My Angle: College Board did OK job with online AP exams

More than 3 million high school students took AP exams last month, according to the College Board. And because of the coronavirus, they were quite different this year.

AP exams were held online and didn’t include material from the end of the curriculum, from about the time that schools shut down and learning was disrupted. That made it easier on teachers and students, who just had to review.

The College Board also eliminated the multiple-choice sections, limiting the test to a few free-response questions, which are more conceptual. This shortened the exam to about 45 minutes. 

Tests were open-book, which helped very little. Few students had the time to look through their textbooks. If they made notecards or such, props to them. I suspect this was a we-can’t-really-stop-them-so-we-might-as-well-allow-it change. 

Considering that the board had never conducted an online AP exam and had only a few months to prepare, it went pretty smoothly. 

Students received a ticket by email two days before their exam and were advised to log in 30 minutes before the test timer started.

After students put in their personal information and typed a paragraph about their grandfather the jewelry dealer (don’t ask) to verify that their keyboard worked, the exam started on the dot.

A question showed up on the screen, and students began working. As for submitting answers, that’s where the College Board’s system didn’t work particularly well. 

There were three ways to submit answers. One, write it in a Word document or plain text file and upload the file. Two, copy the contents of the text and paste it into a box. (Students couldn’t type answers in the box; they  had to paste them in.) Third, take a picture of a physical paper and upload that. The board allocated five minutes to submit for each question. 

When I took my first AP exam, Calculus AB, I naturally chose the third option. After all, there’s really no way to efficiently show your math work on a text document. 

The first question, which had eight parts, went dandily. Once the five-minute timer came up, I scanned my paper from my phone and used AirDrop to get it to my computer. When I tried to submit, the College Board informed me that PDFs were not submittable. No matter, I just converted it to a JPEG, then submitted it. Whew, only 50 seconds left on the clock. That stunt with converting the PDF took a while.

For the second question, I figured I’d still scan the paper and not just take a photo. I didn’t want to change my submission method and mess up, and I knew the scanning method worked, even if it took a little extra time.

The second question was similar to the first. When the five-minute submission timer came up, I figured I’d just finish the part I was on. I only needed as much time as I’d used on the first question to submit, after all. I scanned it as before, but this PDF had two pages. Cue about 45 seconds of trying to convert a two-page PDF into two photos, with a sinking feeling in my stomach as the timer approached zero. Success! I converted them … and time ran out. It looks like we were unable to receive your submission.

I’d failed to submit my AP exam by about 10 seconds. I spent the rest of the day beating myself up about it and some of the next, too. 

Being unable to submit was mostly my fault. (I still partially blame the PDF converter.) However, other students, including two in my sophomore class, were unable to submit through no fault of their own.

People experienced all sorts of glitches. Problems submitting .HEIC files (the default picture format for iPhones), outdated browsers, website crashes, you name it.

After the exam, I and the two others who failed to submit requested a makeup test on June 1. That meant about three more weeks of preparation and stress. (Students weren’t supposed to request a makeup test if they just didn’t finish in time, but I think I qualified. I would have been able to submit in time if not for the file conversion trip-up.)

The part that aggravates me the most is how close I came to succeeding. Ten seconds. Perhaps if I had spent a little less time checking Part B, or decided to take a picture instead of scanning, it would have worked. And besides taking a makeup exam, there was no recourse for students who couldn’t submit. No sending time-stamped photos, no backup submission location.

Granted, after May 18, the College Board allowed students to email answers if they were unable to submit, but this change came too late for me and many others.

The rest of the testing went smoothly. I took an AP Computer Science A exam and had no trouble. So for having three months to put an online exam together, the board did OK.

As for me, I just had to break out the textbook and practice tests again, and wait until June 1 for another crack at it.

—By Nihal Gulati

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