AP Testing this year was a unique, emotional, and stressful experience for many students across the world. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, College Board decided to change their AP schedule and move all exams online. This decision, the first in “AP History,” brought changes to timing, format, content, and skills in a short amount of time. Students, teachers, and administrators had only a few weeks to modify their plans and prepare for the modified AP exam. And even though College Board posted the updated test structure and content on their website, many students and teachers still had questions regarding the type of problems they will see, the content being asked, and much more.
However, once AP Testing came the week of May 11th, people began to get answers. Along with this, students started learning which of their strategies helped them and which hurt them during the test. In order to understand what everyone learned, I have surveyed a variety of AP students and asked them about the difficulties they faced, strategies they used, and most importantly, what they learned from AP Testing this year. These lessons not only demonstrate what AP Students learned from this very stressful period, but can serve as advice for future AP students.
(Before I start, I’d like to say that my intent isn’t to speak against AP Testing or College Board. I also do not intend to break any of College Board’s rules, such as discussing exam questions. My goal is to share what AP students learned coming out of AP testing in 2020.)
Lesson 1: It is hard to fit 1 year of curriculum into a 45 minute test
Even though AP condensed a 3 hour exam into a 45 minutes test and specified which units would appear on the exams, many teachers and students had mixed feelings on what content would show up on the test. Some people believed that AP would include the most important topics on the test while failing to mention irrelevant units. Others thought that AP would combine multiple units into a single question. A minority even thought that AP would “spin a wheel” for every student and give different questions.
After the tests, students found out that AP decided to go the route of “spinning a wheel” or having a “question bank” instead of combining topics. Students also learned that AP didn’t give students the same questions, which played a role in decreasing cheating. But, the prominent lesson that students learned was that a bit of luck was involved with the AP test. Some students received questions that included concepts that they were better at, while others received questions that they struggled on. This may not be fair when compared to the alternative of giving all students the same questions that involved all of the curriculum for the AP course. Nevertheless, students and teachers now know that even College Board couldn't fit 1 year of content in a 45 minute test.
Lesson 2: Be super prepared
With College Board stating that the AP exams would be “open note,” many students rushed to create “cheat sheets.” These “cheat sheets” would serve as reference for terms, formulas, laws, and other important concepts found in AP courses. On top of that, many students made sure that they had rubrics in front of them while taking the exam. All of these strategies gave students the opportunity to answer with the correct evidence and contributed to a factual response. Thus, many students feel that this preparation helped contribute to their success while taking the exams.
Lesson 3: The submission format helped some students and hurt others
The submission format also had a role in deciding the success of students. AP gave students three ways to submit their responses: taking a picture of a written response, submitting a document, or copying and pasting a response. For some classes, it made sense to submit using a certain format, such as taking a picture of your work in AP Calculus BC, but in some other classes, students were mixed on what submission format they chose.
Coming out of the exam, students learned that some submission formats gave them more time than the other formats. Taking a picture of a written response and uploading a document took a few minutes. This meant that students had to start submitting once the timer hit 5 minutes. However, for the copying and pasting option, students could copy and paste their responses in a few seconds. This margin of a few minutes is crucial on the time-restricted AP exams, which may have given some students an advantage over others. Nevertheless, the different submission formats were a unique experience for AP exams.
Lesson 4: 45 minutes is too short for some students
This year, College Board decided to keep all AP exams 45 minutes long because of an agreement from various colleges across the United States. Even though this timing fit the original timing for many of the free response questions, students still felt taxed while taking the test. Some thought that the 45 minutes wasn’t enough time for them and felt pressure while trying to write down everything they learned that year in order to gain a higher score.
However, some students are grateful that AP shortened their 3 hour tests to 45 minutes. This played a role in decreasing their stress and may have even contributed to higher test scores because students normally wear out near the end of tests. The 45 minute format may have allowed students to stay focused throughout the whole exam. Therefore, the 45 minutes had flaws as well as benefits.
Lesson 5: There will be always be technical problems
AP Exams this year showed that there will always be technical problems, regardless of the preparation that went behind the test. The biggest headline among these problems was that many students weren’t able to submit their responses with an iPhone due to a formatting issue. College Board even got hit with a class-action lawsuit (as of May 20th, 2020) and received a lot of angry emails from students across the United States as a result of this dilemma.
The big lesson from this situation is that we must create ways to address the inequalities that arise from technical issues. Both students and College Board must understand that there will always be problems and stay flexible. AP took steps towards this by providing a makeup testing date for students whose responses weren’t received, but some students are pushing for other alternatives like accepting original responses. Only time will tell what will happen to those who were affected by technical issues.
Anything can happen in the future
AP exams this year were truly a unique and historical experience for students, parents, administrators, and the College Board. The lessons learned from the exams may impact how College Board moves forward with their SAT exams in the fall and AP Tests in 2021. In addition, students and teachers may modify their AP testing strategies based on their experiences from this year.
A few of my classmates that I surveyed responded with angry and pessimistic words when asked about AP exams. While I also hold a few grudges against College Board and AP exams, I believe that exams this year were not only important in shaping the future of College Board, but also deciding how schools and universities would move forward with remote learning and online education.
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