Everything Wrong with College Board’s “Pandemic-Proof” AP Exam Structure

It’s no doubt that COVID-19 has burned a warpath through the US educational system, bringing down everything in its trajectory—from prom to senior events to now IB exams, as decreed by the International Baccalaureate Organization on March 23. Yet somehow, AP exams have managed to withstand the effects of COVID-19… allegedly. 

In a statement posted on their website, the College Board decided on a watered-down AP exam structure: 45-minute, writing-only, abridged-material exams will await students at the end of this year, as opposed to the traditional 3+ hour exams, which served as a holistic overview of a typical college curriculum. Although the College Board is still in the process of releasing information (with official decisions coming out April 3), there are already seemingly countless possibilities for problems, scandals, and complete disaster. 

As two AP students experiencing this fiasco firsthand, we wanted to provide a perspective on the shortcomings of the College Board’s refashioned AP, exams as well as all of the possible ways the system could break down—our own unique take on this unfolding cesspool of educational corruption.

Short Exams = Short Tempers

The most obvious change in the new AP exam structure is the shorter time period. To fit the 45-minute limit, exams that used to be 2-3+ hours have been shortened anywhere from 62% to 77%, and that massive shrinkage represents portions of the exams students have prepared for the entire year. 

Despite their many problems and the intense difficulty of the AP exams, the one thing we could always count on was the reliability in AP exam structure. From the very beginning of any AP course, we begin to talk about the various pieces of the exams: short answer questions (SAQs), free-response questions (FRQs), and multiple-choice questions (MCQs). Without that consistency, it’s impossible to know how to prepare for the exams.

All throughout my high school career, AP exam structure has dominated the conversation. I remember training directly all year in AP US History for everything from writing a perfect thesis for an LEQ to structuring an SAQ. I remember learning how to speak dialogue in twenty-second intervals in AP German. And, I remember becoming acquainted with the FRQ/MCQ structure of the AP Calculus BC exam early on and spending the entire month of April and a good bit of March practicing exactly for those test items. Not that there aren’t issues in a “teach-to-the-test” structure in general, but the current state of uncertainty just highlights how crucial that system has become to AP success—and without it, we’re at a loss. 

But this isn’t the biggest problem with this new timing system; after all, we can hold out hope the College Board will release clear, understandable instructions on April 3 (though I don’t know how well-placed any hope in the College Board can be). The problem lies more in the lack of a complete assessment. 

In preparing for all these separate sections, it becomes obvious to most of us that some of us excel at different sections than others and that some of us connect more with certain units than others. 

There’s absolutely no way the College Board can present a test that appropriately covers all of these subjects in 45 minutes. The result will be a test that’s skewed heavily towards whoever happened to randomly study the right sections—especially if the test is just one essay prompt. 

Imagine carefully studying mostly everything in AP World History but forgetting to study the Haitian Revolution or taking AP Physics and studying a bit more for kinetics than dynamics… there is, unfortunately, a chance that the test will vastly under- (or over-!) estimate the amount of knowledge you’ve actually picked up by happening to exploit the loopholes in your vast understanding. 

Not only that, but since the tests are shaping up to be mostly writing (it’s harder to cheat), students who frequently ace the multiple choice but aren’t as strong in the essays will get lower scores than they were expecting—all for something that’s out of their control. 

The AP exams are no longer accurate assessments. A year of hard work, stress, and manufactured dedication—late, late at night when you’d so much rather be sleeping—will go to waste in this half-baked structure.

It’s even harder for me to see why this is necessary. If we can support a 45-minute exam, why can’t we support 90 minutes, 2 hours or even full exams? I get that materials and graders may be hard to come by, but nothing about our current situation is directly limiting what the College Board can do here.

At the end of the day, my point here is simple. Nobody can accurately assess subject knowledge and college credit in 45 minutes, especially remotely, at home, and in an unstable testing environment. 

Catherine Cossaboom, staff writer

Cheating: What Can’t You Do During the AP Exams?

