The Appeal of Standardized Tests
As colleges and universities have become more competitive, they have sought more measures, both qualitative and quantitative, to differentiate between highly suitable candidates. One piece of the puzzle for many schools has been the weighing of a prospective student’s standardized test scores, which purport to give an objective look at a candidate’s potential, no matter their background.
Standardized tests have been around for a long time - the SAT was first administered in 1926. Today, one of the most popular and fastest-growing options for ambitious candidates who want to add to their profile beyond the SAT is Advanced Placement, or AP, exams.
The Basics of AP Exams
AP exams are subject-specific tests written and administered by a non-profit organization called the College Board. These exams attempt to measure both content knowledge and academic skills. For example, AP U.S. History covers the full sweep of American history from pre-history up to the present day, and assesses test-takers’ abilities to master facts (through multiple choice questions) and synthesize facts and theory into arguments (through two different types of essay). Many (if not most) of the students who take these exams prepare for them through AP classes at their schools.
Currently, there are 34 AP exams available for students to take. There are AP classes in different areas of mathematics, science, language, history, art, music, literature, and the social sciences.
AP exams take place over the course of two weeks in May every year. For the 2014 testing year, each exam will cost $89, part of which often goes to the school running the testing site to help defray the costs of administration.
Despite the cost of the exam and the amount of work both inside and outside of school that goes into preparation and study, the amount of people who have taken AP exams has skyrocketed recently. According to the most recent data compiled by the College Board, in 2012 2,218,578 students worldwide took 3,938,100 AP exams.
When compared with the totals from a decade (1,017,396 and 1,737,231 respectively) and two decades (424,192 and 639,385 respectively) ago, it is very clear that more and more students are taking more and more exams. This begs the question: why?
Why the AP Exam? The Benefits
AP exam scores have the potential in some cases to do more for a candidate than merely separate them from others who want to go to the same set of colleges and universities. No matter what subject an exam is in, it is scored on the same scale, 1-5, with “1” being the lowest and “5” being the highest. (There are also scores of 0, but they indicate that the test-taker failed to address the questions in any meaningful way or simply left the exam blank - a wonderful way to waste money!) Scores of “1” or “2” indicate failure. Scores of “3”, “4”, or “5” are passing grades.
In many cases, colleges and universities will accept passing AP exam scores in lieu of entry-level college classes of the same subject. Different schools have different policies on the subjects and scores accepted. The College Board website has a service that allows people to search schools and policies, which can be found here: apscore.collegeboard.org/creditandplacement/search-credit-policies.
An Investment in Your Education
The ability to test out of certain subjects is a huge draw to the AP Exams. With the costs of attending post-secondary education on a seemingly never-ending rise, AP exams offer students the chance to skip taking certain courses and save themselves a substantial amount of money. For example, the University of New Hampshire will charge students $570.00 per credit hour this year. Each undergraduate class at UNH is worth four credit hours, making the cost per class $2,280.00. Compared with this, ninety or so dollars seems like a reasonable investment, especially when one considers that UNH is a public university and that there are many more expensive options available.
The rapid increase in participation in AP programs has not gone unnoticed in the business world. Textbook companies market editions that are written with AP courses in mind. (The College Board does not endorse any individual company or edition.) Companies have also produced books that are designed to act as discipline-specific study aids. These books are modeled along the same lines as Cliffs Notes or Sparknotes. They contain slimmed down versions of content, and are organized to minimize the amount of time that a student needs to find the essentials for whatever topic is being covered.
Study aids also include practice questions modeled after ones that have appeared on real AP exams. (The College Board has released entire versions of previous exams for students’ use as well.) In addition to publishers, tutoring companies have capitalized on rising demand for services supporting these tests by organizing and training tutors for specific subjects.
AP Exams Today
AP exams and scores are part of a greater trend in American education - the obsession with assessment and test scores. While many colleges welcome these tests, others do not see them as being valid measures of a student’s abilities. Some do not accept AP scores at all, or only accept a set of a certain number of scores that must be a “4”, or in some cases a “5”. While there are people and institutions who question the value of AP tests (along with all other standardized tests), it would seem that they are not going away any time soon.
- The College Board: http://www.collegeboard.org/