Students Take Covid-Era Tests and Competitions

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many tests, including the AMC, Science Olympiad exams, and the Independent School Entrance Exams, have adjusted accordingly to a virtual test-taking setting.

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By Lauren Chin

As the COVID-19 pandemic has changed standard testing conditions of various exams, each has had to adapt its in-person mechanics to be suitable virtually. Here are how three exams are adapting to the circumstances.

Math Team Competitions

For the Stuyvesant Math Team, all competitions, such as the American Math Competition (AMC), the New York Math League (NYML), and Continental Math League (CML), have transitioned to an online setting.

The AMC is a series of math competitions used to determine the United States team for the International Math Olympiad (IMO), has shifted online, and is scheduled for February 2021. The Mathematical Association of America (MAA) has put preventative measures in place to discourage and minimize academic dishonesty and are now holding the AMC through a student portal called Art of Problem Solving (AoPS). In addition to an online AMC, there is a paper administration option, which involves taking the AMC in-person on paper, for schools doing in-person learning.

Though students took the AMC in-person last year, the American Invitational Mathematics Exam (AIME), the succeeding exam for candidates who score above a certain AMC cutoff, was held online and required an adult proctor, chosen by the examinee, to be physically present with the test-takers during the entire duration of the AIME to verify that no cheating took place. For the AMC this year, the MAA is allowing competition managers to choose between either proctoring the students virtually or physically with an adult present during the competition. Stuyvesant has chosen to proctor the competition virtually.

Because of the online format, math teacher Brian Sterr, Stuyvesant’s competition manager for the AMC exam this year, will have to adjust the administration of the AMC accordingly. “Usually I would have to organize the answer sheets and return them to the MAA, but since we are using the online option this year, the answers will be collected automatically,” Sterr said in an e-mail interview.

Additionally, the AMC will be administered with specific measures to prevent academic dishonesty. “All students will be proctored via Zoom during the examination with video showing their hands, workspace, and computer screen. They are only allowed to have the questions open on their computer. The AMC also has an Honor Code that they will have to sign, which they also sign when the exam is in person,” Sterr said.

Despite preventative measures, many are concerned that an online exam will increase the likelihood of cheating and inflate cutoff scores. “Last year, during the online AIME, the cutoff for the [Junior Mathematical Olympiad] was absurdly high,” junior Maxwell Zen said in an e-mail interview. “Especially for combinatorics questions that usually involve a lot of grueling casework, it becomes so much easier when you're able to write up a quick Python program to do the casework for you, so I'm worried that people will be able to do that and qualify for the next competition over people who decided not to cheat.”

Similarly, junior Edward Wu, who also took the online AIME last year, questioned the effectiveness of the anti-cheating mechanisms. “The way we were proctored last year was the camera would focus on your workspace and hands. Otherwise, there's not much stopping any cheating from happening, [other than] your signature and the signature of an in-person proctor who will be sitting near you,” he said in an e-mail interview.

Others feel that the online format lessens the importance of the AMC. “I personally prefer the in-person format to the online one. Taking a contest at home makes it feel so much more unprofessional and a lot less important than what it actually is,” sophomore Joseph Othman said in an e-mail interview. “Taking tests at home compared to at school or together with everyone else is just weird.”

The content of the AMC, however, has stayed the same, allowing students to prepare for it as they have in the past. “The content of the exam has not changed, so the math team teachers will continue to prepare students for the exam using past AMC exams as practice,” Sterr said. “Our curriculum for math team classes has practice for AMC integrated into it, so that has not changed.”

In addition to the AMC, the Stuyvesant math team has competed in several competitions, such as the NYML and CML. The contests, however, are now administered at the discretion of schools, with both in-school meets and online contests being available options. At Stuyvesant, this year’s CML was administered through a Google Form on Google Classroom.

The NYML is typically a six question test administered in person with paper. This year, it was administered through the Math League Contests website. Answers for each question, however, must be input in a specific manner, which opens up the possibility of formatting errors and has frustrated many students. “Online math tests […] are somewhat of a hassle at times [because they] often make it annoying to submit answers,“ freshman Henry Ji said in an e-mail interview. “Taking tests online isn’t the same as in person, as you have to spend more time submitting and formatting answers, and […] you don’t [have] the sensation of doing it with everyone else.”

Overall, some feel that the social aspect of in-person testing has been lost through virtual testing. “I do not prefer the online format, mostly because of the loss of the feeling of togetherness I tend to feel when taking a test with other people and just physically seeing/interacting with people,” sophomore Josiah Moltz said in an e-mail interview.

Despite the changes, students are continuing to prepare for their upcoming competitions. “The pandemic has disrupted all of our routines, but the preparation work remains the same: to keep on practicing,” junior Jerry Liang said in an e-mail interview.

Despite the online competitions, some still feel the spirit of the math team and hope to continue building up their math skills. “There’s […] a mutual understanding [within the math team] that while it’s pretty cool and impressive to get a high contest score, the contests are meant to be taken for fun and to stimulate our curiosity regarding math. That spirit has not changed despite being online,” freshman Eshaal Ubaid said in an e-mail interview.

