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AP Testing Continues Amid Coronavirus Crisis

By Rick Hess — April 17, 2020 8 min read
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As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we’ll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Trevor Packer, head of the Advanced Placement Program at the College Board, is responsible for the 38 AP courses taken by more than 3 million students each year. Last week, he announced that AP testing would be continuing this spring in spite of school closures. I recently had the chance to ask Trevor about how coronavirus is affecting this year’s AP tests. Here’s what he had to say.

Rick: What exactly is happening with AP testing this year?

Trevor: We had all of this year’s exams printed and boxed up and ready to ship out to schools when it started to become clear that many would never reopen this academic year. Simply canceling all AP testing seemed initially like the most viable option. But students and educators had worked all year long with hope and trust that they would have an opportunity to pursue college credit. And when we surveyed AP students nationwide, we were surprised that the desire to proceed with testing was no different from what we see when schools are open: An overwhelming 91 percent of AP students reported a desire to take the AP exam at the end of the course. Their comments filled 900 pages, noting that so much of what they had been working toward had dissolved: no graduation ceremonies, no prom, no athletic competitions, no senior trips, but they could still study, could still learn, could still earn college credit. Some spoke about the increased need for college credit as their families faced uncertain financial futures that put at risk years of college preparation. Others spoke simply about the need for normalcy, an ability to control their destiny by finishing out the final weeks of their AP course and sitting for the exam. To serve them where they are—in their homes—we needed to implement a testing model that would be fair, inclusive, secure, and acceptable to the thousands of colleges and universities that receive AP scores.

Rick: How are colleges going to treat the scores? Will course credit be awarded this year?

Trevor: We’ve spoken with hundreds of colleges—and they’ve consistently confirmed that they will continue to use AP scores as they have in the past. The big state systems that receive the largest number of AP scores—the University of California and Cal State systems and the University of Texas systems—are among dozens of state systems that have made public statements of support, while many elite private colleges ranging from USC to Vanderbilt, from NYU to Yale, have also confirmed their support. After all, for decades colleges have always accepted AP scores from shortened AP exams taken by students in emergency conditions. The only difference is that this year, virtually all AP students are in such conditions.

Rick: How do you write tests that students can take on a smartphone or iPad? Are the questions going to look different from in past years?

Trevor: The questions themselves are a subset of the question types asked on the longer AP exams. Students have traditionally handwritten their open-ended responses and can continue to do so this year, photographing their handwritten response with a smartphone and uploading it into our platform. Or they can type their responses on desktop or laptop. Math and science students are primarily planning to handwrite their responses, although some report that they will be typing. In contrast, English and history students are mostly planning to type their responses, although some plan to stick with handwriting. For the AP world-language exams and the AP Music Theory exam, all of which require audio responses, students will download a free app through which the exam prompts will be heard and the student responses are recorded.

Rick: What are you doing to address technology-access problems?

Trevor: In order to support students who need resources to take AP Exams, we are connecting students with efforts underway in their schools and districts to address the digital divide, and ensuring that students understand how to use their existing technology to participate in the course and exam. For students who have no other options, we are providing chromebooks, tablets, and MiFi devices to students who can’t obtain them from their schools. We’ve purchased most of these ourselves for this purpose, and Amazon is providing the devices for any AP Computer Science students who need them. We have a team of 50 staff who have temporarily taken on the assignment of making sure these needs are met, and are calling students who have reached out to us for support.

Rick: Have you had to make allowances for the fact that some students will have lost weeks—maybe months—of instruction time? Are you adjusting the test for this?

Trevor: It’s important to remember that AP courses are typically taught every day, all year long, in contrast to meeting every other day for one semester, as most college courses do. So by the time schools closed in mid-March, many AP teachers were at or near the end of their syllabus, entering several weeks of intensive review of fall and winter content. And while 98 percent of AP teachers are still teaching their courses through distance-learning platforms, we wanted to provide free, supplemental support for those students whose AP courses were on pause, so we identified about 60 of the nation’s finest AP teachers to begin running daily AP classes on YouTube—and these classes have generated much excitement among AP students and teachers; 5.8 million have viewed them so far, live or recorded. And we think students will be excited about some of the celebrity guest lecturers who will soon start appearing unannounced in these classes.

All this said, we need to provide schools with flexible timeframes for finishing any unfinished course content, so we’re focusing this year’s shorter exams on content drawn from approximately 75 percent of the possible content we cover on the longer three-hour AP exams. Psychometricians have identified subsets of questions that have strong correlations to the questions we won’t be asking this year, so that the shorter exam will have high predictive validity, as usual with AP exams. This will enable students to focus on that material for the exam, in the same way that many college final exams often focus on a subset of the material rather than everything from September through May. Analysis shows that student performance on questions from 75 percent of the curriculum has a very high correlation to student performance on questions about the remaining topics.

Rick: In the past, AP tests have been administered with strict time constraints. How are you dealing with this?

Trevor: This year’s tests also have strict time constraints, and student responses will not be accepted once the timer for the exam elapses. Students will see this timer clearly on their screen during the exam, counting down to a five-minute period in which students can submit their responses before the exam closes.

Rick: Are you concerned about the lack of moderation influencing the validity of the scores? How are you preventing students from googling answers in one tab with the test open in the other?

Trevor: We’re only including exam questions this year that do not contain points for information that can be found merely through Google or a textbook. Instead, we’re sticking with the types of exam questions that present the students with a particular scenario or set of primary- or secondary-source documents and require the students to apply their content knowledge and skills to analyzing and constructing arguments related to those scenarios or sources—a skill that simply cannot be learned from Google in 45 minutes. In addition, we’re applying a range of security technologies and processes to prevent and detect cheating, plagiarism, and impersonation. We’re not disclosing most of those in advance, but we have shared that all responses will be routed through plagiarism- detection software, and to provide an additional level of validation, each AP teacher will receive copies of all their students’ exam responses. While we are not relying on teachers to be experts at detecting plagiarism, teachers want to view their students’ responses. After all, it’s highly unlikely that a student who has written mediocre historical analyses all year long is suddenly and mysteriously perfect on test day. We will report to colleges and universities the names of students who attempt to cheat, so we strongly discourage such attempts. Students will have very unhappy surprises on test day if they attempt to submit work that is not fully their own.

Rick: What else would you want to say to students preparing to take these exams?

Trevor: I want students and their teachers to know how much we care about doing the right thing for them. I want my leadership of AP to be sufficient to their hopes and ideals, and while I don’t have a financial plan to break even on this effort, our board of trustees, which is comprised of educators, not businesspeople, felt strongly that we simply needed to act, to find a way to support the hopes and desires of educators and students. So that’s what we’re doing. This is a massive investment for us—building new exams, new technologies for at-home testing and test security, and new online scoring models to route millions of student essays to professors’ homes for at-home scoring this summer. Doing all of this will perhaps require more of our reserve than simply canceling the exams would have; we just don’t know. But what we do know is that this is something that most educators and students want from us, so we’re working around the clock to make it happen. I’ve been deeply moved by the passion so many educators and students continue to demonstrate for learning advanced material despite the isolation and challenges they’re experiencing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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