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College Board says new online AP tests are going well, but some students report big problems

By VALERIE STRAUSS | The Washington Post | Published: May 15, 2020

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Students nationwide started taking new shortened, online Advanced Placement tests at home this week, and there are two versions about how well the experiment is going.

The College Board, which owns the AP program, says that testing has gone well for the vast majority of students taking the exams. But students on TikTok and other social media, teachers, parents and counselors say that potentially thousands of students have run into major problems submitting answers. The College Board told them to retake the test in June.

"That's hardly a remedy, particularly for my daughter who is also taking the AP Latin exam in June at exactly the same time," Washington D.C.-area attorney Robert Feitel said.

This is the first time that AP tests have been given online at home, a result of the shutdown of schools because of the global coronavirus pandemic. The College Board said it went ahead with at-home AP testing because the scores can factor into college admissions decisions and students can receive college credit for high scores.

Critics said online testing isn't fair to students who have no computer, access to internet or quiet work spaces from which to study and work, or to students with disabilities who do not have appropriate accommodations - challenges the College Board acknowledged.

They also said timing was an issue: All tests in the same subject are being given at exactly the same time for security reasons, meaning that some students in one part of the world could be taking an exam in the middle of the night.

Skeptics questioned the validity of a shortened test on which students can use notes as well as test security. On May 10, the day before exams began, Trevor Packer, the College Board's senior vice president who is head of the AP program, tweeted that some cheaters had already been identified. He wrote, "We've just canceled the AP exam registrations of a ring of students who were developing plans to cheat, and we're currently investigating others."

The College Board did not say how the cheaters were found. Students on social media said they believe that phony accounts with cheating tips were set up by the organization on Reddit and other websites to try to lure cheaters.

In the first four days of the two-week May testing period, May 11-14, AP students took 1.64 million exams, College Board spokesman Zachary Goldberg said in an email, adding that "less than 1 percent of students were unable to submit their responses."

"We share the deep disappointment of students who were unable to complete their exam - whether for technical issues or other reasons. We're working to understand these students' unique circumstances in advance of the June makeup exams," Goldberg said. "Any student who encountered an issue during their exam will be able to retest.

The College Board did not say what percentage of students had problems. One percent of the four-day total would be 16,400 students. One half of one percent would be 8,200. One-tenth of 1 percent would be 1,640 students - just for the first four days of two weeks of testing.

Each AP exam taken in the United States, U.S. territories, Canada and Department of Defense schools costs $94. For students elsewhere, each test is $124. Canceling the exams would have been an enormous financial hit for the College Board, a nonprofit that operates substantially like a business.

Feitel, the attorney, said his daughter, a high school junior, took the AP calculus exam and submitted her answer in "JPEG" format.

"At midnight the same day, we received a notice that the College Board would not accept her submission because a file was 'corrupted,'" he wrote in an email. "Since we have photographic proof of what she submitted, we asked the board to accept the submission since any problem was with their system, not my daughter."

He said the only response from the College Board has been to say that she can retake the exam in June, which she can't do because of test scheduling. "I think the answer 'take the exam' again is wholly inappropriate," Feitel said, adding that he plans to pursue a remedy with the College Board and will sue if he has to.

In California, parent Shelley Surh wrote in an email: "My daughter, a sophomore at Napa High School in California, took the AP Chem exam. She had five minutes left, uploaded her second response, and the 'submit' button did not work. She was absolutely unable to submit her answers. I found her in tears moments later, inconsolable. I have written College Board via email, Facebook and also sat on hold for two hours only to be told her only recourse is to retake the exam."

The College Board said that it had found that many of the problems students faced were caused by outdated browsers on students' devices and after a reminder went out to update browsers, there was a decrease in outdated browsers and copy-paste issues.

And because some students "indicated they didn't remember seeing a screen telling them they completed their exam," the College Board said it "made that screen more prominent and are encouraging students to take an image of the page so they have a record of their exam."

But some students and parents said the College Board was blaming students for the problems.

AP tests, which ordinarily take several hours, are being shortened to 45 minutes. Students in past haven't been allowed to use notes. Now they can use class notes, student guides, textbooks, other classroom resources, a dictionary, previous assignments or assessments, paper and pen/pencil to take notes and prepare for tasks, and headphones with microphone. They can't, however, ask another person for help.

Grading, from 1 to 5, with 5 being the best, will remain unchanged. Students who earn 3 or above can sometimes earn college credit, depending on school policy. Scores of colleges who ordinarily give credit for AP exams said they would do it for the 2020 test administration as well, but it is not clear that all of them will.

"The one-size-fits-none College Board response that students who had problems should simply retest in June is incredibly callous, piling more pressure on teenagers whose lives have been severely disrupted," said Bob Schaeffer, interim director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit known as FairTest which works to end the misuse of standardized tests.

The College Board said it had surveyed thousands of students and most said they wanted the option of taking at-home AP tests. But some students said they wished the College Board had canceled the AP tests, noting that they were under enough pressure during the covid-19 crisis.