Though many math competitions have had to adapt to online, Sterr appreciates that students still have the chance to participate. “Until we are able to gather large numbers of students in one place, we’ll have to be flexible and adjust to virtual competitions,” Sterr said. “There are a lot of students who look forward to these competitions and solving the problems, so the fact that we can participate at all is a good thing.”

Science Olympiad Competitions

Due to COVID-19, the USA Biolympiad (USABO), USA Chemistry Olympiad (USNCO), and F=ma test will all be offered online this year. F=ma will be offered in January 2021 while USABO and USNCO will be administered in February.

In the past, both the USABO and USNCO consisted of in-person competitions to select students. The USABO consists of two rounds of exams, which will be conducted virtually this year, and is used to identify four students to represent the U.S. team at the International Biology Olympiad (IBO). The USNCO consists of a local selection competition, from which students advance to a two-part national exam, and then onto the International Chemistry Olympiad to represent the U.S. team. All competitions and exams will be held online, with the exception for some local competitions for USNCO.

Though many students have been limited in their studying methods, they are finding additional ways to supplement their studying. “It’s a shame we don’t get to participate in any classroom lab activities this year, since a hands-on approach really brings all the one-dimensional information from the textbooks to life,” senior Kristoff Misquitta said in an e-mail interview. “That said, there are still online alternatives and simulations that can teach the same lessons, and I think they do a great job of filling in the gaps.”

To accommodate, the Stuyvesant Biology Olympiad (StuyBO) Club has been focused on preparing its members for the competition. “StuyBO has been hosting weekly lessons on Sunday that teach material from the official textbook to prepare for the USABO. For the more advanced students who want to proceed further in the competition, we also host advanced lessons from other textbooks,” sophomore and StuyBO’s event director Fu xing Chen said in an e-mail interview.

For the F=ma exam, it is traditionally administered with an A and a B version of the exam. Both exams have the same length and topics but are conducted at different dates with different questions. For the 2021 exam, the American Association of Physics Teachers has combined both exams. Though the test has been converted to a virtual format, the test topics will remain the same. The approximate top 400 scorers on the F=ma exams will be eligible to take the USA Physics Olympiad exam (USAPhO).

Assistant Principal of Chemistry and Physics Scott Thomas believes students will prepare well for the exam, but he hopes to see an improvement in study resources for them. “Almost all of the students who registered for the F=ma exam are taking AP Physics C - Mechanics. The AP Physics C - Mechanics course covers all the topics in the F=ma exam,” Thomas said. “It would be great if we could offer the students a prep class for the F=ma exam, but this is challenging at the moment.”

As these tests are online, some students have raised concerns about academic honesty. “[There will] be obviously cheating; there has always been to some degree,” senior Leon Ma said in an e-mail interview. “For olympiads that have always been online like USACO, stories of people having friends or even parents to do contests for them have been prevalent. The question is how severe it will [be] and how the cutoffs will be affected.”

To combat this, the administration has implemented preventative measures to mitigate cheating. “The school has an Academic Integrity Policy, and the teachers have adopted procedures to reduce the likelihood of cheating,” Thomas said. “All the tests will be taken online, [and] we will receive instructions for proctoring two weeks before the exam.”

Despite the shift in testing, Thomas remains optimistic. “We are doing the best we can given the current situation with the pandemic. Hopefully, things will return to normal when the pandemic is over,” he said.

Independent School Entrance Exam

When applying to private high schools, many middle schoolers take the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE), an internationally recognized exam created by the Educational Record Bureau. This year, however, students were given the option to take the exam either at home on a device or in a testing room on a device or on paper. The final ISEE test took place on December 14.

As the ISEE is administered at four different levels, middle schoolers take the Upper Level exam that consists of five separately timed sections: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Reading Comprehension, Mathematics Achievement, and an optional expository essay. Students receive a total of two hours and 40 minutes for the test.

Om Divan, an eighth grader at the P.S. 334 The Anderson School, took the ISEE on a device in a testing room on December 14. “Because there were no more seats left to take it at home, I had to go on-site to take the test on a device,” he said. “If we wanted to, or had to, take the test on a device, they said we had to download this platform, called Prometric, that basically prevented any cheating. We couldn’t do anything else besides answer the questions, not even copy and paste.”

Because students were testing on-site, many testing centers implemented extra preventative measures, including putting on a new mask provided by the center. “The whole time, I felt that they had done their best to prevent the spread of COVID, which was a helpful thing to have in mind, even if the restrictions made it a bit harder for me to take the test,” Divan said.

Divan, however, faced a few inconveniences when taking the ISEE due to the extra measures. “I need blue-light glasses because I get headaches if I’m looking at a screen for too long, but when I was taking the test, they asked me to take them off because they were not prescription glasses,” Divan said. “Also, because collecting them would be unsanitary, students were told to place any smartwatches and cell phones in plain view of their desk, but the desk was really small, and with the laptop and scrap paper on it too, I barely had space for my phone, and it kept almost falling off.”

Despite this, Divan felt a sense of relief after taking the ISEE. “I can relax and enjoy the rest of my year without worrying about COVID-amended tests,” he said. “The whole pandemic thing on top of everything else made the whole experience a bit nerve-racking, to be honest.”