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AP Exams Look to Return to Normalcy

Jan 20, 2021

Last year, after the majority of schools in the United States shut down on March 15, the College Board only had 59 days to create a new plan for Advanced Placement (AP) testing. 

2020 AP Tests were completely online and lasted 45 minutes. For most, this meant a single Free Response Question (FRQ), Long Essay Question (LEQ), or Document-Based Question (DBQ). 

For those in foreign language AP courses, tests were in a listen-and-respond format. 

For students in curriculum-based AP classes, these 45-minute exams didn’t cover a significant amount of the course material. Some students would receive prompts on a concept they knew well, while others received prompts they didn’t. 

However, the College Board was not blind to how distance learning would affect course pacing and comprehension. For AP European History students, it was decided that the last quarter of content was not to be covered in the exam. 

For Charlotte Rich, senior, the prospect of taking AP tests again this year is not entirely welcome. 

Last year, Rich signed up for the AP European History and AP Language and Composition exams. While she didn’t experience any technical difficulties, her experience was far from ideal. 

“I wasn’t mentally ready to take the tests at all,” Rich said. “On top of that, I don’t think the tests accurately judged my learning. Each essay I wrote only addressed one concept I’d learned in my AP courses, and even then, some received prompts that were easier than others”

Despite this experience, Rich decided on taking AP Literature and Composition as well as AP Comparative Government and Politics this year. 

“I’m worried about my comprehension this year in my AP classes. As helpful as my teachers have been, we just don’t do nearly as much work and practice as we used to before COVID. I was very unprepared for exams last spring, and I’m worried it will be the same this year, too,” Rich said. 

Luckily, students will have up until the day of their test to receive a full refund for their AP exam deposit. Should a student be feeling less confident about their comprehension during distance learning, they do not have to worry about taking an exam they likely won’t pass, and wasting money on. 

The most important change that The College Board has noted is that exams this year will span an entire course’s curriculum. Due to this, tests will be at a duration of the usual three hours and will include more than one essay question. Schools will get to evaluate their community’s risk to COVID, and decide whether to proctor the exam online or in person.

Hennepin County, the county HHS belongs to, has had the highest recorded COVID rates out of the state. With 91,596 recorded cases, Hennepin has over two times as many cases as the state’s next highest case numbers in Ramsey county. 

Case numbers will likely remain at the consistently higher threshold than other areas of the state, come May. It’s entirely possible that the district will be forced to take the exam online once again. 

While students of HHS can choose between hybrid and distance learning for the second semester, students must follow their school district’s protocol when it comes to AP testing. 

Luckily, the College Board is also providing studying materials for every AP course. While there were some virtual ‘cram’ sessions that took place last spring, this year, these guides will be much more organized.

John Sammler, AP coordinator, acts as a mediator between the College Board and the students of HHS. 

Despite the challenges that come with distance learning, Sammler doesn’t think his role has changed much, though the uncertainty of where exams will take place is still very pressing. 

“If [tests are online], there will be a lot of communications,” said Sammler. “There will be a lot more work required to find spaces to take exams, as in-person exams will need to be socially distanced. It will be hard with [HHS] in hybrid mode and already using a lot of space.”

Something to keep in mind regarding in-person vs. distance exams is that a student is not more advantageous in one situation over another. 

“[College Board] will grade in-person testers more easily for a passing grade, and virtual testers more harshly. They will statistically curve the grades for each testing situation to make it fair,” said Sammler. “Students taking the test virtually will need to perform even better than a typical year to get a passing grade.” 

Sammler also teaches environmental science, in regular and AP format. 

“AP courses are doing some incredibly streamlined teaching. Perhaps in normal learning, you would learn material and have time in class on one or multiple occasions to repeat it, or apply it via a lab or project, or group activity. While they might be losing some of those in-person experiences, they also have less overall distractions from class learning, so they might be doing less,” said Sammler.

While the student experience has changed a lot, Sammler notes that the greater change is how students are being assessed summatively. 

“Students are doing lots of online assessments where notes and resources are available, and that is very different. How will success on an in-class test translate to a very rigid test where you may not have the ability to have so much time or notes to do well? That is hard to reconcile,” said Sammler. 

AP testing is intimidating in a normal year, however, it is undeniable that AP testing this year will prove to be even more daunting. Still, the College Board has proved to be understanding of current circumstances, and exams should be relatively painless. 

“A piece of advice for students is to not be hard on yourself. If you are feeling inadequate or confused, that feeling is shared by your peers across the nation. Prepare the best you can and make the best attempt at the test as you can; I bet you will do better than you think,” said Sammler.

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