Oakcrest High School valedictorian Neil Philip estimated his family spent as much as $1,000 on all the standardized tests he took in high school, including the SAT, SAT subject tests and Advanced Placement or AP tests.
“All of my classes were AP,” he said at the recent Atlantic County Academic Luncheon where the county’s top students were recognized. “It was a big commitment, but I benefited.”
Philip will attend Harvard University in the fall, a satisfying return for a lot of studying. But even he admits the volume of tests he took during high school was daunting.
Testing has generated a lot of controversy this year. Most of it surround the new state PARCC test, which was given for the first time.
While college-bound students seem to accept standardized tests as just part of the process of education, their role is being examined more closely as they increase in number.
A movement to have students opt out of the PARCC test caught on primarily in high schools, where state Education Commissioner David Hespe estimated that almost 15 percent of students refused to take the PARCC. Students were allowed to substitute results of other exams such as the SAT, and Hespe speculated that was a primary reason for the refusal rate, which was especially high in some suburban districts.
But while opposition to PARCC has grown amidst complaints of too much testing, student participation has actually increased in other standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT and AP program. More than 84,000 students in the Class of 2014 in New Jersey took the SAT, almost 80 percent of all students.
Participation in AP testing has has almost doubled in the last decade, rising from 14 percent of all public school 11th- and 12-graders to 24 percent in 2014, according to the College Board annual report for New Jersey. Almost 30,000 students, or about a third of all graduates took at least one AP exam in 2013.
Even the ACT keeps gaining in popularity in New Jersey, with more than 26,000 students taking the test in 2014, up from fewer than 20,000 in 2010.
Hammonton High School senior Zachary Goodwin, of Atco, who plans to major in computer engineering at Rowan University, said he took both the ACT and SAT and also took four AP tests this year.
“I think people stress out too much about tests,” he said. “You’re not meant to get it all right. You just do it. It depends on your work ethic.”
A state commission appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to examine testing issued an interim report in January saying there is a public perception there is too much testing but that many tests are not state mandated.
AP tests, for example, are voluntary, but meet many of the same criticisms as the state tests — they are nationally standardized so teachers basically teach to the test, and tests are typically given in early spring, more than month before school ends in June. Many high schools assign summer work to give students a head start.
But as AP has grown in popularity as a way to possibly earn college credits with a high test score, high schools have responded by adding more courses. The state School Performance Reports even include AP and SAT participation as indicators of a high school’s College and Career Readiness.
Hammonton and Barnegat High Schools were both cited by the College Board last year for increasing access and success in AP programs.
Hammonton Assistant Superintendent Robin Chieco said their goal is to help students. The district even holds classes for 20 days in the summer to give students a head start on the challenging curriculum.
“The courses aren’t just for the top 5 percent,” she said. “They are open to anyone. It gives students exposure to college-level work, and by starting in the summer, it’s calmer, they get an idea if they’re sure they can handle it, and they can switch classes before school starts if they think it’s not for them.”
Chieco said the state school performance report requirements “are not something we lose sleep over.”
But many students do lose sleep worrying about test scores and getting into college. And in some ways the increase in AP courses has made other tests less relevant.
This year Montclair State University became the first public college in New Jersey to make SAT scores optional for admissions. Director of Admissions Jeff Gant said their focus now is on the rigor of a students’ course load and how well they did in those classes.
“The presence of AP and honors classes would indicate more rigor,” he said. “But they don’t have to just take AP. They have to show they are willing to go beyond just the basic courses required in high school.”
He said applications increased by 11 percent this year to almost 12,000, with about 40 percent of applicants opting not to include the SAT scores. He did not have data yet on how many admitted students did not supply SATs.
Gant said they believe looking at four years of course work is a better indicator of a student’s likely success than the results of one test.
Robert Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, said the significant difference between tests such as AP and PARCC is that the voluntary AP is a gateway to college, while the mandatory PARCC is a gatekeeper, which students must pass to graduate.
“In AP you pick what subjects to take,” he said. “PARCC is a political mandate. One thing that is driving students nuts is that they are taking so many tests and they don’t see the purpose of PARCC on top of all the other tests they take.”
But not all students take AP or even SAT tests, and state officials said the PARCC provides a way for all students to be evaluated and helped as needed.
Schaeffer said that would be fine if the tests were just diagnostic and used to help students. By linking them to graduation, school performance and teacher evaluations, they lose their intended value.
“PARCC is just a little bit better than the old tests, and it is used in inappropriate ways,” he said.