When I made the decision last fall to return to teaching high school after a decade working in higher education, I could not have foreseen that a big part of my job this year would be preparing students for the first-ever online Advanced Placement exams.
I teach three sections of the AP English Literature and Composition course at a public charter school in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. I also study and write about large-scale assessments. So I feel invested in giving my students not only the subject-matter knowledge but also the testing savvy to ace their AP exams. And I’ve thought a lot about how the College Board’s pioneering attempt went.
AP exams assess mastery of content and skills in approximately 35 different college-level courses taken by high school students. Both the curriculum and the exams in the courses are set by the nonprofit College Board, which derives a big chunk of its revenue from the AP Program.
In my view, the most valuable aspect of these standardized tests is that they can save students a lot of money on tuition by allowing them to test out of general education requisites at universities and thus complete their degrees quicker. Or students can bypass some core courses, often taught by teaching assistants and with class sizes in the hundreds, in favor of more engaging electives. It’s fair to note, too, that AP scores factor into the university admissions process, as students may choose to report their results as part of their college applications.
The responsible thing for the College Board to do would have been to postpone a bit longer."
So the exams are important. Regardless of whether standardized tests measure what they purport to or whether they are fair to diverse kinds of test-takers, AP exams are used to reward some students and not others.
With makeup exams beginning this week for droves of students, including some of mine, it’s a good time to grade the College Board for its performance this spring under admittedly challenging circumstances wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The College Board performed well in some ways. First, it decided early on that students would be able to take AP tests online at home, given that almost all schools were closing because of the coronavirus. This meant a switchover from pencil-and-paper tests to typed exams, saving test time for most students. Also, each exam was reduced from three hours to 45 minutes, which, in my opinion, rightly prioritized learning over endurance. The AP English Literature exam, for example, previously required students to slog through 55 multiple-choice questions followed by three separate essay prompts.
Finally, in an uncharacteristically transparent move for a testing agency, the College Board announced it would provide AP teachers with their students’ responses, not only as a way to supplement gradebooks thinned out in the transition to virtual learning but also to offer insights for improving future instruction.
Where did the College Board go wrong? Mainly by saddling students with the logistical demands of the new online format. For instance, each subject’s exam was taken on the same day at the same time worldwide to prevent students from conferring about answers. But since multiple versions of the exams were developed, why didn’t the College Board discourage cheating by staggering exam versions? Then Hawaiian examinees would not have had to start at 6 in the morning while peers on the other side of the globe finished in the middle of the night.
And although the College Board paid lip service to confronting the digital divide, it never made sense to encourage students to take exams on smartphones or tablets (rather than computers) as such devices are neither ideal for typing long texts nor navigating multiple windows, both of which the tests required. Yes, students could handwrite, photograph, and upload their work. But those who didn’t do so could borrow a few precious minutes for the actual test from the five minutes allocated for submission.
Perhaps the College Board’s biggest blunder was this five minute submission window. After two months of e-learning, any sensible educator, let alone an organization with the resources of the College Board, would have expected and prepared for a host of technical issues: intermittent internet connectivity, outdated web browsers, incompatible file formats. And all of these problems were exacerbated by an anxiety-inducing timer counting down the final minutes. Not submitting the test within the time limit meant the difference between passing and failing the entire exam.
After horror stories of unsubmitted responses circulated widely during the first of two weeks of AP testing, the College Board announced guidelines for a backup email- submission process effective May 18. But why wasn’t the exam interface set up so that students could simply type their responses within a text box that autosaved their work—even though, ironically, they were required to do so as part of typing exercises to advance past preliminary security screens?
In my post-exam debriefings with students, I learned of issues specific to the English- literature exam. Students were frustrated that there was no tool available to highlight or annotate long passages of text. Some reported that they could copy and paste sections directly from the prompt; others could not.
And while setting the examination period between May 11 and May 22 was well-intentioned and responded to the preference expressed by test-takers and their teachers for testing students while they were still in school, the responsible thing for the College Board to do would have been to postpone a bit longer. No one was ready.
In the days before exams commenced, students were inundated with last-minute updates and advice from the College Board. A 51-page testing guide. A practice demo that revealed that add-ons like Grammarly must be uninstalled. Exam-day checklists with 30 check boxes of helpful tasks to be completed by students for each exam taken. And for my specific AP course, a YouTube playlist of 33 videos totaling over 20 hours of viewing time. This was more than students could be expected to keep up with in the midst of a life-altering pandemic.
And, finally, why not simply offer some words of sympathy or—gasp!—an apology to the tens of thousands of examinees who will be retesting in June because of submission errors we all saw coming? Maybe because the College Board saw lawsuits charging negligence coming, too.
I know we can count on this generation of students to be resilient in the face of adversity, as evidenced by the internet humor about AP exams that recently proliferated across social-media platforms. I suppose that the ends of allowing students to earn college credits by testing really do justify the memes. But if online testing continues next year, it’s no joke that the College Board will need to apply itself to make the grade.