In Defense of Rigor: A Response to the College Board’s Critics

The New York Times’ latest hit piece on the College Board appeared in print yesterday under the headline “College Board Pushes Its Tests Many Will Fail.” To which I respond, “Wonderful!”

Not everyone has to be good at everything! Not everyone should pass the Advanced Placement tests the article has its targets set on! I don’t know when this became a radical position.

My advisees’ AP and SAT test scores will end up being practically the only way to get a meaningful sense of their academic ability, given that, for example, 95%+ of the Saudi students in this year’s cohort have a 4.0 GPA.

The web version of the article is entitled “Why is the College Board Pushing to Expand Advanced Placement?” (Can’t you just hear the cynicism?) Of course, this couldn’t simply be a good-faith effort to give underfunded schools a high-quality AP Computer Science curriculum—or students in Florida a chance to read unsanitized versions of Black history in AP African American Studies.

No, the nefarious College Board must have an ulterior motive—the pursuit of filthy lucre. Yes, you see, the article reveals a murky web of hundreds of millions of dollars in test fees, some of which are paid by the government. And this is very bad, for some reason. And of course, there is the outrageous expense to schools of acquiring these lofty AP curricula….

Except there isn’t. Hidden amidst the excoriation, the article contains this gem: “A.P. curriculums… are given to schools for free” (emphasis mine).

After this concession, the tirade resumes: “But the grueling, multi-hour tests put many low-income students at a disadvantage. Their families have fewer resources to spend on test prep; they may not speak English as a first language; and they may have attended elementary and middle schools that provided less effective preparation.”

I don’t even know where to start with this kind of logic, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I engage in a thought experiment.

Let’s imagine that I start a nonprofit called “The Hospital Board”, and I decided to create a standardized exam–with, for example, a blood test, chest x-ray, and kidney function panel–called the Health Assessment Test (HAT).

As the results come in, there is a worrying pattern. Minority and low-income test takers have noticeably worse results than wealthy, nonminority test takers. (In fact, I know that this would be true – my mom grew up in one of the nation’s poorest counties, McDowell County, WV, which currently has a life expectancy that’s a decade lower than the national average.)

The New York Times and the “Test Optional Industry” arrive to save the day. “The HAT is racist!” they say. “The Hospital Board is classist!”

Are you starting to see the problem? It’s a lot easier to blame the College Board than to fix bad parenting, bad elementary and middle school education, and a wildly uneven wealth distribution. Maybe the problem isn’t testing; maybe it’s everything else.

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