AP exams cancellation triggers anxiety among Chinese families

On 6 May, I was being interviewed virtually by International Channel Shanghai on United States college admissions when the announcement of the College Board officially cancelling Advanced Placement (AP) exams in a number of Chinese cities broke.

Among those affected, Beijing and Shanghai are on the list, which collectively offer the largest number of AP curriculum schools in the country. The cancellation came amid toughening COVID restrictions as the country continues to pursue a zero-COVID strategy.

Chinese families reacted to the news with shock and disbelief as no make-up tests were offered nor any digital options, which were made available worldwide during the last two years. In their minds, years of hard work had gone to waste.

AP exam results under holistic review

I sought to calm the burning anxieties and confusion of Chinese families by making three key points.

First, highly selective colleges in the United States adopt a holistic review philosophy in the admission process, where all factors impacting upon a student’s academic performance are taken into consideration. In addition to a student’s academic performance, their writing, extracurricular activities and recommendation letters from college counsellors and teachers are also considered.

Second, AP exam results are usually not necessary as part of admission requirements. An applicant’s internal performance and assessment have always been more important to admission readers than a list of exam results. In addition, AP, International Baccalaureate, A-Level as well as other college level courses taken in high school are not transferable as credits at highly selective colleges like Amherst in order for students to graduate early.

Lastly, while this is out of student control, applicants do have the freedom – and are encouraged – to utilise the additional information section on the common application, or via email, to share with admission readers any extenuating circumstances like this.

College counsellors and teachers can also share this in their recommendation letters and school profile so that all readers are informed. In other words, the more information the admission readers have, the better they understand the context of the applicant.

Multiple sources of anxieties

A week after the interview, the replay of the clip had been viewed over 20,000 times. However, scepticism among some families has persisted. One anonymous viewer asked under the video in the commentary section, “are you telling the truth?”, insinuating that I was merely regurgitating a bureaucratic response.

Mounting anxieties about the cancellation have driven parents across affected cities to take matters into their own hands. One parent even wrote a petition to the Beijing municipal government on behalf of their child’s whole class to seek government help to remediate the negative consequences of the cancellation. They erroneously compared AP exams to Gaokao, the nationwide college entrance exam in China.

Their anxieties are not unfounded. Chinese families have long regarded having a laundry list of AP exam results as a leg up on the competition when it comes to getting into America’s most prestigious colleges and universities.

The obsession with test scores has deep roots in China’s exam-based talent selection system that has been in place for hundreds of years.

The thought of applying to college without a tangible, hard-earned score, whether they be AP or any of the standardised tests such as the Scholastic Assessment Test or American College Testing – which are dubbed the American Gaokao – goes against their belief system around college admissions.

Even when more than 1,450 United States colleges and universities have moved to a test-optional policy and when admission officers from around the United States have basically spent the last two years convincing Chinese families – as well as domestic families – that test-optional truly means test-optional, resistance still prevails.

Another source of anxiety comes from online rumours and misinformation spread by conspiracy theorists and some profit-driven study abroad agents on various social media platforms, such as WeChat and Douyin (the Chinese TikTok).

Distinguishing legitimate information from a sea of misinformation is nearly impossible, especially for families who are going through the US college admission process for the first time.

One widely watched Douyin account from an agent offered some ‘salient’ advice that Chinese students should now shift their attention to boosting their SAT scores to make up for the lack of AP exam results. The advice sounded ludicrous but attracted hundreds of likes.

The SAT is not offered publicly on the Chinese mainland. Historically, Chinese students have to cross the border to Hong Kong, Singapore or even the United States to take the test – a huge investment and time commitment. Given COVID restrictions, one can’t even leave the apartment in the case of Shanghai, let alone travel to another city.

When a small number of slots opened up in Macau last year, registration slots were in high demand and sold on the black market for thousands of dollars.

Pressure on ethical grading

Without external AP exam results, school-based counsellors worry that some high schools might inflate their internal assessments, worsening the growing mistrust of the credibility of Chinese high school transcripts among admission officers.

In an environment where schools are often under parental and peer pressure to alter student grades in exchange for better admission results and to meet enrolment targets, those who adhere to ethical and honest grading are feeling immense pressure while trying to uphold their values.

During a recent call with a high school principal in Beijing after the news broke, he shared that he was almost crumbling under the enormous pressure from students and parents requesting to change their grading scale in order to raise their overall GPA as a coping mechanism.

One high school in Shanghai was contemplating designing their own exams in order to issue a predicted grade as a prediction system is not built into the AP curriculum like the International Baccalaureate or A-Levels. This would only be offered to students who previously opted to take AP exams.

“Getting an internal A+ or A is very challenging at our school,” said Xiaoli Yu, Beijing No 4 High School’s veteran college counsellor. “For students who receive a lower grade, they often seek to balance it out with an AP exam result, which is easily a five.

“Now that they don’t have that option, we are under a lot of pressure from students and parents to loosen up our grading standard. We do not alter a student’s grade if they do not meet our rigorous academic requirements,” she added.

Frances Zhang, WLSA Shanghai Academy’s dean of college counselling, said: “Every school is navigating this on their own.” She described the general sentiment among affected students and parents as being like “an ant on a hot pan” and that “there’s little that we can do at this point other than making sure that US college admission officers are well informed of the situation so that they can bring this into their holistic review process”.

Xiaofeng Wan is an associate dean of admissions and the coordinator of international recruitment at Amherst College in United States. He is also a doctoral candidate in the Executive EdD in Higher Education programme at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, US.