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Standardized Testing & Its Environmental Impact

Updated: May 27


End-of-year tests are on every student’s mind during this time of year. Questions like Do I know this material?, How fast must I pace myself?, and What tactics do I have to tackle hard questions? are common when thinking about tests. In general, when one thinks of standardized testing, one thinks of the students who have to prepare for the tests. However, the preparation of materials used for the actual test doesn’t always come to mind. In this blog, you will learn about the copious amounts of materials that go into standardized testing, the harm it subjects the environment to, and ways that big testing companies can reduce their impact on the environment.


 

What are APs?

AP, which stands for “Advanced Placement,” is a program for high school students to take college-level courses and an end-of-year standardized test in order to receive college credit. The AP is a trademark of College Board, a non-profit organization that helps set a national standard for testing and can help colleges determine the placement of a student’s academic success. To do this, College Board, as well as many other standardized testing organizations around the world, cut down thousands of trees to provide testing materials for students.


Environmental Impact of Paper Tests

College Board has over a million students that take APs every year. According to College Board, in 2022, 1,166,311 students participated in APs, with many even taking multiple a school year. Each test is also very lengthy — most tests are 3 hours long with multiple sections. College Board must provide an ample amount of paper to each student to be used as writing space, though most don’t even use up all the pages. Taking all of this into consideration, the amount of paper used each year for AP testing is almost inconceivable. That being said, here are some ways that standardized tests administered on paper negatively impact the environment:


Paper

Although this is the most obvious way standardized testing affects the environment, it is still important to mention. Paper, although it can be recycled, often isn’t, which leads to tons of paper that effectively goes to waste. From the multi-page question booklets, to the answer booklets filled with writing space, to the scantron multiple choice sheets, to the additional scrap paper provided to students, the amount of paper used adds up to ultimately create a lot of waste.


Plastic

Each individual test for the AP exam is wrapped in plastic, which, considering that over a million students take one or more APs in the short span of a month, is astonishing when you think of the amount of plastic that must have been used once and now sits in a landfill. It is known that plastic bags usually take around 20 years to decompose with access to air, but when in landfills, these plastic coverings may be rotting for centuries. This isn’t just bad for the growth of landfills, but also for wildlife around it, as it is a common occurrence nowadays to find plastic that has escaped landfills and is floating in the ocean. This plastic not only looks bad and affects the lives of many animals, especially in the ocean, but in turn affects us, as microplastics are found in seafood we eat. If you would like to learn more about plastic and microplastics in the environment, check out our blog, “Microplastic Mitigation.”


Transportation

College Board’s main users are in the United States, which spans approximately 2,800 miles horizontally and 1,650 miles vertically. This alone (not including other countries) is hundreds of miles that trucks must travel to transport these materials. According to Penske, the average 22/26 truck uses about 8 gallons of diesel or 6 gallons of gasoline per mile. This is terrible for the environment, as one gallon of gasoline that is burned can stay in the atmosphere as CO2 and other harmful gases for up to 20 years. Although this is a larger scale problem than just the trucks that deliver standardized tests, every bit of emission does add up.


Solutions

As stated before, almost all of the AP exams are currently administered on paper, which is environmentally damaging to the environment and preservation of the earth. However, there are some solutions:


Online Testing: Technology isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and many aspects of school and life are being digitalized. By changing the testing format into an online test, a lot of paper can be saved. Just this year, the SAT, which is another standardized test administered by College Board, has officially become an online-only test.


Moving testing online would also resolve the problem of transporting materials. The use of fossil fuels and the carbon footprint of College Board would be greatly decreased with this change.


A good thing to note is that College Board is set to change some of their AP exams into digital tests in 2025, which shows some progress toward reducing its environmental impact.


Better packaging: Another alternative is for College Board to think more consciously about its use of plastic packaging. Each test per individual is covered in an excessive amount of plastic. Thus, by utilizing more eco-friendly options for packaging or getting rid of the plastic used to enclose each test, tons of plastic can be saved from ending up in landfills and the ocean.


 

Recap

Paper standardized testing has detrimental impacts on the environment due to the pollution made by the copious amounts of paper wasted, the plastic that is excessively used to cover each test, and the amount of fossil fuel burned in transportation. Luckily, technology is at its height and it is no longer necessary to have standardized testing solely on paper. In having more consideration for the environment, College Board, as well as other organizations that utilize standardized testing can become more efficient and environmentally friendly!

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Author: Ann Catechis


Editor: Charlotte Wang


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