If I didn’t seem mad before, here’s where you’ll really see it. The possibilities for cheating in the AP exams are endless, and it’s infuriating. 

With the building pressure of increasingly harder college admissions and rising expectations, it’s no wonder cheating has become an epidemic—and given the at-home, online scenario, it’s obvious that students are going to be tempted to cheat. AP exam administration used to be a secure process involving in-person tests with strict rules (no phones, valid IDs, etc), and they’ve now suddenly been placed in a context where for some, it might be harder to not cheat than to succumb to the temptation of an easy way out. 

Personally, I would so much rather fail than cheat, and I’m worried I’m going to end up in that exact position—no matter how hard I study. 

The thing about AP exams is that they’re on a curved system. The more people cheat and improve their score disproportionately, the more people take the higher scores and the less likely it is for those of us who are honest to also get those higher scores. 

The College Board can’t simply write this problem off. It affects every single AP student, whether they’re cheating or not. 

It doesn’t take any creativity to come up with multiple ways to cheat. If we’re authorizing open book exams (which we have much, much more to say about below), people will still google anything and everything they can online, call and/or FaceTime their friends (or even their teachers?) during the exam, and even get their genius brother to take the AP Calculus Exam for them (I actually witnessed somebody say that one). 

And that’s not even mentioning when money gets involved: Will students start hiring people to take it for them? Will bribery be involved? Only time will tell.

Let alone the fact that it wrecks the curve, this lack of test security also devalues the work we’ve completed all year. It becomes more about your methods (even if everyone were to be honest, open-book becomes who can make the best quick reference guide) than your actual knowledge, and those who put in no hard work since August may have just as good of a shot as those of us who’ve been losing sleep for months.

And, I shudder to think about what kinds of methods the College Board is going to invent to try to “prevent cheating.” Choosing super obscure and difficult topics or setting extreme time limits to make googling in-time super hard is not fair to the honest students as well, and both methods are frankly going about the problem the completely wrong way. Filming students with a webcam or somehow cataloging all the devices in a house are not feasible at all logistically, and anti-plagiarism technology—though not a bad idea in theory—can only go so far.

In sum, this complete lack of test security not only throws the opportunity for valid college credit out the window but completely ruins the curved scale for students not participating in it. The fact that cheating is looking to be so rampant only increases the peer pressure that everyone participates, even those that never would otherwise—and that’s going to spiral completely out of control, taking everyone down with it. 

I’m struggling to come up with one good thing to say about this year’s exams, except maybe that they’re still on—and at this point, I’m really wondering if they should be.

Catherine Cossaboom, staff writer

Open Book, Closed Eyes: How College Board Evades Responsibility

It’s not just a shortened exam that contributes to the Sisyphian nature of the College Board’s response to COVID-19: in a statement that was reportedly sent to multiple AP coordinators, including renowned AP European History teacher Tom Richey, the College Board is attempting to bypass the inevitability of cheating by… allowing what, in normal circumstances, would be considered ‘cheating’ on the new exams. 

In other words, you’ve been given the OK to use supplementary material on your exam: notes, textbooks, maybe even a little Google (although it’s not yet clear if ‘open book’ refers to ‘open internet’). In some ways, that allows the College Board to re-standardize their curves and make the circumstance fairer for students who wouldn’t fall into the temptation of cheating. 

But in other ways, open book AP exams completely devalue the purpose of memory-based AP classes, like AP Psychology and AP Biology, along with implying the rise of a radically different test format, which—if a legit suspicion—will be unveiled on April 3. 

It’s not clear whether this will surface in the form of uber-difficult test questions or the famed ‘anti-Google FRQ’—which I literally cannot fathom existing. Seeing as how the Internet has become so all-encompassing in terms of information, a true anti-Google FRQ would have to be, let’s see, somewhere along the lines of asking students to develop a new historical theory. Or even devising a lesson plan for teaching a particular concept of calculus. All in 45 minutes. 

