We are burning with anxiety,” a parent of a student at Beijing No.4 High School International Campus wrote in an open letter to city officials. The open letter, posted to Weibo on May 6, decried the cancelation of the Advanced Placement (AP) exams in parts of China.
Held each May, the US-based exams test different subjects based on AP courses offered at high schools to give students a chance to earn college credit in advance. Though not a prerequisite, many Chinese students view AP as a surefire way to get into America’s top colleges and universities.
“For our children, AP exams are just as important as the national college entrance exams,” read the post by Weibo user “A Real Lawyer.” “The cancelation of AP exams will undoubtedly gravely affect our children’s lives and is also a loss for our country.”
On May 6, AP test administrator College Board and its local partner Prometric announced that most test centers in major cities across China – including Beijing and Shanghai – could not open because of Covid restrictions. College Board will not offer makeup exams and online tests, as well as predictive scoring based on grades, the announcement said.
The cancelation comes as a blow to many US university hopefuls who spent a year or more preparing for the annual exam. “I’ve climbed this mountain for so long. Now I’m told there’s no way forward,” a high school student wrote on Zhihu, China’s largest Q&A community.
AP scores are acknowledged by colleges in over 60 countries. Conducted in China since 2007, more than 483 schools offer AP courses – mostly at prestigious high schools or privately run international schools. High school juniors preparing their college applications were hit hardest by the cancelation.
“I’ve seen that many people compare AP exams to China’s national college entrance exam. That’s not the case. The situation is not that serious. US college admissions take a holistic approach to application reviews. AP exams are only one of many criteria,” Yang Yun, an overseas education consultant, told NewsChina.
However, for many in the exam-oriented culture of China, racking up high AP scores is crucial, they feel, to getting a leg up on the competition.
For Chinese students aiming to get into a top-30 US school, getting perfect marks (5 points) on five AP exams is the baseline. Ivy League hopefuls may take seven to 13 AP exams.
“Ambitious students, who are usually unsatisfied with merely taking the limited AP courses offered at schools, load up with courses at off-campus training institutions. But their extra efforts only show up on their transcripts through the AP scores they get,” Yang told NewsChina.
“Top international private schools in China are more recognized by US college admissions. Public schools, however, lack that prestige. In the past, students from public schools could rely on AP test scores to enhance their transcripts. But now without AP scores, it’s hard for them to prove their academic performance,” she added.
The cancelation also increases the expenses of studying abroad. As many schools award credits for AP results, Chinese students seeking to study abroad take 10 to 12 AP courses during high school to save time and tuition fees.
This was not the first major change to AP testing during the pandemic. In 2020 and 2021, College Board offered online testing. But with the relaxing of pandemic restrictions in most countries this year, AP exams returned offline.
So far, the only solution for Chinese students who cannot take the exams is appealing directly to colleges about their situation through an official letter explaining the cancelations.
Some private high schools in China are also providing support. For example, WLSA Shanghai Academy is issuing forecast scores based on current performance, final exams and practice test scores.
Earlier this year, two other major international education systems, International Baccalaureate (IB) based in Switzerland and A-Levels from the UK, also closed test centers in parts of China.
On April 12, IB announced in May that testing would not be offered in Shanghai and Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces. In April and May, Cambridge International Examinations canceled A-Level summer tests in Shanghai and Beijing.
As one of IB’s four education programs, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme offers a comprehensive two-year international curriculum for high school students in 140 countries around the world. IB scores are recognized in 75 countries at over 2,000 universities. Similarly, A-Levels are a UK subject-based qualification for students aged 16 and above that are accepted by universities around the world.
Students who take IB and A-Levels are much less affected by the exam cancelations than those in the AP system. In 2020, when IB and A-Level tests were canceled worldwide due to the pandemic, they both granted predictive scores based on students’ past academic performance and results of practice tests. Predictive scores closely reflect formal exam scores.
“For many students in the IB system, the test cancelations gives them an advantage,” Wei Siliang, a teacher who works in a Nanjing-based IB international school, told NewsChina. “The IB exams are only a final shot. Now that it is canceled, many students can finally relax.”
“Students with outstanding academic records feel good about the exam cancelation, while those with poor academic records can also accept the change. It’s the students in the mid-range that may have missed out, because it means they don’t get that one last shot,” Wei added.
Wei said East Asian students excel in test taking. “In China, students – whether in international schools or in local public schools – share one thing in common: they can adapt to a highly systematic education system easily, but not to the more elastic holistic education in the West. Well-rounded education relies on the accumulation and extension of families’ social resources. In this respect, China’s middle class is still underdeveloped. It’s very difficult for Chinese families to transform their social and monetary resources into cultural resources for their children’s education,” Wei told NewsChina.
“Therefore, Chinese students may face a very disadvantaged situation if the exams stay inaccessible in the long run,” he added.
The outcry over the cancelation of the three major exams among Chinese families also reflects widespread fallacies circling the overseas studies industry.
Having contacted hundreds of families, Yang Yun found that many misunderstand AP courses and exams, and that commercial educational agencies are complicit in overselling their importance. “They keep brainwashing parents that the AP courses and exams are of great importance to applications,” Yang said.
“Profit-driven institutions and agencies shape this consensus in the Chinese overseas study industry. Schools have stressed repeatedly that students have a good chance at admissions as long as they’ve retained what they’ve learnt at school. But few parents believe it,” Wei said.
“Almost all parents seek commercial agencies to help their children with coursework and applications. Usually, agencies persuade students to apply for the top colleges regardless of major or interest. But after these students get in, they may find they have little interest in the major the agencies helped them choose,” he added.
This information gap created bubbles in China’s overseas education industry, where commercial agencies lure families to get trapped in an increasingly competitive rat race.
Zhang Yunkui, vice principal at Beijing Royal School told the Beijing Times in 2014: “Some schools and institutions have taken AP courses purely as exams and had students cram for them. This totally goes against the student-oriented education philosophy and the inquiry-based teaching that College Board strives for in AP education.”
The industry also reflects rising anxieties among China’s middle class. Facing widening wealth gaps and increasing social immobility, middle-class families place high hopes on their children’s education. Pandemic restrictions over the past two years have only intensified their sense of uncertainties. For many, the cancelation of the exams was emotionally detrimental.
Wei Siliang said that Chinese campuses promote different values than society. “Society overemphasizes an individual’s utilitarian value, while academia sticks to instilling much more idealistic notions. This discrepancy will cause students to undergo a very painful phase of development. These conflicting ideas tear at their spirits,” Wei said.