Score Shaming

Today is the last day for early AP score access, as well as the first day that the west coast, where I live, will be able to see those scores. Also, the IB scores were also released today, for my fellow International Baccalaureates.  Judging by the messages and reactions I’ve been getting from friends all week, I think that this post is quite obligatory for all you high school students out there.

Ever since Friday, I’ve been seeing posts about students using proxies to get access to their scores just a little bit earlier, or trying to find some way to see those numbers. People have been messaging me in a frenzy, trying to figure out why their browser was crashing or why they couldn’t find the proper identification codes. And you know what all of this means?

It means that we are placing way too much of our dreams and hopes upon the college board.

The Advanced Placement program, that which seems to dominate our lives.

It seems that every year, we place not only our knowledge of how much we know, but in fact our actual self worth, upon the AP tests and that score that we receive afterwards. For many, their self-confidence is built upon getting a 4 or a 5 on that May test. For others, the test only reinforces faulty expectations of their own failures or their continued hate of school.

How could we let this single score determine all that we are? Why would we pin our hopes and dreams to this? Our ability to communicate ideas are not built into this test, nor is our power to make people care. Even if you would understand that this test only measures how well you learned the course material, would you truly allow a single course to change the outcome of your life? It is more worthwhile to use that knowledge of the course and the study skills you have accumulated. Instead of judging your mastery based on what your score is, judge your mastery based on your own knowledge.

I was recently reading a book, The Drunkard’s Walk, which deals with uncertainty and probability in our lives. One of the factors that it listed was the inherent uncertainty that comes with taking any kind of standardized test. Sure, a large majority of your score is based on your knowledge of the material and how much you are prepped, but how much is also based on that stomachache you had last night, or the emotional difficulties you are having at home, or just the thunderstorms and the pounding rain on the gym roof, totally distracting you during the Physics B exam? (true story) Did you know that in order to get an increase of about 30 points on the SAT, all you have to do is take the test again, because those 30 points are within the standard uncertainty of the exam? Those 2360s are just the same as the glorious holy grail of 2400s because of that.

If there is already such a large uncertainty within the test, why would we base our self-worth upon it? When if we are on the borderline between a 3 and a 4, and we just so happen to get a 3, why would we just feel so much worse about ourselves?

But enough about the tests themselves. As opposed as I am towards the system, I do concede that at some point, such a tool is helpful. After all, without testing, one wouldn’t be able to clearly know what they are doing well, and what do they need to change. The problem therefore lies not only within the tests, but within us.

After all, without us students perpetrating the importance and stress of the test, there wouldn’t be so much focus to do as well and to be so competitive. While competition could sometimes be a good thing, it seems to me that more often than not it is becoming a hindrance in our development.

For one thing, consider the following: Why would students ask others what they got the day scores are released? For me, the immediate reactions that the asker is probing for is most likely in their own pride and hubris, as they want to show off their own score, but does so in a way by first asking others. Therefore, if the other person got a lower score, they would feel superior, and if the other person did just as well, they can congratulate the other and also show off their own skills as well.

Never have I seen a person ask for the sheer purpose of making someone else feel better about themselves.

This usually is not what happens when we message about scores.

Okay, but what about the argument that there should be a winner and a loser? That if there is somebody who puts their all into what they study, they deserve to have some kind of sense of superiority over the others who blew it off?

Well, that is true. In any competition, and in fact, in life, there will be those who do well and those who do not. In order for there to be a sense of accomplishment, there must also be a sense of loss elsewhere, because that loss reminds the winner of how much more s/he has worked. In fact, to go off on a tangent, that is why it is so hard to satisfy the problem of poverty, because the well-being of the well off depend on that exact cheap labor, or the low costs of the products that they make. If we veer towards an utopian society, it almost always falls into a dystopia as outlined by literature (1984, Animal Farm, The Giver, A Brave New World), because we just can’t have total equality without suppression of our freedoms and liberties. All we can do is aim for as much equality as we can.