Those aren’t necessarily bad question ideas, but they diverge so much from the consistent, homogenized exam format that AP students have been conditioning to take for months on end. It’s almost like extensively preparing for a marathon and being told just a mere month before the race that you actually have to roller skate 26 miles instead of running. 

Going so far as to acknowledge that an unregulated home environment just isn’t suitable for testing conditions and attempting to ‘solve’ that problem through completely botching a test format makes me personally believe that the College Board is doing the absolute most to not have to issue a refund. 

And it’s not just that—even if the test format isn’t totally altered, it shows that the College Board’s ‘open book’ declaration was just a suspiciously convenient front to evade the blame (and possible lawsuit) of a cheating scandal that would inevitably arise from all of this.

Iris Tsouris, editor

75% Material: 100% Credit?

It’s beginning to look like colleges need to search for reasons to accept college credit rather than reject it. On top of insecure, likely open-book exams, the College Board has shortened the number of units the exams cover. Most AP classes have 8 to 10 units, and most exams this year will only cover up to Unit 6 or 7. 

To be fair, this is one decision I understand. It doesn’t make sense to force students to learn 25% of their course on their own at home without their teachers—and expect them to do as well as they would have given direct instruction. 

However, each individual college is now forced to make a hard decision: deny credit to students despite the fact that the situation was out of their control, or allow students to advance ahead of prerequisite courses for which they have sizable gaps in knowledge. 

Certain courses, including AP Computer Science A and AP Chemistry, reach almost a “capstone” unit at the end of the course, where all the material reaches a climax and without which it almost makes no sense for colleges to allow their students to move on. AP Computer Science A relies on teaching its students recursion and inheritance, and the interplay of acids and bases is crucial to understanding AP Chemistry. 

For other courses, this is less relevant. After all, most colleges offer more specific, narrowed-down history classes (like History of the Caribbean or History of the European Renaissance), so an AP US History course credit stopping at World War II, however strange, is not going to impede knowledge for future courses too much. 

Overall though, the gaps in knowledge are very concerning for the prospect of college credit.

The solution I believe most colleges will have is pretty clear: most will probably administer placement exams for college credit, giving students an incentive to make sure they study and fill their gaps in knowledge. However, this decision at its heart undermines the very purpose of AP exams: to give students an option for accessible, reliable college credit during high school. Without the final units and with dismal prospects for college credit, it seems there’s little to no point in taking some AP exams at all.

Catherine Cossaboom, staff writer

College Board’s ‘Ex-Machina’ Approach to Technology

This morning, I woke up to a notification from my AP US History teacher; as part of a virtual learning assignment, she had assigned us a practice AP exam—incidentally, through the College Board’s own online (and deeply flawed) platform: AP Classroom. 

To give you an idea of what AP Classroom is like, it has a deceptively sleek design, coupled with a clunky, constantly malfunctioning interface. Essentially, AP Classroom, in my experience, is all looks and zero function—and even its looks manage to be on the higher end of aggressively mediocre. 

As a platform, the only consistent aspect of AP classroom is its glitchy nature, which is what I came face-to-face with when I tried to complete my AP US History practice test this morning: upon an attempted entry into the assignment, I discovered that I had been locked out of the assessment. A multitude of frantic texts, web page refreshes, and (eventually) computer reboots later, I managed to regain access to the assignment.

The reason I’m delving so deep into this anecdote is that, although it isn’t officially confirmed by the College Board yet, an AP Classroom-esque platform (if not AP Classroom itself) is what will most definitely be used to administer the online AP exams. 

That’s not just worrying because AP Classroom, for lack of a better word, sucks technologically: it’s also worrying because AP Classroom uses a lockdown browser to ensure test security and timing—and this lockdown browser, which is so finicky that it makes you shut down certain obscure background applications just to open it, happens to be completely incompatible with school-issued Chromebooks. 

The College Board has an alleged solution for this: an almost-hidden contact form on their website, where students with lack of access to technology can send a message to an employee and devise a plan to… get a new computer? It’s completely unclear what this contact form promises or how effective it will be. And I don’t mean to be a pessimist, but in a span of only a few months, how, exactly, will a flimsy, hard-to-reach contact form yield any real, tangible results?

