How To Center Equity in Advanced Coursework Testing During COVID-19

A student arrives to a high school in Stamford, Connecticut, September 2020.

In July, the results of the 2020 Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams were released. From frustration and confusion about the exam processes to skepticism about lower-than-expected scores, many students, parents, and school leaders had strong reactions to the new testing systems for these advanced high school courses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The stakes are high for students, as these exams can provide valuable college credit.

As schools across the globe closed earlier this year, the structure for receiving college credit from AP and IB courses had to be overhauled in a compressed time period. For AP courses, this meant moving to an entirely new online testing format. IB exams, meanwhile, were canceled, and the organization instead relied on a newly developed algorithm based on previously completed student work to predict final grades and credit awards.

In both cases, there was a limited window to decide on and effectively communicate these changes to schools and families and to determine their efficacy and impact on students with less access to technology or less ability to adapt to new testing and grading regimes. This matters because these courses can give high school students a head start on their college careers, help them prepare for success in college, and ease the debt burden they may face.

With coronavirus disruptions continuing into the 2020-21 school year, there are likely to be similar testing challenges next spring. Preparations to create more flexible and resilient systems must begin now, and decision-makers should focus on providing equitable access to the courses and the exams. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were barriers and limitations to access to and success in advanced coursework—particularly for students from families with low incomes and for students who are Black, Indigenous, or non-Black people of color. Students deserve transparency about evaluation methods to receive college credit, and both students and schools need robust communication from testing organizations about test timing and technical requirements so that they can effectively prepare for exams.

Problems with test administration in 2020

As states entered COVID-19 lockdowns toward the end of March, administrators of AP and IB tests faced a difficult decision: continue as normal with in-person exams, develop new testing formats and processes, or choose not to administer the exams and find an alternative way to evaluate students—or simply force students to forego a chance to earn college credit.

The College Board, which administers the AP program, chose to proceed with its exams in a new, condensed online format instead of having students take them in person at schools or testing centers. While some students welcomed the opportunity to still have a chance to earn college credit, the decision also received substantial backlash. Concerns included whether there would be equity gaps in access to computers and broadband internet, as well as unequal testing conditions. For example, a recently released report found that 1 in 3 Black, Latinx, and Indigenous families lack access to high-speed home internet, as do 2 in 5 families living in rural areas. Additionally, other research found that the quality of remote instruction and the extent of learning loss for students has varied widely across the nation. There are also concerns about the integrity of scores, as exams were not able to be monitored or proctored in their typical fashion, and risks to credit recognition from colleges. Additionally, some students were unable to submit their exams due to technological glitches, resulting in a pending lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the International Baccalaureate, which administers IB programs, chose not to administer its exam and instead developed a predictive model to award credit based on students’ existing work and the online submission of remaining assignments. The release of scores, however, raised a number of  questions about whether the model—which was not made transparent to participating schools or the public—was statistically fair and accurately reflected student knowledge. Since a number of students believe that they fared worse than they would have under normal conditions, there is currently an online petition with more than 25,000 signatures protesting these scores as unjust and asking for greater transparency and clarifications.

How to build resilient testing systems for 2021 and beyond

In the face of school closures and physical distancing, it is essential for the administrators of advanced coursework tests to create a more flexible testing system for receiving college credit in high school. In the short term, this means moving away from in-school and single-opportunity testing. In the longer term, there could be opportunities to expand beyond the reliance on a final examination to determine college credit.

As debates continue about the safety and capacity of physically reopening schools this year, test administrators should once again be planning for scenarios that do not involve in-person examinations next spring. Testing organizations should spend the fall working to develop a plan for how they intend to conduct examinations in a way that increases accessibility for all students, including those with disabilities and English language learners. In order to improve equity in access, test administrators should take the following steps:

  • Lower technology thresholds to make student submission of coursework and exams more flexible and to allow students to automatically save work progress in real time in the event of any lapse in connectivity.
  • Use Universal Design for Learning principles in the creation of testing materials and coursework, such as multiple options for work submission and the use of text-to-speech, Braille, and larger text options to ensure accessibility for all learners, including students with disabilities and English language learners.
  • Allow longer windows of submission for work products, assignments, and exams.
  • Develop larger question banks to allow for nonsynchronous testing across time zones and ensure that questions are not made public before different student populations have taken an exam. It is important for test administrators to recognize that students may have competing demands on their time—such as the need to care for younger siblings—or challenges accessing necessary technology in limited time windows.

With more time to prepare for potential disruptions to assessments in spring 2021, the College Board and IB need to consult with a wide cross-section of school and district leaders, including education technology organizations. This would help the testing organizations prepare for the range of technology and timing circumstances students may face when assessments are delivered.

Once a plan is developed, it will be critical to get the word out early to schools and families through multiple communication channels. Testing organizations must develop a robust communications strategy to reach students and families whose primary home language is not English. Furthermore, this work needs to include nondigital communications channels and should be conducted in tandem with local school leaders and school-parent organizations.

The College Board and the IB are not monolithic organizations that can dictate terms and reciprocity agreements independently. Both serve as intermediary organizations that must balance and manage what is possible for students with what colleges will recognize for credit. As a result, college admissions staff have a role to play in ensuring an equitable and fair testing system: They must create transparent reciprocity agreements and foster greater cooperation with organizations like AP and IB.

Reconsidering long-standing assessment systems

Looking beyond spring 2021, test administrators should reconsider their reliance on a single standard final exam. Just as many colleges use problem sets, projects, research papers, lab work, and other means to supplement exams, evidence suggests that the use of performance-based assessment measures in K-12 settings, over time, can be a valid and reliable way to evaluate student knowledge as well as an indicator of college readiness.

Studies of New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment for Competency Education have shown promising results, and more and more colleges are using performance-based measures in their admissions processes. IB, and to a lesser extent AP, have already used some degree of performance-based measures in their respective forms of student portfolios, including the submission of student artifacts, as well as capstone models that involve the completion of an ongoing project-based task.

Changing long-standing assessment systems will not be an easy or quick process. However, it is critically important that organizations extensively and promptly communicate what their plans are. Moreover, they must invest in making their assessments as accessible to as many students as possible.

Conclusion

With disruptions to school instructional time likely to continue into 2021, testing organizations need to proactively prepare for changes to advanced coursework exams next spring. They need to develop plans that are more flexible in delivery so as not to exacerbate existing access problems. Once a plan is in place, it is essential for it to be both transparent and communicated early and often so that schools, students, and families know what to expect and how to allocate their time and energy.

In the long term, testing organizations may want to be more deliberate and intentional about how to ensure the tests are available to as many families as possible and are authentically and accurately gauging student knowledge. Part of this process must involve reevaluating and reimagining assessments and course structures in a more comprehensive way.

Roby Chatterji is a senior policy analyst for K-12 Education at the Center for American Progress.

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