What we can do is to turn our thinking away from a first, second, or third place mindset, but instead, on a “Did I reach my own levels” standard. Not only would this stop people from ruthless bashing, but it also puts in that ability for self-judgment, which is the only kind of judgment that is truly helpful. When others judge, it usually falls into the background and the most it does is to hurt your feelings. But when you truly judge yourself, you start to think of ways to change your behavior and how to become better.

Let’s get rid of these and award our own.

Now on the flip side of this will be those who say, “If we make everybody a winner, no one wins”. To be honest, I have viewed this philosophy with favor, because I always thought that giving out participation awards just to make people feel good is a waste. It cripples them in the future as they have to learn how to fend for themselves. But, as Ms. Corso said in our recent Interlake’s graduation speech, having that confidence in us may make our generation the best there is. To be totally accepting does not mean that we are tolerant of any mistakes, but that we are tolerant of the people who have made those mistakes, and that we are willing to keep working until we are all victors in our own sense.

So I speak to my generation, the generation lost in test scores and standardized testing, the generation stuck with the pampering of parents and the “mememe generation“, I challenge you all: look past your scores and look at what you have done, at what you have studied. Judge for yourself, and don’t allow the words of others to cut into your soul. Become a better person because of this, and rise above our past.


Part of a series on Education

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12 thoughts on “Score Shaming

  1. There’s something about this argument that seriously troubles me. The thing is, the AP test is really just a ‘commodity’ of sorts, and by taking it, you are offering a company money in exchange for an intangible product–that product being better prospects of getting into desired colleges.
    To resist the increasing popularity of any commodity in particular, you need only to refuse to buy the commodity. If, for example, I believe that Apple is irresponsible, my greatest resistance as an individual would be to refuse to buy their products and to rally support for your position. The same idea naturally applies to the testing industry. You resist the industry by refusing to buy the product.
    I understand that you believe that the US education system is broken (i do to, but for different reasons that you do). Trouble is, you DID by the product. You’ve cast a vote that says “I approve of this industry’s product, and I endorse is by purchasing it.”
    Naturally, people wish for more immediate returns on money that they’ve spent. It makes sense. It’s the same reason why I check my mailbox everyday after I’ve ordered something from, because I want the immediate return from the money that I’ve spent to make that purchase. Time is important, despite the fact that it doesn’t make any particular difference whether or not I see my AP scores immediately or not.
    The students are not to blame for this country’s problem with education, and it is natural that the students do everything they can to gain the edge above other students. How can you scold people for their anxieties surrounding the ap tests and simultaneously support the industry that induces them by purchasing their product? It doesn’t make sense. People cannot be told how to feel. They simply do.

    Secondly, the idea of uncertainties is only tangentially related here. Who cares if there’s an uncertainty for the tests? Standardized testing is the best that we can do, and it cannot be perfect. The uncertainty merely means that you must do better than the uncertainty. It means that to earn a 5, you REALLY have to earn a 5. Again, by purchasing the product, you are endorsing the system.

    Finally, telling people not to share their scores is bit suspect. Telling people not to share scores is the same thing as telling people that they need to respect the sensitivity of others. In other words, you need to respect the fact that other people value ENOUGH about their scores to be sensitive. That caring about the scores is exactly that you argue against earlier! In other words, by telling people not the share their scores, you’re telling them that they’re hurting other people, who, according to you, shouldn’t care in the first place. Of course the AP tests aren’t a measure of intelligence or intellectual value. Unless you bought them, like you and I both did. Which seems to indicate that you’re okay with that.

    Finally finally (ha), if you believe that pride is despicable, then let those people destroy themselves with it. If it’s such a terrible thing, then those people should bring about their own demise with their own character flaws. Right? Nope, not really.

    So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re a capitalist, then you have to know what that really means as a consumer. You’ve a voter.

    • Just saying, Andrew, it’s a little bit difficult not to support the system, because if he doesn’t take these tests, he’s basically automatically out of the running for getting into more prestigious colleges once he graduates. We are basically forced to support the system. Colleges aren’t likely to think “Oh, look at that student, they’re trying to boycott the system, how brave”. No, they’re going to think “Oh, this student probably didn’t want to try hard enough”.

