Drop the College Board

Chris McNutt
April 9, 2020
It’s clear that the College Board is not only grossly overfunded and a waste of money, bordering on corruption, but a completely unethical, inequitable, and useless indicator of college preparedness.

In early April, the College Board, a $1 billion revenue a year non-profit organization, announced its new protocols for AP testing during the COVID-19 crisis. All AP courses will forego the multiple choice-heavy exam, instead solely administering an at-home essay with no restrictions on Internet usage. The tests are open-note but are restricted to 45 minutes. Months work of learning are boiled down to one or two essay questions.

The College Board provides AP testing, the SAT and PSAT, among many others. In our age of isolation it’s become readily apparent that none of this is worth it. All of the sudden, many colleges are going test optional. Are all these learners, who did not have the opportunity to take the glorious SAT suddenly going to fail and drop out of college? Are they going to realize ten years from now they cannot use the word “adroitness” in conversation? The horror!

It’s clear that the College Board is not only grossly overfunded and a waste of money, bordering on corruption, but a completely unethical, inequitable, and useless indicator of college preparedness. It’s a gatekeeper to higher education with no real purpose, and its use in schools limits the curriculum, causes anxiety among all parties, labels students, and favors the rich.

According to College Board’s official equity statement,

College Board strongly encourages educators to make equitable access a guiding principle for their AP programs by giving all willing and academically prepared students the opportunity to participate in AP. We encourage the elimination of barriers that restrict access to AP for students from ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups that have been traditionally underrepresented. Schools should make every effort to ensure their AP classes reflect the diversity of their student population. College Board also believes that all students should have access to academically challenging coursework before they enroll in AP classes, which can prepare them for AP success. It is only through a commitment to equitable preparation and access that true equity and excellence can be achieved.

Nothing about high stakes standardized testing is equitable, especially during COVID-19. To the Board’s credit, they are providing Internet access for in-need AP testers. Yet, to believe that all students are created equal in gathering data from the Internet is naive at best, and is more likely an insouciant action. In courses that are primarily based around memorizing information (see this practice 2017 AP US History Test, where a quick glance will garner almost entirely recall questions), it is improbable a teacher had the time to focus on research gathering, keyword searching, or even technology use. And despite the Board’s claim that,

We designed this year’s AP Exams knowing you have access to your notes and resources, so the exam questions will ask you to apply concepts from your notes and resources in new ways. Copying what you have done in the past won’t produce a satisfactory answer.

…it doesn’t seem to be that way at all! For example, the AP Government essay has 7 total points:

That totals 5/7 points, the remainder by connecting the information to the thesis. It seems to me that the vast majority of this essay provides a gigantic advantage to those who have access to a quick Internet connection and have built the digital skillset to navigate the Web effectively. It also seems like memorizing a ton of information wasn’t worth it.

It reminds me of an online test I was given in one of my final, higher level history courses. According to the professor, “it would not be possible to Google all the information on the test” — which is the same language reflected by the College Board. Perhaps the professor, who was likely not that technologically savvy, was not able to type very quickly, or maybe he didn’t care — but I Googled every single question, found the relevant information in 2–3 links, and still finished with more than half the time to spare. As a proud nerd, I spent many of my free hours on the computer, and I read constantly. I had the skillset for this type of thing. I went to less than 50% of those classes, didn’t study at all for the test, barely knew anything on the test, and still received a 100%. Meanwhile, one of my friends in the same course, who didn’t own a computer until college, and who went to every lecture like clockwork, received an 80%. He said he was “pressed for time.” There is a giant equity gap here. The College Board is truly developing an inchoate test. And this is normal, College Board tests have always been inequitable — and not just due to technology.

AP testing and test prep is a multi-billion dollar industry, plaguing teacher training and costing students a fortune. All tests are easily exploited by the rich, where $10,000+ test prep camps boast extremely high score increases. The achievement gap across SES is backed by the College Board’s own data. If a test is able to be rigged by pattern-memorizing, contextual clues, and other “test taking skills” — are we measuring the test based on “knowledge” or something else? Is it fair that those with financial power have yet another advantage in the education system? Not to mention, colleges which have foregone SAT requirements have seen an increase in black and Latinx student enrollment, and college graduation rates did not change. It will be interesting to note when tens of thousands of students enter college in Fall 2020, graduate at the same rate as their peers, all without taking the SAT!

