at other local schools, but I think AP will be a part of our program for the foreseeable future.

I have always believed that students who take an AP class should take the AP exam as part of the experience, although the cost of the exams and the uncertain likelihood of getting college credit have made me rethink that. Nevertheless, our school policy has been that students enrolled in an AP course will take the exam. Does that mean we have “some form of early registration”?

And what about the claim that students who “register” in the fall are more likely to earn a score that will translate to college credit because they are less likely to give up? I would expect that a student who takes an AP exam is more likely to earn a score that will translate to college credit, or any score for that matter, than a student who gives up and doesn’t take the test. Duh!

If “everybody is doing it” or “most people are doing it” is one justification for earlier registration, the other claim is that having students commit to the exam earlier increases scores.

That claim comes from a pilot study done a year ago involving fall registration for 4,000 students from 100 schools. According to the College Board, the earlier registration resulted in an increase in the percentage of those who took AP exams and scored a 3 or higher. Whites and Asians saw an increase of 5 percent, while underrepresented minorities increased 12 percent. Students from middle- and high-income households increased 4 percent, but low-income students saw a 20 percent increase.

It is hard to evaluate those conclusions, because the data haven’t been made available, or at least I haven’t been able to find them. We don’t know anything about the schools in the study, and we don’t know how this year’s data compare to prior years'. On the AP website, I found a press release from February 2018 trumpeting the 2017 AP results with a purported link to the 2017 data, but what comes up are 2018 data.

Does making students sign up earlier for AP exams make them more confident, more engaged, more focused and smarter? Maybe. And is this a tool increasing access? Maybe. In a post last week, Jon Boeckenstedt called the access argument “Orwellian” because no one can possibly be against access. I’m not as thoughtful or eloquent as Jon, but my internal BS monitor started sounding the minute I read the purported justifications for the earlier date.

The college admissions profession is supposedly built on the principles of truth and transparency. On the AP students page, under “Exam Costs,” the College Board, in bold, states that the exam fee hasn’t changed for 2019-20, then in the same sentence removes the bold typeface to mention that “we’re introducing two new fees.” Why wouldn’t the entire sentence be in bold? And if we want to motivate students to take the exam, instead of being punitive and charging those who don’t take the exam $40, why not charge $134 for the exam and then give every student who completes $40?

The College Board has a right to change the registration process to serve its business purposes, although as a College Board member I oppose the change. But the rationale, if not Orwellian, is at least Shakespearean, as in “thou doth protest too much.” Don’t insult us or degrade yourself by couching the change as being for the benefit of students.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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