    • Let me reply by referencing the 高考 examinations in China, or the GaoKao. This test is literally the one test that determines everything about you, and sees if you are able to enter Peking University, the best of the best. Even though there have been numerous accounts of suicides over the event, people still take this every year. Why? Because even though they oppose it, they have no choice but to take it if they want to have any aspiration for the future.
      I’m not claiming that the APs are any similar to the GaoKaos, but today, I feel as if without AP scores behind you, the prospects of entering college diminish by such a large degree. Colleges wish to see that you have “challenged yourself” in high school, yet one of the most prominent features is the AP system.
      To be honest, I am conflicted myself about my actual relationship with the CollegeBoard and AP. Even though I disagree with their tests, that *is* one of the best ways to get a high level of education in high school. They are clearly doing some things right; I am just a bit picky about the current anxiety over the actual scores.

      The topic about uncertainties does come directly from that book I’m reading, The Drunkard’s Walk, and the argument is half-baked at best. It was something that was going through my head as I was writing, and I thought that it was possible that it might apply. The main point there is that we make such a large deal over the distinction of two numbers that sometimes we forget how easily it is to slip from one to another.

      Finally, and most importantly, I don’t think that my argument is to “not care about the AP scores”. Instead, I want everyone to use their score as a tool, but not as a double-edged sword to cut themselves. I want it to be a benchmark for people, not something that they should continually stress over. Personally, you’re right. I am a bit of a hypocrite. I do care considerably about my score. But I want to not allow this number to be who I am.

      Finally finally, I believe in helping as many people as I can, even if it means having to work with bad character. Giving them redemption or showing them another way are all ideas that I thoroughly back.

      It’s always good to see your comments, even if you have quite an ironic nickname here :D

  2. Although I completely agree with your argument, isn’t that number, after all, what is going to dictate our future? Even though I completely recognize how much knowledge I have acquired, and ideas I have developed, colleges won’t get the opportunity to know any of us on a personal level, and that number is all that they have to judge. Which makes it rather difficult to “look past our scores” as you say. But of course you make a valid point, which I support completely.

  3. This was masterful.

  4. My school doesn’t let freshmen take APs, but I’ll speak from what I know of it and of other standardized tests.

    First off, the AP test IS a standardized test comparing you to your peers, hence the term “may the curve be in your favor.” By taking the test, you’re paying to give colleges an idea of how you match up with your peers. Asking others about their score is essentially the same thing among people that you know. And admit it, we all care about ourselves the most. Who else should we care about more?

    Secondly, I think that if you actually know the information, tests shouldn’t be a problem. However, I feel like most people have lost a large degree of intrinsic motivation in school (including me), so perhaps getting a good score on a standardized test to impress colleges is the main motivation they have to learn the material in school, which would explain why there were anticipating their scores so much. (Ugh. I don’t like speaking for others, but I think that’s the truth.) This I feel explains the main problem in education today. In America, if someone actually wants to learn something, they have all the resources they need (aka the Internet.) The problem is that many people lack motivation because our system is so insistent on making everyone know the exact same information regardless of what students actually want to learn. (Which leads to another interesting question — is it better to learn information for the wrong reasons (college apps) or to not learn it at all? Practicality vs. ethics.)

    All this is assuming that AP scores are the only way to show colleges your intelligence and that getting into a good college is important. Both assumptions are false, despite what society tells us. If the AP test doesn’t accurately reflect your intelligence, why not actually apply the information and show colleges a portfolio of your work, instead of a bunch of arbitrary AP scores? As for college, there’s a somewhat popular movement called UnCollege ( that’s trying to stop people from going to college and take a gap year instead. My parents also have told me that not much people learn in college is actually useful in jobs– college is more about the social environment and the people that you mean.

    I’m being a complete hypocrite here as well, since I’m taking a few AP classes myself next year and aiming to get into a good college, but sometimes I can’t help thinking there’s a better path to follow. With so many people in America, it’s difficult to think of an alternative to standardized testing, but at least it doesn’t play as large of a role as it does in China.