Then the question becomes: well, if the SAT seemingly doesn’t matter, the AP tests are costing a fortune, standardized testing is linked to crippling anxiety and poor teaching strategies, and students succeed despite all this testing — why are we doing it? Why are we bankrolling a billion dollar company, wasting funds for teachers to improve at their craft and create classrooms that focus on bringing in and building upon student experiences, something that would normally “get in the way of” AP or SAT content?

Pictured: A snippet from a SAT test-prep event. (only $125!)

Clearly, this is an exigent cause. The obvious move is to use this information to drop the College Board and focus on transformative professional development that is still “rigorous” — due to challenging, relevant information that is based in reality as opposed to shallow, fast-paced breadth over depth. A growing number of schools no longer care about test scores. Colleges will still demand the best and brightest youth to be admitted — and without tests, that means a greater focus on what one has done with their education. Are they producing projects? Getting involved with their community? Finding purposeful work? Overcoming obstacles? School can be the place that inspires all of this if we remove the faux rigor and anxiety of standardized tests.

Pictured: The Ministry of Truth (from the movie adaptation of 1984.)

Meanwhile, the Board’s response to any criticism of their organization reads like the Ministry of Truth. Beyond the staggering systemic issues that standardized testing causes, it appears as if the College Board struggles to maintain basic procedures:

Like when they contradict themselves in their instructions:

Like many college-level exams, this year’s AP Exams will be open book/open note.” …
“The exam format and questions are being designed specifically for an at-home administration, so points will not be earned from content that can be found in textbooks or online.

Okay, then why were the tests ever entirely multiple-choice and closed note? Why not always give tests like this? Plus, the rubric and documentation on the website state that everything is open-note. That makes no sense!

And when they served a take-down notice for publishing statistics that made them look bad:

A letter from College Board lawyers to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) asserts that charts of SAT scores broken down by ethnicity, sex and family income cannot be posted on FairTest’s website without the Board’s explicit permission. The letter claims publication of the data, “significantly impacts the perceptions of students, parents, and educators regarding the services we provide.

And when they sold student data:

There is a real and meaningful difference in both the law and in the real-world implications between selling and licensing,” the spokesperson said. “A sale involves a complete transfer of ownership wherein the buyer can use the transferred item or data as the buyer sees fit. The College Board does not do this. A license is not a transfer of ownership but rather a right to use, under tightly controlled circumstances.

And when they failed to stop thousands of students from leaking test information):

The report also recommended appointing a manager to protect the new exam. It suggested the College Board “explicitly assign a Security Lead to the Program with overall responsibility for all aspects of security related to the Assessment Redesign Program and the redesigned assessments.” Officials should “clearly document the responsibilities and mandate of this role….It’s unclear whether the College Board named a security chief or what steps, if any, it took to protect exam materials stored digitally. In a statement, spokeswoman Riley said the consultant later assessed how the College Board responded to the recommendations and determined “we made significant progress in every area, including our security policies and procedures.

And when they made problems more complex for no given reason, despite complaints by professors and experts):

It’s outrageous. Just outrageous,” said Anita Bright, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University in Oregon. “The students that are in the most academically vulnerable position when it comes to high-stakes testing are being particularly marginalized,” she said…College Board CEO David Coleman, the chief architect of the redesign, declined to be interviewed, as did other College Board officials named in this article.

And when the 2018 mathematics test was created “too easy”, resulting in drastically lower scores than normal. This fostered a 30,000 signed petition):

We understand your questions about your June SAT scores,” the message says. “We want to assure you that your scores are accurate. While we plan for consistency across administrations, on occasion there are some tests that can be easier or more difficult than usual. That is why we use a statistical process called ‘equating.’ Equating makes sure that a score for a test taken on one date is equivalent to a score from another date. So, for example, a single incorrect answer on one administration could equal two or three incorrect answers on a more difficult version. The equating process ensures fairness for all students.”

And building upon the previous point, when the test was seen as incredibly disproportionately weighted through “equating”, no refunds were given.

This is not to state that equity issues will be miraculously solved by eliminating standardized tests. There must be measures in place to train teachers in pedagogy that goes beyond recall and engages all students, not to mention actual societal changes that lessen the gap between rich and poor, such as free healthcare, free public tuition, a widening of government assistance, and better funding of K-12 schools. However, eliminating at least one organization and its aims at cupidity would go a long way in ensuring more time for educators and students to make sense of the classroom. Now is as good a time as ever to wake up and realize that the College Board is damaging to all involved.

(Additional research and data surrounding the inapplicability and ludicrousness of standardized testing can be found on

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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