The College Board Conundrum


Chelsea Purdum, Staff Writer

It was a Saturday morning in August when students, scared and eager to start the SAT test, waited by the Pali flagpole. College-bound teens everywhere experience these emotions as they prepare to take similar standardized tests.

The SAT, PSAT, SAT Subject tests and AP tests are administered by the College Board, an American nonprofit that has a stated goal of expanding access to higher education. However, with families spending hundreds of dollars on test registration and tutors, people begin to question whether or not the tests are really worth the money.

On one hand, these expenses might be necessary, as the College Board needs money to research the curriculum, create new questions and produce the best-possible test in order to help colleges predict just how successful a student will be.

Advanced Placement courses and exams are expensive for both the College Board and students. In 2017, 2.7 million students from around the globe sat for 4.9 million Advanced Placement tests. The College Board argues that these courses offer students a way to develop skills necessary for college as well as save money by earning college credit. In addition, research shows that students who have taken AP courses are more likely to earn their four-year college degrees on time, avoiding the cost of a fifth year of college, which, on average, ranges from $9,970 to $34,740.

However, because some students opt out of taking the AP exams, it is clear that their priority is to impress colleges rather than get college credit. AP English Language and AP English Literature teacher Mary Cappelli states, “It’s a scam in education when a student signs up for an AP course and doesn’t take the exam.” She argues that students should instead focus on mastering a subject in order to save money and time later on. “I had a student get out after three years because of AP credit at Syracuse University,” she said.

According to Cappelli, AP courses can be harder than their college-level counterparts. “I currently teach English and I have taught college English and I can say that my AP Lang course is much harder than my English class at Emerson College.”

It is likely a relief to students who have successfully conquered AP classes to know that they can handle college courses.
“The AP Lang curriculum is rigorous. It’s meant to be rigorous because it frees you from taking that course in college,” Cappelli explained. “If you pass an AP exam, you’re saving your parents’ money.”

In order to earn college credit, most schools require a score of 4 or 5 on the $94 exam. Even then, the college credit earned is usually just for an introductory course. At UCLA, for example, a grade of 3, 4 or 5 on the Physics exam can place a student out of General Physics. However, if a student is planning on majoring in Physics, it might make sense to take General Physics to ensure that he or she knows just as much as his or her collegiate peers. For this reason, some may view AP exams as an unnecessary cost.

In addition to offering AP courses, the College Board offers the Scholastic Aptitude Test, more commonly known as the SAT. This is a standardized test frequently used in the college admissions process to assess students’ writing, critical reading and mathematical abilities. It provides data that allows colleges to compare students from all different countries, states, schools and backgrounds.

Since students’ grades and extracurriculars can vary greatly due to individual circumstances, it’s hard for colleges to make comparisons between students. Fortunately, the SAT is, in theory, a way for students to be compared to one another without these extraneous variables. In an attempt to make the test even more of a fair comparison, the College Board waives or reduces test fees for income-eligible students and offers an increasing amount of free study materials and courses online.

So, presumably, no student should be at a disadvantage. Recently, however, students have been suffering under a series of testing discrepancies. “It used to be that they [the College Board] could be counted upon to produce objectively uniform tests,” said Adam Stone, an SAT and ACT tutor. “Now? I don’t see how anyone can truly trust the College Board. We saw international students first, and now domestic ones, suffer under a series of exams that had drastically different scoring curves … That variation is a problem, and it’s been on the rise with the SAT.”

Additionally, students who cannot afford tutors may be hugely disadvantaged when it comes to the SAT. Many students and parents from high-income houses are willing to spend hundreds, and even thousands on SAT tutors and prep. SAT practice tests are available for free at the library and online, but one-on-one, individualized tutoring can cost up to $200 an hour. For many students, this price is far too high, and their scores may suffer because of it.

Furthermore, this theme of disparity within the College Board testing process was also evident in the organization’s inarguably racist beginnings. The SAT was founded in 1926 by Carl Campbell Bingham, who at the time was an avid eugenicist and believed that certain races and ethnicities were biologically superior to others, especially in terms of intelligence. Bingham analyzed army testing results from over 100,000 World War I U.S. Army recruits in his most famous book, A Study of American Intelligence, and used these results as inspiration for the SAT. In his study Bingham concluded, “It would be a waste of good money to even attempt to try and give these born morons and imbeciles [African Americans, Italians and Jews] a good Anglo-Saxon education, let alone admit them into our fine medical, law and engineering graduate schools.” While Bingham later renounced his views and College Board officials have tried to distance themselves from these past attitudes and practices, they remain a part of the organization’s history.

Regardless of its past, the College Board plays a significant role in the college admissions process, and that role is likely to persist despite the high prices and questionable value of AP courses. Ultimately, it is up to each student to decide whether the possible benefits of these standardized tests outweigh the costs.