Teaching Matters (a PsychSessions Podcast)- Questions and (Some) Answers about the AP Psych and IB Psych Exams

In this first episode of season 2 – “Standardized Testing: Questions and (Some) Answers AP Psych and IB Psych Exams” – Eric and I talk about the AP Psychology and IB psychology exams and how they were impacted by Covid (the podcast episode was posted in September, 2021). Our conversation moves from specifics about how Covid impacted the Spring 2021 AP and IB (International Baccalaureate) exams and how College Board responded differently to the pandemic. We end up talking about what getting college credit for introductory psychology means in terms of a test score (AP or IB). (Note: if you’d like to know more about the IB Psychology program, listen to this episode with our special guest, fantastic high school psychology teacher Casey Swanson: “International Baccalaureate Psychology with Special Guest Casey Swanson.”) 

I didn’t think of this connection during our conversation, but the discussion about test scores and credit connect with another topic we frequently discuss: grades. Eric and I end up talking about grades often (e.g. this episode). Both the AP Psychology and IB psychology tests face a big challenge: their goal is to assess knowledge and skills students learn during college introductory psychology courses. The amount of knowledge and number of skills addressed in college psychology courses is way too broad to be adequately assessed on one test, so test developers have to sample the knowledge/skills, choosing some ideas that get represented on the test, and many others that do not. This sampling creates one of the challenges: can colleges be confident that the knowledge and skills sampled on an AP or IB exam align with what they want students to learn in their introductory psychology courses? 

But there’s another level of challenge that we didn’t talk about on the podcast: the test score. Both the AP and IB psychology tests include different parts: multiple choice, short/long answer essays, data/source analysis, etc. But the results from each of those different parts get smooshed into one overall composite score, and that composite score is what colleges use to determine if a student should be granted credit for the introductory course. This smoosh doesn’t have to happen! Since there are different parts of the test, those different parts could get scored separately – students could get multiple scores from a test, each score representing their achievement on a different element of the test. This scoring change would enable colleges to look at multiple scores when making decisions about what credit to grant, and these decisions could be better informed by more specific information about what students know and can do. This issue is related to the discussion about traditional grading practices (one A-F grade for a whole class) vs. “standards based” grading practices (multiple grades based on different skills or bodies of knowledge). 


Here’s an overly simplistic diagram of the current “smoosh it all into one score” system. (I’m most familiar with the AP Psychology test, so this diagram probably matches that test best). 

Here’s one possible “non-smoosh” system: 

There would be dozens (hundreds?) of decisions and complications with implementing this kind of a change, but it might be a useful thought experiment. Why reduce the complexity in an AP or IB test into a single score? Why ask colleges to make a complex decision, like whether to grant credit for an introductory class, based on a single composite grade? Psychologists know that it is important to measure variables carefully (to create accurate operational definitions). Measuring something as complex as the knowledge and skills involved in an introductory college class deserves something more than a single composite score.

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