    Phew, that was long. Oh and by the way, that Bill Nye dubstep brings back interesting middle school memories. :P

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Honestly, I am not entirely sure how the AP manages to score in the end. According to this page as well as the following statistics based on the distributation of scores, it does stand that most of the tests are “equated”, even though there are margins of nearly 10 percent between some of the tests and a HUGE discrepancy in Calculus BC (not entirely sure why). And while you can say that, yes, it is human nature to look out for yourself first, I’m trying to make the argument that it doesn’t matter what others do, all that matters is how you do yourself, and whether or not if you can reach your personal benchmarks.

      I totally agree with your second point; I don’t exactly know what kind of motivation would be healthy for learning. I suppose if you look at this philosophically, the Utilitarian viewpoint would be that as long as the tests are forcing students to learn, which is good, they are doing good, while the Categorical Imperative standpoint would attack the testing because it is causing people to learn for the wrong reasons. However, learning doesn’t end after you graduate from High School. Would you still have the same motivation in college? Postgrad? Hopefully so if you are pursuing a Masters or a PhD!

      That is a very interesting point about the UnCollege movement as well as the portfolio, something that I have never known. However, according to this page, (which is a report produced by the CollegeBoard so do your own OPVL/Bias Check if you would like) does claim that there is a clear link between your AP scores and the selection of colleges. I would however, like to rebuke that last sentence, because while it is likely that which college you get into may not affect what you learn, I do strongly believe that attending college is a huge benefit to your later life, especially if you want to pursue some kind of technical career.

      Again, thanks for your thoughts! Honestly, my primary purpose is to make people think about education and what they are doing, and to see what little part of their behaviors can they change. I don’t think that I alone is powerful enough to change all of it, but I do believe that if enough people take notice, and enough students raise it as an issue they want to see resolved, that change will come.

      • Ok, I just had to respond to this again. Here goes.

        Any “benefits” that the AP program claims is same as the claim that private schools produce better students. The AP program simply selects the already motivated and hardworking students, gives them better resources (in this case, a more challenging curriculum) and takes credit for their success. Even without the AP program, the would-be AP students would be more successful in school and more likely to get into better colleges.

        As for skewed scores, I’d like to point out another test that has an even crazier curve–Chinese, where more than 70% of people get a 5. The reason why is pretty obvious when looking at the standard score section. Out of the 9357 people who took the test, only 1743 did not have frequent exposure to the language. I’m pretty sure many of the native speaker scores were close to perfect , and it wouldn’t make sense to make a cutoff at 20%. Similarly, most students who take Calculus BC are extremely strong in math and had a high raw score as well.That being said, I agree with you in that scores are pretty arbitrarily given.

        In the ed reform arena, I know Nikhil Goyal is one of the more prominent activists (and he’s like 18, which is ridiculous) who’s written a book and everything about education policy, and he’s trying to get public schools to be democratic schools, where there is no classes or structure at all, and students can spend their time learning about whatever they want, as long as it’s “productive,” and they’re pretty loose about that definition. Sudbury Valley School ( is the most well-known. Unschooling is another similar philosophy, but it’s homeschooling with no limits instead. It sounds like a brilliant philosophy, but I feel like if I was placed in one of those schools, I’d spend it like a summer day and not be very productive, although I sometimes do something slightly educational at times. (like writing comments that are the length of blog posts :P) The good part is, I’m doing these things because I want to, and not because someone is dangling a grade over my head, which ultimately is more rewarding and will last after I get out of the school system.

        Seth Godin’s manifesto “Stop Stealing Dreams” which is online for free is an interesting read on this subject.

        There’s another point I feel like I missed, but I’m getting sleepy, so I’m going to leave it at this for now. :)

      • Yeah, the AP score thing is something that I did notice. Not entirely how to use their curving to explain for though. The language point is very interesting.

