Unmasking the College Board

By Nick Griffin

June 1, 2020

twitter-icon twitter-icon

Every year, hundreds of Classical students file into the gym, ready to take a test that can help them earn college credits: the AP exam. These credits can save students time and money after graduation; AP credits can help students get out of required courses that cost hundreds of dollars and may not even contribute to their major. At the center of this exam is the College Board, a non-profit that creates and administers tests like the SATs, PSATs, APs, LSATs, and more.

The allure of earning hundreds of dollars of college credits can hide certain ugly facts about the College Board: the company has not sufficiently addressed serious issues that make testing an unequal experience for students. For years, studies have shown that privileged students score much higher on standardized tests than underprivileged ones. Without equal access to test prep resources, quality education, or even just a quiet place to study, it can be hard for disadvantaged high schoolers to score as high as their more privileged peers. The College Board may not be addressing this issue for one key reason- they don’t really have to.

Unlike many other businesses in America, the College Board has no substantial competition. Its only competitor is the IB diploma program, which is barely offered at high schools in the United States. In fact, the only school that offers IB in Rhode Island is Prout, a $15,000-a-year Catholic school. Lack of access to IB means that AP classes are essentially the only way for high schoolers to earn college credits, short of spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars at community colleges. This absence of competition makes the College Board a monopoly. There is no other affordable option to earn credits for the vast majority of students across America.

Earning credit is not the only reason students take AP courses. College admissions offices often look to AP exam results to measure academic merit due to their rigor. This makes it almost impossible for students to avoid taking at least one AP test during their high school career. In fact, about 97% of Classical students take at least one AP course before graduating. Since the vast majority of students will take their exams, and they have no substantial competition, the College Board can behave irresponsibly without facing financial repercussions.

The College Board has been accused of more than not ensuring a fair process for underprivileged students. In 2016, the company was accused of selling student data, for which it was sued in a class-action lawsuit. More recently, students have accused the College Board of trying to entrap students on social media. Several would-be test takers interacted with social media posts about cheating, only to have their test registrations cancelled. This could be a coincidence, but actually falls under their social media policy, which says that they may “post content designed to confuse and deter those who attempt to cheat.” This social media policy may be designed to prevent cheating, but comes across as spying on students.

After the pandemic reached the U.S. and schools began to close for the rest of the year, the College Board was faced with a choice: cancel the AP exams, or continue on with a shortened version that allowed students to test at home. After polling showed that a large majority of students wanted to continue (91%), the company began planning for stay-at-home AP tests.

During the first week of testing, the problems with taking online exams became apparent. These difficulties ranged from not being able to log on to not being able to submit work. Some students reported submitting completed exams only to get an email saying that their work had not been accepted and that they would need to retake the test in June.

After a few days of testing, the College Board released a statement revealing that about 1% of test takers had encountered problems and would have to retake their exams. Although this may seem like a tiny fraction of the millions who took the test, this statistic means that 10,000 students may have had problems with submissions. Not only does this statistic mean that thousands were affected; it also seems to be deflated. According to an Instagram poll the Chronicle conducted after the first week of exams, 37% of respondents encountered issues with submitting their work. Based on court documents from a lawsuit filed against the College Board 2 weeks ago, 5-20% of students had problems with submissions. This data suggests that the College Board underreported by thousands of exams.

After this first week of testing, the College Board announced that it would allow students to submit exams via email if there were issues with the online system. This fix, though a genuine effort to rectify the issues of the previous week, still left tens of thousands of test takers out in the cold. Students who could not submit exams the previous week would still have to retake their tests in June. Being forced to retake a difficult exam over the summer is unfair to every student who worked hard all year and did not submit through no fault of their own. Students should not have to face the consequences of a system that was ill-equipped to accept their exams.

This is not only unfair; it may be illegal. According to a lawsuit filed against the College Board after the first week of exams, the company failed to ensure equal access to exams and was in breach of contract for requiring a retake over the summer. The suit, brought by parents of students who have to retake the test as well as the Center for Fair and Open Testing, addresses issues like unfair access to quiet and distraction-free testing environments, glitchy and cumbersome systems, and breach of contract for requiring some students to take the test multiple times. This is a big step in holding the billion-dollar company accountable for its actions.

Some challenge these accusations by arguing that the company did nothing wrong; legally, ethically, or otherwise. The pandemic was unpredictable, and the College Board tried to adapt to provide testing that students wanted. They argue that The College Board is not at fault for failed submissions or other technical difficulties because it did not have the resources or time to make a foolproof online system. It also changed its system to accept emails during week 2 of the exams. Claims that the company did its best in the face of a global catastrophe are understandable; after all, no one could have foreseen the far-reaching effects of the pandemic.

Despite these claims, the College Board did have other options that would have been better for students. After the scope of the coronavirus pandemic became apparent, the IB decided to cancel their exams in order to ensure no student was at a disadvantage. The company opted to use grades and coursework difficulty in order to award credit and diplomas. This gave students a chance to complete the course without having an unfair test at the end of it.

The College Board has a problem. Because of their monopoly, they are not incentivized enough to make changes that benefit students. From selling student data to forcing students to retake APs, the College Board needs to be held to account for its actions. Hopefully, the AP retake lawsuit will create a lasting culture of accountability at the company. The College Board needs to make sure that its tests are fair and that students are able to succeed regardless of their internet or ability to access a computer.

Back to Top