For more than sixty years, Advanced Placement exams have been an “in person” affair. AP exams have always been administered in schools with paper test booklets, then hand-graded at massive gatherings of teachers and college professors. Students prepare all year to show their mastery in subjects from physics to music theory, with the chance to earn college credit with a solid exam score.
So when schools across the country closed their doors in response to Covid-19, we faced a stark choice: Call off the exams for the year or find a way to deliver them online in about 3 million students’ homes around the globe.
Cancelling would have been simpler, but also wrong. Millions of students invested extraordinary effort into their AP classes, and they wanted to finish what they started. Building an at-home test took an all-out effort, with only six weeks to prepare an exam that students could access under wildly different circumstances, that colleges would stand behind, and that met the quality standards AP has built over decades.
Here are a few of the things we learned that might help policymakers as they prepare for another academic year with pandemic disruptions.
There are tradeoffs to every decision. Flexibility or simplicity? Security or ease of use? Every decision is a balance between competing values, and you need a clear sense of priorities to help guide all of those decisions. One of our most important aims was ensuring the broadest possible access to the exams. We took on additional burdens—accommodating a wide array of devices and file formats, designing questions that worked on mobile devices as well as desktop computers—to maximize access.
High stakes means high security. The overwhelming majority of test-takers, online or in person, are honest. But the more weight students have riding on an exam score, the greater the incentive to cheat. And with Advanced Placement offering the prospect of college credit, there’s a temptation to find an unfair edge. Designing a test where cheating would be difficult was a top priority, which is why everyone had to test in the same timed window no matter where they were in the world, a vital step for the integrity of the exam. We used free-response questions that required analysis of stimuli (source documents, lab data, maps, charts, graphs, etc.) rather than simple recall, so points weren’t available by Googling or referencing notes. That was a key part of our overall exam security plan: Make the questions unique, randomly distributed so students got different questions, and focused on critical thinking and application of knowledge to various scenarios. And, of course, the makeup exams had totally different questions from the first round.
When you can’t control the testing environment, second chances matter. We knew that students’ home situations were going to be very different. For an in-person exam, schools regulate the testing environment, right down to seating arrangements and noise control. None of that was possible at home, where students would have to contend with internet hiccups, family distractions, or an apartment neighbor with band practice. We announced right out of the gate that any student, for any disruption at all, would have the chance to take a free makeup exam, just as they can when testing at school is interrupted by fire alarms, power outages, illness, or countless other unexpected situations.
There’s no such thing as too much communication. We Tweeted. We posted information on message boards. We gave dozens of webinars and media interviews. We sent emails and texts. We flooded teachers and counselors with messages to pass along to their students, all to make sure that AP students had clear expectations about the test—format, timing, technical instructions, the promise of a makeup exam. And in our post-exam surveys, we found that every one of those channels mattered for reaching students. You can’t just send an email and expect students to hear you. You need to fill every channel available.
Students can earn a perfect score; test administrators can’t. Any time you’re giving an exam to millions of students—online or in person—there are going to be issues. And even if it’s a small percentage of students who have a problem, that still means real young people experiencing and often broadcasting real frustration. We did everything in our power to make the test platform easy to use, but there’s simply no way to ensure that every student will be using the right browser or uploading the right file type. Be ready for some blowback; it’s the cost of delivering instead of cancelling. And remember that appreciative students are out there, even if they tend to be quieter about it. “I just wanted to say, even though we are all facing this pandemic, you guys are doing a good job,” one student wrote in a follow-up survey. “It couldn’t have been an easy decision, and I can tell that you care.”
An assessment can be galvanizing—if it delivers value for students. Parents and teachers have been rightly concerned about the stress students are feeling. School closures, economic hardship for many families, and the upending of routines and relationships—it’s reasonable to worry that academic pressure might be too much under the circumstances. So we made it incredibly simple for any student to cancel their AP exam registration without penalty, simply by not logging in for the test. In our internal debate over keeping or scrapping AP exams, we were ultimately convinced by the students themselves. Our surveys of AP students reminded us that goals and expectations can be a comfort in times of uncertainty. An overwhelming 91 percent of students wanted to keep the opportunity to take the exam, and that gave us confidence to move forward. Even with a painless opt-out, the overwhelming majority of students still chose to take the test, achieving similar scores to prior years’ groups, and qualifying for more than $3 billion in college credits this fall.
“The kids had something to build towards,” said Eirik Nielsen, an AP World History teacher in San Francisco who was featured in a great Washington Post story about the extraordinary effort of preparing for the AP exam this year. “Even if it was stressful, they had something in their life they were moving toward. They had something every day they had to get up and get done.”