        And by the way, what a coincidence! I met Nikhil at TEDxRedmond 2012 (which you should all go to next year!) and he was a fascinating person to talk to. And I love that last part, doing something on your own.

        I started reading the Stop Stealing Dreams thing, as referenced from your blog, earlier today. Haven’t finished it though! Got distracted with pop culture and my dad getting me to watch my first Pirates of the Caribbean movie :D JACK SPARRROOOWWW

  5. Chunny, this is a very interesting blog and I appreciate your valor and candor in expressing your views in amending the public school system and how we are all “diseased” by our ambitions to get into that ivy league school. However, I must admit that your reputation and habits run completely contradictory to this post. If you want to point the finger at the students who use proxies to access their scores, didn’t you also check your AP scores early on Friday? And if you claim that our generation in lost in College Board, didn’t you just post that you were preparing this summer for the SAT? It seems as if you are the one who is actually obsessed with these test scores, and I would caution you to look into yourself before trying to amend the faults of others.

    As well, I disagree with you that students are participating in mass score shaming and that most of us put a lot of our hopes on standardized testing. The way I see it now, many students don’t really study for AP or IB tests and are just blowing it off at the last minute, cramming, which tops off a year of BSing all the HW and Essays. Only a few students that I know are what I call “try-hards,” but the rest of us don’t really care about our test scores as seen by our habit throughout the year. Plus, colleges don’t even look at IB or AP tests with as much importance in comparison to your GPA, Extracurricular Activities, and Essays. IB/AP tests are designed to allow you to skip basic college courses, as they are considered college credit, but by no means will IB/AP tests determine your college acceptance.

    I actually think a greater problem in our holistic education system is how many students are attempting to gain leadership positions in their extra-curricular just for a sake of looking good to colleges–the epitome of how education now all about extrinsic motivation rather than a genuine passion for learning. But I am afraid that you are making a very rough generalization of students in America, and please remember that most schools only have a few IB/AP tests available to students. Plus, there are only a few students out there who are willing to share their scores or even ask others to compare. Students completely have the freedom to post and announce whatever they want, but it is up to US to take the high road and ignore these people. However, scapegoating these students to represent the entirety of our culture is completely misguided. The score shaming argument only applies to a small minority of students, and there are much, much more important issues in education, much less our society in general.

    • Hello “One IB Student”,

      I want to clarify several of my own viewpoints, but before I do anything, I want to apologize if I have offended anyone and their values in education. If we take a Utilitarian view, it is clear that whatever makes you most motivated for education will work for me. I will not force my words down anyone’s throat, but if you do agree with me, I urge you to just at least look at the world a little differently.

      I don’t believe that ambition to get into an Ivy League school is a disease; it is a great ambition! Personally, I have worked my hardest to do all that I can, pushing myself into everything that I can manage as well as doing all that I can to learn and to become a more worldly person. I, with all my heart, do very much hope to be a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology one day, and I do not find that that ambition is misplaced. I would encourage everybody to work as hard as they can to get into their dream college, but also know that “life is a journey, not a destination” and that the path of learning along the way will be just as important, or even more important, than the college that you end up in.

      On the note of hypocrisy, I do admit that I am currently prepping for the SAT, have taken 8 AP tests to date, and am thoroughly invested in our current, test-heavy, system of education. However, the main reason why I blog is that I hope that there will be change coming, change that we the students can take on. And while it will be difficult to change the national system, what we can change is our own attitudes towards education, and perhaps change our willingness to learn.

      As for the “proxy early access”, honestly, I have no clue whatsoever how I got my scores early. I can truthfully say that no proxy was used, and that there was an honest glitch that came up. After my first glimpse, the AP site once again blocked me, so I was not even sure if they were actually my scores or not. Sorry for any bad images that that may have brought on.

