Since the Advanced Placement (AP) program began in the 1950s, tens of millions of students have taken their exams in school, with paper and pencil, over the course of several hours.
That format held for decades, but ultimately could not withstand the challenges posed by a global pandemic. Last spring, the College Board, which oversees the AP program, redesigned the exam to accommodate a new reality of shuttered schools, disrupted learning and students with varying degrees of connectivity. The result was an open book, open note, abbreviated at-home exam, using whatever device a student had available.
It was not without its hiccups. This year, the College Board, having learned from those experiences, is announcing more changes in an effort to provide “unprecedented flexibility” in the age of pandemic-era testing, says Trevor Packer, a senior vice president at the nonprofit who leads the AP program.
The goal is to meet students where they are by allowing them to test where and when it’s convenient. Students who attend a school that is open for in-person instruction may take a traditional paper-and-pencil AP exam with a proctor—the same way students did before the pandemic—or opt for the digital version. Students who are still learning remotely can take the digital exam at home, which will be full-length (three to four hours, instead of 45 minutes, as was the case last year) and virtually the same as the handwritten version.
Also unlike last year, in which each subject test was offered at the same time and date worldwide to avoid answer-sharing, the College Board is offering three test sessions for each subject, from early May to mid-June. This will allow schools to “mix and match,” Packer says, explaining that a school could spread students testing in-person for AP Calculus across all three dates to allow for social distancing, or could have all in-person test-takers sit for the exam on a single date. Schools can also choose between different dates and formats for different tests.
These changes come on the heels of the College Board’s decision last month to move away from SAT subject tests and optional essay tests, which it also produces.
Lessons From Last Year
When schools closed last March, the College Board briefly considered scrapping the AP exams altogether, says Packer, given the logistical challenges posed by school closures and disparities in home internet access for students. But a survey of students on the matter found that 91 percent of respondents wanted a chance to take the test and earn college credit.
“They filled pages and pages of comments in the open-ended response [of the survey], saying they were losing so many aspects of high school life—trips, prom—but what they could still do was study. They said, ‘Please don’t take that away,’” Packer recalls.
So then the question became how to pull that off.
The tests needed to be short enough to do from home, but long enough that it demonstrated a student’s abilities and generated a score that could be trusted by colleges. It also needed to be accessible by smartphone, to help with the access issue.
That’s how they arrived at the open note, 45-minute digital exam that students took. Some students answered the free-response questions on paper, then snapped a photo of their handwritten work on their smartphone and uploaded it.
“We have deeply mixed feelings” about last year’s exam, Packer says. “We have a lot of satisfaction and pride” that the College Board was able to provide “some aspect of normalcy” and a chance to earn college credit.
On the other hand, technical glitches left some students frustrated and defeated.
“Most students were able to take the test just fine and upload their answers,” Packer says. “But with 3 million students, it wasn’t surprising. We warned it would be bumpy and that some people would need to do makeup tests. We knew errors would happen—if there was a local internet outage when a student tried to submit their test, they’d need to retest. If a student didn’t use an updated browser, or if they took a blurry photo, they’d need to retest.”
He adds: “The last thing we wanted was for a student with the courage to show up and take the AP test from their home to have a negative experience.”
Overall, the number of AP exams taken went down by about 7 percent from the previous year, after 10 years of mostly increasing participation. Packer says that’s due in part to the College Board waiving students’ cancellation fees after it announced the new testing format, after which about 9 percent of those who had registered chose to drop out.
Students’ average scores were also the highest they’ve been since at least the year 2000, at 3.03. Packer suspects this is because many of the students who canceled their test registrations were those “less likely to be successful” on the exam, therefore making the testing pool stronger, though he didn’t offer a definitive explanation. There is no evidence, he adds, to suggest that the modified, shorter tests last year were easier, and in fact he has heard from students that they were more difficult because they did not include any multiple choice questions, on which students typically perform better.
Testing a New Approach
Digital and paper exams in some subjects—though not all—may have minute differences for questions where a student is limited by the digital format. Packer offers an example from a calculus exam, in which a student testing with paper and pencil in school could draw out a graph herself to illustrate the concept, but a student testing digitally might be shown graphs instead. Experts will account for these discrepancies to ensure each test is “statistically equated for difficulty levels,” he says.
Online test-takers should expect a smoother experience than last year. To account for the glitches, the new digital exam has been redesigned “to be tolerant of internet disruptions,” the College Board says, “so while a student needs internet access to start and finish the exam, they’ll be able to keep testing if the internet goes out momentarily.”
Some options will no longer be available for the digital exam. New security features will prevent students from returning to an answered question, or from toggling back and forth between remaining questions. Students will not be able to take the test on a smartphone; they must use a computer. They will also not have the option of submitting photos of handwritten work, which was possible last year.
Nine of the 38 subject tests—primarily world languages and music theory—will not have the option to be taken online, as those require test-takers to read and write in another language and are “too easily cheatable” in a digital environment, Packer says.
As for what the AP tests will look like after the pandemic, Packer says that some elements of this new format will stay, and others will go.
At-home testing is not a long-term option. “It’s a once-in-a-century emergency protocol,” he says. Once all schools resume for in-person learning, so will AP testing resume for in-school administration. But the digital offerings, Packer says, are here to stay.