The New Frontier of Online Testing: AP Exams


Matthew Quintos, Writer

As a result of COVID-19, the College Board announced it is changing the format of their AP exams.. This announcement has come as a surprise to many, as the test is taken by millions of students each year. The new changes are quite radical, scaling back three plus hour exams to only forty-five minutes and eliminating the multiple choice sections all together. All exams will feature some type of free response question designed to reflect the coursework students have learned, while cutting units and chapters not yet covered. 

After the College Board surveyed nearly 18,000 students, the majority of respondents indicated that they would still like the opportunity to take their exams, despite COVID-19, which lead to the modified testing. Other testing companies, like the International Baccalaureate Foundation, have cancelled their May examinations. The International Baccalaureate Foundation is similar to the AP system in that students can take IB courses and the corresponding exam to earn college credit. The IB system is predominately used internationally, but some schools like Carmel, Hamilton-Southeastern and South Side offer these courses. 

While many are happy the College Board is still offering students the opportunity to take their AP exams, there are many concerns about testing access, testing security and credit transferability. The College Board has used online exams in select areas after natural disasters; however, the company has never administered modified exams for such a large number of students online. 

“My fear is that the new format of the exam would provide fewer opportunities for talented students to display the knowledge they have worked tirelessly to accumulate over the course of the year,” Jazzmyne Swenson (11), a student who takes AP courses, said. 

To compensate for the nearly nationwide school closings and varying levels of online instruction available to students, the College Board has shortened the units that each exam will cover, reflecting only content learned up to early March.  

Cheating is a major concern for the new exams. The College Board has announced that the exams will be “open note/open book” for all test takers. The company has also clarified that the exam content will not be testing simple factual recall. Instead, the exams will focus on concepts and thematic understanding, making cheating more difficult. 

“There is always a potential for cheating but as far as I am aware, the tests will be all FRQs with time caps and, depending on which exam, it would take too long a time to just find answers online to where the test score would be hurt worse than just taking it,” José Guzman (11) said. 

The College Board has publicly announced that all free response questions will be analyzed using plagiarism detection software. Additionally, all AP free response questions will be sent to the course instructors, so teachers will be able to spot glaring similarities in responses. Finally, the College Board maintains that it is purposefully not releasing some anti-cheating measures. Little is known about the College Board’s “secret sauce” for cheating prevention, but some guess that it could involve AI, audio/video recording and sample activities at the start of the exam to measure the style and speed of typing. 

Typically, most AP exams are graded on a curve, meaning that one does not need to achieve a perfect raw score to do well on the exam. The College Board’s open book/open note policy throws into question the existence of a curve. 

“I do think that this new exam format will make the curve more difficult. There is less room to make mistakes, which does add pressure,” Leena Hussain (11) said. 

Another major concern revolves around the uncertainty of receiving college credit. Many students are concerned that educational institutions will not grant college credit for open book/ open note exams only 45 minutes in length. The College Board has cited the University of California system and Yale University as major educational institutions that are willing to accept the new exams. Many other colleges and universities have yet to openly state if they will accept the new exam format. 

“We’re confident that the vast majority of higher education institutions will award credit and/or placement as they have in the past,” a College Board spokesperson said. 

Many students have elected to take AP classes and the corresponding exams primarily to earn college credit, and many Homestead students are hopeful that educational institutions will accept these new tests. 

“I would hope that colleges would recognize the worth of these exams but due to the circumstances, they might not give them as much importance,” Hussain said.

Other students point out that colleges have also been forced to adapt and that they may be more willing to accept this year’s AP credits. 

“I believe since colleges too have had to adapt to this odd time they will [accept the AP credit] for this year just because of the circumstances presented. I believe it would be a disservice to take them for less because of an obstacle we could not control,” Guzman said.

Finally, questions about testing access pervade the College Board’s decision to transition to online exams. Many students lack access to reliable internet and/or devices to use to take the exams. These students are likely the ones who would benefit the most from earning college credit. Many schools lack adequate resources to instigate virtual learning, leaving students behind come exam day. 

The College Board has released an online questionnaire to connect students with devices and hotspots for reliable internet connections to take the online exams. This process is still developing, so it remains to be seen how effective this service will be for students lacking resources to take the online exams. 

Given the rarity of the event, many questions remain about the new AP exams. Online exams remain a large unknown; thus, more information regarding the testing process will not be known until after the first administrations in early May.