Students may need more, not less, academic challenges post-pandemic

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Many believe the dire educational effects of the pandemic mean we should let our children down, at least for a while. This is one of the many reasons why many schools reduce homework and make it easier to get good grades.

Could this be the wrong approach? The College Board has compiled data indicating that students should be challenged more, rather than less. Results shared with The Washington Post ahead of publication suggest that students who had to commit to an AP course early on the tough final exam did better than those allowed to decide later whether they would complete the big test.

The data comes from the College Board’s Advanced College Placement Program for high school students. Even in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, 2,642,630 students managed to pass 4,751,957 exams in over 35 subjects. This year, 2,659,914 students took over 4.8 million exams. These numbers are expected to increase next year.

Five years ago, AP researchers noticed that 97% of white male students, 95% of black female students, and 93% of female STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students surveyed at the start of their AP classes were convinced that they would complete the courses and pass the dreaded exams. Other gender and race groups were also optimistic.

But only 77% of white students, 65% of black female students, and 70% of female STEM students actually took the exams, written and scored by outside experts, so they can’t be dumbed down as finals often are. secondary school courses. The results of the AP and International Baccalaureate exams decide whether a student will earn college credit for those courses, giving AP and IB courses and exams an unusual depth and breadth. Many schools do not require AP students to take AP final exams.

Overall, black and Hispanic students also had disappointing AP course completion rates five years ago, the data shows. Educators and researchers have speculated that some may have been low-income students and struggled to manage homework and other family responsibilities. They suggested that female students in STEM courses might have been hurt by sexist allusions from adults and other students that they would not succeed in the rigorous courses.

Will there be big changes in education after the pandemic? No, but look deeper.

But the researchers noticed something else. Some schools saw staggering AP completion and exam numbers when they ignored the College Board’s tradition of letting AP students wait until mid-April to decide whether they would take the exams. AP leader Trevor Packer said these schools “set a very firm deadline at the start of the school year, so students decide early on if they’re going to focus and persist – and their teachers knew they had to then help these students cross the finish line.

Could committing to the exam early be good for students? Some people looking at the data thought the explanation was too simple. They also worried that students would be less likely to enroll in the AP if they had to commit to taking the exams well in advance of taking them.

College Board officials decided to test the theories. For the 2018-2019 school year, they randomly assigned about 600 schools to a mandatory early registration deadline (November 15) for the May exams.

The results surprised them. Each ethnic and gender group in the early enrollment sample increased the number of students completing the AP course, taking the final exam, and achieving scores of 3 or higher on the 5-point grading scale. Low-income students and female STEM students did particularly well.

College Board trustees, many of whom were school counselors, trustees and college admissions officers, then approved what Packer called “the biggest investment I’ve ever asked for in my 19 years in this position. They spent $90 million, Packer said, “to overhaul all of our annual operating systems and technologies so that it’s all about this new fall registration process: printing exams, shipping, scoring, etc. .”

After setting November 15, 2021 as the national deadline for exam registration, they saw a sharp increase in the number of students taking the exams in spring 2022 – 350,000 more than expected. White and Asian students increased only slightly – around 1%. Black and Hispanic students increased significantly, 13% and 10%, respectively. The share of scores reaching 3 or more increased from 56% in 2021 to 60% in 2022, the highest percentage in years.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of students who said their worries about taking tough AP exams made them work harder in class than they otherwise would have. Even those who failed exams said wrestling prepared them better for college. So far, only one student has told me that PA stress hurt her.

Are schools wrong to give students a break from difficult schoolwork in the aftermath of the pandemic? Opinions on this will continue to be mixed, but many students who have challenged themselves in this way say they were glad they did.

Julio V. Miller