      Now, to the primary point of my (or your?) argument. I very much oppose the use of “try-hards”, because by that definition, I would sure hope that everybody is a tryhard. Why? Because a try-hard seems to me like a person who is willing to invest their energy into doing something they love. Now, I would encourage placing that effort into, you know, actually learning and not taking the test, but I commend every single willing and dutiful soul who takes on such an endeavor. As to the “colleges don’t look at it”, research from the CollegeBoard (yes, please OPVL that paper) shows that there is a clear link between test taking and college admissions. Perhaps you can find a better way to stand out; I would thoroughly encourage it. Also, if you go to a top college, it is, to my knowledge, rather rare for AP credit to be applied. While public universities do accept it, and thank goodness they do because it saves a LOT of money, many of the upper tier colleges would only count it as half credit, or perhaps none at all. However, I am clearly not an expert on this topic, so do take my words with a grain of salt.

      I agree with those leadership position items, however, I also believe that perhaps a closer examination of motivation may be in order before leaping to conclusions.

      Yes, students do have the “freedom” to post about their scores and the “freedom” to ignore them, but what I am advocating is that it would be better to change our habits for a better tomorrow. Of course, as clearly shown the past day, there are several holes in my argument that I will need to one day fix. And yes, there are clearly many people with very much opposing opinions. But as long as people are thinking, and actually thinking, not just making leap judgments, about the issue, than I am satisfied.

      Talk to you soon, “One IB Student”!

  6. From “Zardeh” on reddit,

    I have a few problems with this. I, as you can tell, got a 30. That was one of the lower to average scores in my class. My IB program, at least my year, was built on

    “making someone else feel better about themselves.”

    The very thing that you said you never see people do. I know of about half the scores from people in my class, ranging from a 25 that didn’t get the diploma up to a 38. Sure, I wanted to judge how I did in comparison to them, but when I’m asking the valedictorian, the girl who got a 2400, and the Yale attendee what there scores are I expect to not do as well. The scores reflected that as I expected.

    I wanted to congratulate people on their scores and more importantly, on surviving the past two years of hell that we collectively experienced. The 7 of us in HL math collectively celebrated when we found out we all got 4s and 5s. That was an achievement. Our art class collectively groaned about their scores, comparing and questioning to the point that our coordinator has requested a reexamination of the portfolios.

    I’m not happy or disappointed about scoring better or worse than someone else. I already knew I wasn’t on par with Mrs. 2400. I already knew I was a better student than the guy who didn’t get the diploma. But the diploma isn’t proof of that. His scores aren’t proof of that. My experiences in classes were proof of that. I didn’t gain any sort of inner happiness for doing exactly what I expected. There isn’t a kind of validation to be gained.

    I’m happy for the guy that didn’t get a diploma. He graduated and got credit, he’s going to a reasonable school with reasonable class exemptions. It isn’t Yale, but he isn’t that student.

    Back on the topic of the SAT. In my state, GA, there is a program called STAR. Its a recognition program for those with the highest SAT score at a school level, that then becomes more of a normal scholarship competition at the state level. A friend and I were the two students in contention for our school’s STAR application. She scored a 2150, I scored a 2220, she scored a 2280, I scored a 2140, she scored a 2400. We shared our scores with each other as soon as we learned them. For a number of weeks, I was the only person outside of her family and school staff that knew that she had managed a perfect score. Was I mad or disappointed in myself? Only because I didn’t manage the math score I wanted. I was ecstatic for her. She ended up being accepted into harvard and getting a 38.

    There is nothing bad about me not being as intelligent as she is. She studied harder, worked harder, and was simply smarter than me. Those aren’t things I should get mad about, they are choices I made. To feel bitter or jealous about that is, in my opinion, rather silly. Especially when, in my case, I could not have scored as well as I did without help from Ms. 2400 Ms. Yale and Ms. Valedictorian. Each of them has, at some point in my time in IB provided vital help, whether tutoring and an explanation, notes to look over, a study guide, whatever. I too provided them with assistance, I probably taught half my class through chemistry and physics.

    When you look at it that way, my classmates deserve to know my score, because they taught me as much as my professors. I deserve to know their scores as well. In my case, we all helped each other, and although some of us scored better than others, without each person, none of the scores would have been as high.

    That got rather rambling near the end, meh.

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