The shortfall of digital AP exams


Via CollegeBoard

The digital AP exams this year do not offer the option to go back and change answers.

I saw in my inbox something I had been waiting weeks for: AP Testing Schedule 2021. As I opened the email, I was immediately drawn to the table where I searched for my AP courses – U.S. History “Digital Remote,” English Language “Digital Remote,” Calc AB/BC “Digital Remote,” Physics 1 “Digital Remote.” 

In fact, my only AP exam which would be administered in-person was my Spanish Language test which was mandated by the College Board. Even after the Mountain View–Los Altos School Board has decided to give students the choice to opt-in for AP exams in addition to language exams, I realized to my horror that the online AP exams would put students at a disadvantage. Not only that, but the Board’s decision was made entirely without student input. 

Not only would the digital format not allow test-takers to review answered questions and preview unanswered portions to help with pacing, some exams will have completely different structures, with new multiple-choice sections and alterations to free-response questions.  

All answers would be entered online, eliminating any handwritten submission as required by last year’s online format; mathematical expressions will be entered via clicking on symbols within the test application. I would have two STEM exams on the same day, each lasting three hours, which will mean six hours of on-screen testing and clicking away symbols — I can already feel the headache.

The College Board is offering three testing windows for 2021 AP exams: Administration 1 (in-person testing from Monday, May 3, to Monday, May 17), Administration 2 (a mix of both formats from Tuesday, May 18, to Friday, May 28) and Administration 3 (online testing from Tuesday, June 1, to Friday, June 11). Our school had picked Administration 3 to be the sole exam window for all non-world-language subjects. 

Looking to Other Schools

Many districts in the Bay Area such as Los Gatos–Saratoga, Sequoia Union, Campbell Union, New Haven Unified and Pleasanton Unified are offering both paper-and-pencil and digital formats spanning Administration 1, 2 and 3, with many districts avoiding Administration 3 in June to prevent schedule conflicts with finals and graduation. 

Dublin Unified and Saratoga high schools are looking into off-site venues to seat spillover students for in-person testing, and Gunn High School is offering the Administration 2 window for in-person STEM exams after surveying students’ preferences. 

Internet Equity 

Internet access equity is a major concern with students requiring three hours (one exam) to six hours (two exams) of stable WiFi connection and a quiet home environment. This long length of on-screen testing can also affect students’ performance negatively, commonly caused by screen fatigue. 

While the College Board stated that the secure browser will continue to operate in case of a dropped internet connection, last year’s technical hiccups did not bode well. With the shorter 45-minute online exam last year, many students nationally and internationally experienced exam submission and software stall problems which resulted in a federal class action lawsuit filed against the College Board.

It is important to note that AP exams are accessed synchronously both nationally and internationally at 12 p.m. EDT and 4 p.m. EDT. With 1.21 million students taking 4.1 million exams last year, the College Board will need to ensure that its data network is capable of servicing simultaneous requests from these many students. 

Given the technical issues with the shorter exam last year and the fact that the College Board has sworn off an at-home SAT, I am uncertain how well College Board has tested the new digital architecture for this year’s longer exams. AP Students are practically conducting quality assurance testing for their new digital deployment.

The Digital Exam: a Completely New Test

The digital exams’ content differs from the traditional tests with additional multiple-choice sections and shortened free-response questions in many STEM subjects, while also removing the option to pick from multiple prompts in U.S. History and European History. 

Because history subjects encompass a wide breadth of topics that command details, pencil-and-paper test-takers will benefit from prompt options for the short-answer question (SAQ) and long-essay question (LEQ) portions. This combined with the linear multiple choice section poses a significant challenge for students. 

Subjects such as Calculus AB, Calculus BC, Chemistry and Microeconomics will allow calculators for the entire digital exam (they are usually only allowed in certain sections) — this is not necessarily good news as it presages harder multiple-choice questions. And these are the harder questions that cannot be reviewed.

Testing with Caps and Gowns

The late Administration 3 window has eight digital AP exams between Monday, June 7, to Thursday, June 10, which means many seniors will need to return from celebrating graduation to take exams. Students have also brought up the issue that Chemistry and Physics E&M have clashing test times, with some lamenting the five exams they would have had to take within 31 hours on Wednesdays, June 9, and Thursday, June 10, all online.

I can reason why so many school districts are offering multiple test windows to mitigate these issues by spreading out tests more optimally. Seniors who need their AP scores for college credit and college course selection risk their score reports in case of technical hiccups during any exams. The College Board has not yet announced a contingency plan for Administration 3 make-ups.

A for the Better

Many students and parents have been urging our schools to provide test format options in additional test windows for MVLA students. I am relieved and thankful that our schools have decided to offer some in-person AP Exams during the Administration 2 window (Calculus AB/C, Chemistry, Physics 1/C and Statistics), although all non-STEM subjects, Biology, Environmental Science and Computer Science will remain online. 

It is not lost on me the unimaginable challenges this past year our school leaders and teachers have taken on. Through more open dialogue and transparent communication, MVLA will come out a leader with the capability of serving the needs of such a diverse student population.