Another daunting complication on the technological side of things is the process of uploading photos of written answers to the FRQs, which, as the College Board has stated, will be a legitimate way for students to respond to question prompts.  

Yet it is virtually impossible to upload any sort of photo via their lockdown browser, which renders that option completely useless. So much for test security. And it’s not just that: uploading photos via a secure computing system, such as school-issued Chromebooks, is also an incredibly convoluted process. 

Although there are various loopholes, like copying and pasting download links into Google Drive, they’re so hopelessly complicated that I can’t imagine a significant portion of the allotted 45 minutes not being sacrificed. As if 45 minutes wasn’t already a ridiculously short time to take a test. 

And I know that even if I, personally, do manage to upload my written responses, what College Board will receive will most certainly be photos of tear-stained notebook paper, maybe with some used tissues in the background as a quaint little vignette framing—an artistic representation of the frustration I’m most definitely going to experience. 

Iris Tsouris, editor

Facing a Pandemic While at the Merciless Hands of an Educational Monopoly

In order to devise their response to COVID-19, the College Board sent out a survey to a select group of AP students, of which 91% responded they wanted to earn their college credits: this statistic, I’m sure, prompted the new tests. Well, as some of my peers have been putting it, yes—of course students want college credit. But preferably not in this insanely contrived, nonsensical way that jeopardizes almost two semesters of hard work. 

Coupled with a lack of transparent communication—especially concerning whether or not the College Board is choosing to offer refunds (some secondary sources say refunds are a yes, while others say that only a cancellation fee will be waived)—the situation is muddled, unclear, and depressingly bleak thus far. 

Yet despite the flawed execution, problematic design, and overall inevitable failure of the College Board’s ‘pandemic-proof’ exams, what really manages to rub me the wrong way is not the exams themselves, but more so that the actions the College Board has taken thus far are completely in-character for them: they are, after all, an ultra-capitalistic corporation posing as a nonprofit. 

And it’s no doubt that the College Board is, quite literally, a private monopoly that reigns over the American schooling system—somehow managing to monetize every aspect of being a student, such as inflating the prices of tests and treating education as a series of transactions rather than a basic human right.

The truth is, the American educational system, as it is now under the College Board’s grasp, is less of a system and more of an industry, which stings profusely to admit. It’s bad enough to face the monetary consequences of a pandemic. It’s somehow even worse to face the bastardization of already ridiculously expensive American schooling on top of that. 

What’s even more morbidly fascinating is that we’re directly observing this consumerist nature with the College Board’s current actions. As mentioned before, the College Board appears to be skirting around refunds. And additionally, they appear to be trying to retain consumers instead of acknowledging the true difficulty of the situation: and in making false promises, the College Board is taking the first few digs at its own indefinite grave. 

Iris Tsouris, editor

Where Do We Go From Here?

Despite the havoc it is wreaking upon our daily life, COVID-19 is unique in that it is slowly exposing cracks in our societal structure: from mass incarceration and healthcare to now education, it is becoming increasingly apparent that life after COVID-19 will be transformed, with antiquated systems being rendered obsolete and thus abandoned. 

Perhaps, as insane as it sounds, the College Board may cease to exist—or at least entirely change—as soon as ten years in the future. COVID-19 has revealed how ingrained (and how convoluted) the College Board’s education system has become, which suggests that it could be completely overhauled.

Unfortunately, we have no miraculous solution or idea as to how to fix this problem today; it’s more of an exposé than anything else. The fact is this problem is simply too layered to come up with any valid answers, and that says something very bleak about our current lives. 

Still, we maintain this: if the College Board’s adherence to its ultra-consumerist habits hinders its ability to find a good solution to the COVID-19 disruptions, maybe the College Board itself wasn’t a good idea in the first place. And maybe, after focusing on eliminating coronavirus, we should focus on casting out the other virus infecting us—or rather, infecting our educational system.