We Have Some Tips For Students Taking The Always Stressful AP Exams Remotely

A rubric for the 2020 Advanced Placement exam for United States history, which is scheduled to be taken remotely on Friday, May 15. (Megan Garvey/LAist)

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If there wasn't enough to worry about already for high school students, it's Advanced Placement exam season, too.

The tests — which come with the potential of college credit and, as a result, thousands saved in tuition for students who earn a passing score of 3 or higher — are already high stakes, even without the background context of a pandemic and escalating economic and mental stress.

But this year, the logistical challenges brought on by the coronavirus crisis have taken it to the next level.

The exams, which are normally held in person at schools, are being administered remotely.


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This year's exams are "open note," meaning students are allowed to refer to notes and books while taking the tests. Still, the College Board, which administers the exams, has had to thwart efforts by some students to take advantage of the home testing environment and cheat, Trevor Packer, the College Board's senior vice president of advanced placement and testing, said on Twitter.

And even among the majority who are following the rules, some students and parents say the process is technically complicated.

According to a walk-through by the College Board, this is how it's supposed to go: students are assigned a unique "e-ticket" number. When they log in with this number, it takes them to their test. If it has one question, students have 50 minutes to respond. If there are two questions, students get 30 minutes to answer the first question and 20 minutes for the second one.

The College Board says students can type responses to questions in Word or some other document format — then attach the file or copy and paste the text into the browser with the exam.

They can also write their responses out on paper, which is also handy for students taking tests in subjects like calculus where they have to show their work. To submit, students must take a photo of the handwritten pages and attach them to the file.

This is where things start to get tricky.

When there are five minutes left, a timer at the bottom of the page turns red.

"That's when you should wrap up your work and start submitting your response," the video advises.

If the tests were administered in person, that would be as simple as closing your booklet, sealing it, and handing it in. Online, it's way more complicated.

Frustrated students and parents have flooded social media with complaints about the system not accepting their responses, though overall, 1.47 million tests have been administered so far and, according to the College Board, "our data show the vast majority of students successfully completed their exams, with less than 1% unable to submit their responses."

"We found that outdated browsers on students' devices were associated with these difficulties, and so we reminded students to update their browsers to the latest version," the statement reads. "And today, we saw a decrease in both outdated browsers and copy-paste issues."

As for the students photographing their responses, those using iPhones will see it's not as simple as taking a picture. The photos have to be uploaded as .png, .jpg or .jpeg files. But iPhones and iPads don't always capture images in these formats. Some automatically save photos as HEIC files, which the exam can't accept. That means some students have to take some extra steps to make sure they can upload those files with their answers.

And of course, this all assumes the test taker has access to a device that reliably connects to the internet, which the campus closures and move to distance learning have shown is not the reality for many students.

"While almost all AP students have smartphone access, we want to ensure that no digital divide prevents a student from earning the college credit they deserve," the College Board wrote in a statement. Staff reached out to more than 10,000 students to help connect them to devices.

Figuring out all of this technical stuff is crucial, as the College Board reminds in the walkthrough.

"You can get partial credit for a partial answer, but you will not get any credit if you submit nothing."

Which is exactly what happened to Nate Young's daughter, a 10th grader. We're not using her name to protect her privacy, as she's still in high school.

Young said his daughter took a practice test with the new format without a problem, but towards the end of the Glassell Park teen's actual AP European History exam on Wednesday, Young began to hear her screaming "No! No! No!" and some choice curse words.

"And then she came out of the room, bawling," he said.

She couldn't upload an image of her handwritten responses — and the red clock had ticked, ticked, ticked down.

Time was up.

Like others who ran into technical problems, Young's daughter was offered the opportunity to retest in June. But, as Young explained, after a difficult year of adapting to unusual and uncertain circumstances, she was looking forward to putting this test, at least, behind her.

"She was hoping to be finished with this," he said. "So now they've essentially just extended the race for her."

Between the first week and second weeks of AP testing, the College Board announced it will offer what it's calling a "backup email submission" process.

Here's how it will work. If a student is unable to upload answers — the system will now prompt them with a unique email address to send responses immediately after the test.

But the College Board is only offering that option to those taking AP exams going forward, so the students who ran into problems last week, like Young's daughter, will still have to re-test in June.

"To protect the security and validity of Exams, we can't accept submissions from students who tested May 11-15," the organization wrote on Twitter. "However, these students can feel confident that the email backup option will be in place for them during the makeup Exams."

UPDATE, May 17: This post has been updated to reflect the College Board's announcement that it will now offer a backup email submission option to students who are unable to submit their answers during the exam.