By MICHAEL LAKIND
Every May, millions of high school students all over the world crowd together on campuses for three hours of testing to prove what they’ve learned in some of the most grueling courses on their schools’ catalogs. But what can students do when nobody can leave their house?
Now the College Board has a solution, redesigning AP exams to be taken at home.
In the wake of mass school closures due to worldwide efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus, AP exams will be taken online this year. For each course, there will be one testing date in May and a makeup date in the first week of June. All courses will be completely removing multiple-choice sections from their tests, placing all of the pressure on students’ ability to dazzle readers on a 45-minute-long free-response writing section.
Each course also has seen many revisions in test content. To assist with the cutback in how much class time there will be for teachers to put towards fulfilling AP curriculum, there have been significant removals of several full units from the framework of every AP class. For portfolio-based classes such as AP Studio Art and AP Computer Science Principles, requirements have been softened and submission deadlines for all AP portfolios have been extended to May 26 at 11:59 p.m. EST.
On top of these alterations, the College Board has removed the cap on how many students can receive a 3, 4 or 5 on the exam, which normally is in place through a bell curve to ensure that high-scoring students are the elite “few” and earned their college credit. The testing agency has also gotten many college admissions officers to show support for these shortened tests and given teachers the ability to see their students’ essays after the exams, never the case on a typical AP exam.
While the College Board has made taking the actual test easier for many students, there are concerns about this sweeping change to the AP testing format. A lot of teachers are worried about how at-home testing will compromise security since everyone will have access to their notes and textbooks and the internet itself.
“Obviously, they will be unable to enforce the high levels of security they normally would,” says Barbara McBride, who teaches AP English Language and Composition. “By focusing solely on free-response, however, they should get more authentic responses than had they included multiple-choice.”
Access to the internet is a widespread issue on top of the tests being open-book/open-note. All across the country—in rural areas without service entirely or in urban areas with high rates of poverty—students with no way to get online for AP tests will have to reach out to the College Board quickly in order to receive an alternative testing medium. Students in Carmel schools without access are mostly concentrated in the Big Sur and Cachagua regions.
“We believe there are up to 100 students–less than 5% of our total student body–who have inadequate internet access,” says Paul Behan, the chief technology officer for Carmel Unified School District and a member of a task force in Monterey County working towards universal internet access. “We’ve turned up the WiFi signal on our campuses so students can walk or drive into the parking area and log on.”
Like students, teachers find the trimming of exam content an advantage. Instead of students needing to use distance learning to cram in new material somewhat independently so close to test day, they can use this time before the May test dates to simply review. To help AP students get in gear, the College Board has posted hundreds of hours’ worth of videos of teachers going over key concepts.
The difference in magnitude between usual AP exams and those this May begs the question of whether colleges will recognize these scores the same way they would recognize a score from a prior year, even though the College Board assures students and teachers that they will. To prove content mastery, which would you view as a more reliable measuring stick: Fifty-five multiple-choice questions, three short-answer questions and two essays…or just a single essay?
“I don’t think the scores will be viewed in the same manner,” says Brent Silva, who teaches AP World History and AP U.S. Government and Politics. “There are so many different variables this year that have changed delivery of content, review and the test itself.”
Students share teachers’ security concerns and find it intimidating to have 100% of their merit riding on one essay, as opposed to a composite score from combined skills. The elimination of the multiple-choice section of the tests was likely done to give minimal power to plagiarism, but it might skew results for students that depend on a variety of formats.
“You could really know the material but just not be great at writing, so that could really affect some people,” says junior Tessa Twomey, who is enrolled in four AP courses this year.
Some students agree with Silva’s view on the imbalance of test structure, especially in the way the tests are scored. A multiple-choice AP exam is scored electronically with a binary method of determining student performance. Now that the entire test is a writing task, there are many criteria left up in the air.
“I feel like you need an objective part to the test as well,” says Tyler Armstrong, a senior taking five AP courses including both AP English Language and AP English Literature, which typically have three essays each. “Now that the tests have removed multiple-choice, we’ve lost that objective basis to compare students on, and in turn, we’ve opened the door for inaccuracies in results.”
These changes affect every grade level differently, but may be causing freshmen the most anxiety. This May was going to mark their first AP exam, and to say the least, it will turn out much differently than it was supposed to.
“It’s nerve-racking, all things considered,” says freshman Ayden Reed, who is currently taking AP Human Geography. “This is supposed to be one of the hardest tests we’ve ever taken, and at this point I don’t know whether it’s now easier or even harder.”
The College Board has now revealed the specifics on what type of essay or essays each course will be assigned and the master testing schedule. All information is posted on AP Central.