This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Despite nationwide school closures and postponed standardized tests, College Board is moving ahead with Advanced Placement (AP) exams, scheduled for May 11-22. But students who have taken AP tests before will hardly recognize this year’s slate of exams, which have undergone significant modification.
Normally, an AP test consists of both multiple-choice and open-ended sections, lasts anywhere from an hour-and-a-half to four hours, and is administered in a classroom by a school official. This year, students will take AP exams online at home with the aid of their notes. To make up for this unavoidable open-note policy, College Board is nixing the multiple-choice sections of the exam and offering instead two free-response questions, with a 45-minute total time limit.
A spokesperson from College Board said that to be fair to all students, some of whom have had more class time than others, the exams will only cover material that most AP teachers have taught by early March. To ensure that all students have access to preparatory materials, College Board has provided free, live review sessions on the Advanced Placement YouTube channel that are taught by AP instructors across the country.
The College Board made the decision to move forward with AP testing in March, around the time it cancelled SAT testing for the rest of the spring. The company said it elicited feedback from 18,000 AP students on whether to administer the tests amid the coronavirus pandemic. Ninety-one percent of the respondents indicated that they did want to take their AP exams, despite the obvious obstacles to doing so.
But two Philadelphia School District students who are enrolled in AP classes — Brenae Warner, a junior at Academy at Palumbo, and Nayanna Fluellen, a sophomore at Central High School — said they’re frustrated that the College Board is still administering the exams.
“To give students 45 minutes for an AP exam isn’t really representative of what students have learned throughout the entire year,” Warner said.
Warner is enrolled in AP Statistics and AP English Language & Composition. Based on the score distributions from College Board, AP Statistics has been one of the harder exams — less than 15% of test-takers score a 5, the highest mark that a student can earn on the exam’s 1-to-5 scale — and the new format has made preparing for the exams a lot harder, Warner said.
On previous AP exams, students would automatically have a one-in-four chance of answering a multiple-choice question correctly. But on the free-response section, which replaces the multiple-choice section this year, test-takers not only have to know the material that’s being asked, they also have to apply the concepts. It’s nerve-wracking to not have multiple choice anymore to cushion the free-response section, Warner said.
According to Fluellen, not only are the questions harder, but the College Board website that administers the exams is difficult to use. Students have five minutes to submit each question. Fluellen says she’s nervous that she won’t be able to finish or submit her exam by the deadline.
“It makes me really anxious because I feel like I’m not going to have enough time to complete it and earn the points,” Fluellen said.
Warner and Fluellen have a lot riding on these exams. Qualifying scores on AP tests pay dividends for students attending college — literally. Most universities offer freshmen the opportunity to place out of introductory-level courses if they have high enough AP scores — usually a 4 or 5. For students, that can mean a savings of several thousand dollars.
“I want to get the credit,” Fluellen said. “I come from a family that can’t afford the costs of [college].”
“Passing these exams could save me a lot of money,” Warner said. “But now I’m worried I’m not going to pass.”
Both Warner and Fluellen said their schools don’t require them to take AP exams, but they feel pressured to do so anyway because their families lack the financial resources to pay for college. And at Warner’s school, Palumbo, if students don’t take the test, they cannot take other AP classes the following year.
Warner fears that colleges might not give out course credit for high scores because of the untested new format.
The Notebook asked spokespeople from the University of Pittsburgh, University of Pennsylvania, and Temple University — popular destinations for AP students in the Philadelphia School District — whether they would still offer course credit for AP exams, given the changes to the testing format. A Temple spokesperson said no changes to AP-credit policy were on the horizon. A Penn spokesperson said that no adjustments have been made, but that the policy hasn’t been finalized yet. A Pitt spokesperson did not respond in time for publication.
The College Board website stated that its representatives have spoken with hundreds of admissions officers and that they’re “confident that the vast majority of higher education institutions will award credit and/or placement as they have in the past.”
Regardless of whether colleges offer credit, Fluellen said, the new format isn’t doing students any favors.
“A part of me does see why College Board [is] still letting us do exams, because a lot of seniors are supposed to be going to college and this is their last chance to get credit,” Fluellen said. “But I feel like they should have formatted it differently so everyone can benefit.”