The College Board, Educational Testing Services (ETS) and the College Entrance Examination Board face a proposed class action lawsuit centered on extensive issues experienced by high schoolers forced to take this year’s AP exams at home due to the COVID-19 crisis.
In the comfort of students’ own homes?
Faced with the decision to cancel its AP program, postpone the annual advanced placement exams or offer the tests to students at home due to the pandemic, the College Board decided to go forward with home testing with “significant structural changes,” the 46-page lawsuit says.
According to the complaint out of California, however, it became immediately apparent that “serious concerns” existed with regard to administering the AP exams at home.
“After one day of testing, it became clear that the College Board and ETS had failed to fairly, competently, or equitably administer the AP exams,” the plaintiffs, among whom is California public charity the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), allege. “The students who relied on AP scores for the financial benefits of college placement and credit experienced technical glitches, timing issues, and a heightened level of anxiety and distress.”
Among the concerns as testing season rolled around was that at-home AP examinations would not be fair for under-resourced students, such as those in low-income or rural areas, who may lack internet access, a computer or quiet workspace in which to take the tests, the case says. Questions existed, too, with regard to legally mandatory accommodations for students with disabilities and the availability of fair access to connectivity, test security and score compatibility for all students, the suit adds.
Though counselors, educators, advocates and students’ families reached out to the defendants to make them aware of the concerns surrounding at-home AP testing, the College Board “acknowledged that these issues existed” yet did nothing by way of policy changes to ensure the AP exams were administered smoothly and fairly, the lawsuit says.
According to the complaint, on May 14, after three full days of at-home AP testing, the College Board admitted there was “a measurable failure rate in uploading exams,” adding to the already unbearable anxiety experienced by many high schoolers and their parents and guardians during the coronavirus pandemic.
Though the College Board reported a one-percent failure rate after the first week of testing—initially blaming technical issues on students before reversing course—AP Exam coordinators told a different story, the lawsuit says.
Per the case, it was reported that anywhere between five and 20 percent of AP exam takers were unable to submit their responses through the at-home testing platform during the first three days of May’s two-week exam period. Further, one AP coordinator clocked a reported failure rate of 30 percent, the suit says, noting that while some students were able to submit only partial responses, others found they “could not even log on to take the exams.”
Despite the seemingly ubiquitous challenges presented by the pandemic, neither the College Board nor ETS have offered anything close to an adequate remedy for students and their families, the lawsuit alleges. According to a report from the Chronicle of Higher Education, though the College Board implemented an email-based workaround for Week 2 AP test takers to submit answers in case of a glitch, those who sat for the exams between May 11 and 15 are out of luck.
“They were told that their only remedy was to retake the exam over the summer, if they qualified for a retake exam,” the suit says, stressing that some have yet to be able to confirm access to retakes while others have had more than one AP exam scheduled for a retake on the same day.
The plaintiffs stress that despite the College Board’s intention to move all assessments—including the SAT—to an at-home format, the administration of this year’s AP exams is evidence enough that “until the technical issues, the digital divide and other inequities are adequately addressed, it cannot do so.”
Much riding on AP Exam scores, case explains
The College Board—i.e. the player in the educational market with the most influence over high school curricula, college admissions and financial outcomes—touts that students who score a three or higher (out of five) on any of 38 subject-specific AP exams are typically in line for greater academic success in college, the case explains. Moreover, passing AP exam scores can potentially save students and their parents not only thousands in college tuition costs but ultimately time given the possibility that success on the AP exams may allow a student to finish college earlier than others, the suit continues.
In order to obtain college credits while in high school, a student must pass an AP test as scored and reported by the College Board, ETS and the College Entrance Examination Board, the lawsuit says. But as the lawsuit tells it, however, the preparation done by millions of students for this year’s AP Exams, which cost between $100 and $150 per test, went out the window once the coronavirus pandemic forced schools nationwide to close.
This year’s digital exams were scheduled to last only 45 minutes (40 minutes with five minutes to begin uploading answers before the test ends) instead of three hours, and all tests in the same subject were given at exactly the same time, the lawsuit says. As a result, some students in one part of the world could be taking an exam in the middle of the night while others elsewhere would be taking the same test in the middle of the day, the suit says:
Students in Hawaii begin their first exams each day at 6 a.m., while students in New York begin the same exams at noon. The 2020 exams include material covered until the time of the COVID-19 breakout instead of the entire course curriculum.”
Given the sway it holds over the educational market and students’ futures, the College Board is perfectly aware that access to its AP Exams must be fair, reliable and affordable, the suit says. In the face of accessibility and technical concerns from educators, parents and counselors, the College Board pressed on with at-home AP testing while claiming certain disability accommodations previously provided would be “modified, eliminated, or were deemed ‘unnecessary’” given the new digital format, the complaint says.
As the plaintiffs tell it, the general hum of anxiety underlying this year’s exams developed into a full-blown catastrophe laden with accessibility roadblocks for many at-home AP exam-takers. From the complaint:
The first week of the 2020 AP exams revealed the deep digital divide among AP test-takers, and it became clear how the revised exam format disproportionately impacted certain groups of students, including those who are underresourced, who lack access to technology or quiet workspaces, students with disabilities, and students testing in non-ideal time zones. A number of students suffered from technical glitches, timing issues, issues with their computer software, disability accommodation issues, and widespread panic due to the inability to reach anyone at the College Board for assistance.
Who does this lawsuit look to cover?
The 13-count lawsuit aims to cover students who did not have fair and equal access to, or were not able to complete, the 2020 AP exams due to the College Board’s decisions prior to administration of the tests. Additionally, the suit looks to represent California-only “subclasses” comprised of disabled and under-resourced students in the state.