Standardized testing is a hot topic these days. There’s extensive media coverage of student walkouts, parent protests, internet-led boycotts and plenty of debate in our education conversations about the negative impact of so-called high-stakes testing. Even candidates for office now take official positions on the proper role of standardized testing in our schools.

But if you stepped inside a typical high school in the month of May, it’s likely you saw or heard students taking an entirely voluntary standardized test: the Advanced Placement (AP) exam. Developed and administered by The College Board, AP classes and their end-of-course tests are taken by well over two million high school students each year, covering 37 different subject areas. Some universities give college credit to incoming freshmen for earning certain scores on the test, which then frees up valuable time for other courses and electives.

Again, all this testing is voluntary, with the $92 exam fee paid for by the student. Financial assistance is available for low-income students to defray the cost.*

But what about the boycotts? Why are so many students signing up for these courses and paying to take these standardized tests? Answer: because AP classes remain one of the best ways to prepare students for college.

According to a leading researcher “AP courses have become the primary avenue for delivering advanced coursework in public high schools.” And this is important because research shows our high schools aren’t getting enough of our kids ready for college.

In school districts like Bellevue, it’s common to see practically every inch of available non-classroom space (e.g., gyms, libraries) devoted to students taking AP (or International Baccalaureate) tests. Here’s how the Bellevue School District describes the value of AP courses on its website:

  • High school graduates who do not take any AP courses graduate from college at a rate of only 33% by age 30.
  • Students who take only one AP course nearly double the likelihood of college graduation to 59%.
  • Students who take two or more AP courses raise the likelihood to 76%.

Where you stand on testing probably depends on how you see the value of it – it seems pretty clear that when we can demonstrate the value of a course and its test – in this case how it increases college readiness as Bellevue has persuasively done – students are more willing to enroll in it. Perhaps the problem with some of our testing is the lack of information and connection about its purpose. Parents and students may also feel a committed to AP courses because it’s their personal, voluntary choice to take them. Whatever the factors, there are lessons we can learn from the successes and popularity of some of types of standardized tests.

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*Update: Washington Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib recently spearheaded a successful effort to bridge gaps in funding for AP/IB tests. The testing fees for all low-income students in Washington will be covered through funds provided from a combination of private and donations and public grants.