Students Face Difficulties During Online AP Exams

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Issue 16, Volume 110

By Shriya Anand, Christopher Sullivan, Theo Schiminovich, Kai Caothien 

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In light of the COVID-19 crisis, the College Board announced in March that the Advanced Placement (AP) exams would be administered online. To accommodate for the shift, the exams were shortened, made open-book, and taken at home from May 11 to May 22, with students around the world taking their tests at the same time. Technical difficulties, however, posed challenges to students as they took their exams, with many having to sign up for make-up exams administered from June 1 to June 5.

Most AP exams were shortened to 45 minutes, with an additional five minutes to submit answers. Exams covered material from the shortened AP curriculum to account for the pandemic. Many exams consisted of either one essay question or two free-response questions in which students could only work on one question at a time. To submit their answers, students were given the choice of uploading handwritten work, attaching files, or copying and pasting their response onto the College Board website. Other AP courses, such as AP Drawing, required a portfolio instead of at-home testing.

With the new structure of AP testing, colleges must evaluate whether they will accept this year’s exams for college credit. While many colleges have chosen to accept them, others have yet to make a decision. “In many cases, colleges will treat the 2020 AP exams in the same manner as they have in the past. Many colleges have publicly announced this via e-mail bulletins and information posted on their websites, including institutions like Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Northeastern [University], UPenn, and Wellesley College, just to name a few,” Director of College Counseling Jeffrey Makris said in an e-mail interview. “Others have not yet determined if they will adjust AP policies for these exams, like Princeton, which is evaluating this by department.”

To prepare students for the newly formatted exam, the College Board published guidelines to help them avoid any technical difficulties. The guidelines included important steps to take before an exam, such as disabling any plug-ins and making sure the test-taking device is fully charged. The College Board issued a testing demo for students to test their device and become familiar with the three different submission options before their AP exam. To secure testing, the College Board also e-mailed an e-ticket to every student two days prior to their exam.

The College Board introduced stricter protocols to deter and prevent cheating, including plagiarism detection. Many, however, expressed concern over the nuances of taking the exams online. “Nobody knows who used the Internet (or other tools) during the exam, who had help from others, or even who took the exam,” physics teacher Thomas Strasser said in an e-mail interview.

Especially during the first week of testing, issues became apparent with the College Board website after many students reported technical difficulties with submitting their work. The shortened submission window left many students without enough time to submit their responses, while others had difficulties with successfully submitting their work despite attaching their responses. Without a submission, many were prompted to a page that displayed, “We Did Not Receive Your Response(s).”

Junior Allen Baranov had difficulties with his AP Physics C: Mechanics exam submission. “I could not submit answers for my Physics C: Mechanics exam,” Baranov said in an e-mail interview. “I sent the PDF of my answers from my phone to my Google Drive and downloaded them from Google Drive. However, when I tried uploading these files to College Board, they wouldn’t recognize them.”

Sophomore Xiaoshen Ma could not submit her work either. “Normally, in a classroom, the teacher is coming around, I [need to] put my pen down, and she’s going to take it no matter what. You look down, and you see this whole essay, and you’re sure that it’ll get taken away. But on a virtual essay, it was there, yet it didn’t go through. It was just kind of sad because you know you did it,” she said.

Fearing that they would face issues submitting with the College Board website, students became stressed during their AP exams. “The first time I tried to submit, it just wouldn’t work, so I had to x-out and re-AirDrop it to my laptop,” sophomore Naomi Naranjo said. “I was literally so scared that it wouldn't submit in time [because] there were only 10 seconds left.”

Though many students experienced issues with the College Board website itself, some experienced technical difficulties with their own device on their first AP exam. “The technical difficulty was on my end—I was not able to e-mail the photos of my handwritten work to myself in time. The e-mail would not send, and when it did, I didn’t have enough time to upload them and submit,” an anonymous student said.

Because of the technical issues, Strasser was disappointed by the College Board’s execution of the exams. “Most technical problems were clearly caused by the College Board not securing enough servers, and many students could not upload their files as a result. The College Board did not admit that but instead accused students of not having updated their browsers,” he said in an e-mail interview.

To rectify the submission issue, the College Board added an e-mail submission process for students to turn in responses for the second week of AP testing. If students faced difficulty with submitting their work, they could instead e-mail their responses to the College Board directly after their exam. Those who could not submit their responses during the first week of AP testing, however, were not able to e-mail their work.

Though students appreciated the new e-mail submission option, they wished it had been introduced earlier. “The submission process with the backup if there was a problem should have been established either before the first exam or as soon as there were submission problems. The e-mail backup was very helpful and reassuring that even if there were submission problems, students felt safe and more relaxed,” junior Aki Yamaguchi said in an e-mail interview. “I hated that they failed to address the problem so late and were ruining a lot of people’s days and exams just because they couldn't submit.”

Students who were unable to submit their exam in the first week of AP exams in May were directed to take the make-up exam in June. They were instructed to fill out an online form describing the disruptions that they faced during the exam and will be issued an e-ticket for their make-up exam upon approval from the College Board.

Ma is pessimistic about taking the exam in June. “To be honest, everyone just wants to get over with it, and […] taking the test at the right time at the right place seems like a big factor. The make-up test, though it might have given me more days to study, […] didn’t really give me more time because as we get to the end of the school year, there are so many final projects that we also have to go through,” she said.

Due to the shortened tests to accommodate for an exam designed to be taken at home, many students were disappointed in the few topics that their exams covered compared to what they had learned throughout the school year. “Nothing was going to be perfect for an online exam, but it is disappointing that so little of what I studied was actually on the test,” freshman Sophia Wan-Brodsky said in an e-mail interview.

Many also expressed concerns about the level of productivity for students taking the exam in a non-structured environment. “The lack of control over testing conditions (chance of technical difficulties; perhaps lack of space to concentrate) makes the whole experience more stressful. In person, the testing environment is very controlled, and there is reassurance in that,” English teacher Maura Dwyer said in an e-mail interview.

On the other hand, others viewed the format as reasonable and an adequate measure of their knowledge on the subject. “The exam looked pretty fair to me. The format was pretty expected—it was exactly the way we did practice exams, and [though] there [were] a few changes that we had to get used to, I guess that just meant that we didn’t have the multiple choice, which might be a good thing,” Ma said. “The essay portion was exactly the same, which was definitely a good thing.”

Social studies teacher David Hanna also believed that the test was made fairly to some extent. “They mixed up the topics for the [Document Based Questions] so that one might have gotten one on the Enlightenment, while another might have gotten one on the Reformation, and another still on the French Revolution,” he said.

Hanna noted, however, some improvements that could have been made to the modified AP exams. “Personally, I […] would’ve given students a choice of three or four Long Essay topics to write on. But as I said, they did mix it up—though there wasn’t any choice on the student end,” he said.

Though Hanna acknowledges that the AP exams were not executed perfectly, he feels that the College Board did well given the circumstances. “[The College Board] made the best of the situation. It [is] important for students who’ve been working hard all year to have a benchmark by which to measure their skills and knowledge,” he said.