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Neena Hagen based on Google Analytics

AP goes online, and problems follow

For some students, the servers crashed. And there is evidence of potential cheating.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When the College Board surveyed 18,000 Advanced Placement (AP) students in March asking whether they wanted to take AP exams as scheduled amid the pandemic, 91% of respondents said “yes.”

But the opening days of the tests’ first-ever online administration were marked by server crashes and evidence that students may have been seeking answers on the internet while taking the exams — a practice not banned, but strongly discouraged by the College Board.

AP exams, which are taking place May 11-22, underwent significant modification this year as the College Board moved them online. To prevent easy cheating, the organization nixed the multiple-choice section of the exams and instituted a 45-minute time limit for the free-response questions.

The organization was also forced to make the exam “open book,” given the online format. AP exams are usually closed book. The College Board set detailed rules for what was and wasn’t allowed, but in many cases, it seems that those rules either weren’t followed or were misunderstood.

The Notebook looked at Google trends data from around the time the tests took place, and Google searches for terminology related to a particular exam spiked during the time the test was administered.

For example, when AP Physics C: Mechanics was administered at noon on Monday, searches for the phrase “angular momentum,” a relevant phrase on the exam, spiked more than tenfold.


Neena Hagen, based on Google Analytics

When the AP U.S. Government and Politics exam was administered at 4 p.m. that same day, searches for the word “federalism” went up more than twentyfold.


Neena Hagen, based on Google Analytics

And when the AP Calculus AB and BC exams went live Tuesday at 2 p.m., searches for “derivative” and “integral” also went up twentyfold.


Neena Hagen, based on Google Analytics

Philip Chiu, a senior at Masterman high school who took AP Physics C: Mechanics and AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, said he’s not at all surprised that students might have engaged in behavior that could be regarded as cheating. He said that even at Masterman, the top-ranked high school in the state, he has observed cheating.

“Cheating in Masterman takes place in a variety of forms – looking things up on people’s phones, whispering during a test, copying off of others. The list could go on and on,” Chiu said. “It really bugs me.”

Chiu said having online exams makes it a lot easier to cheat because students aren’t monitored by a proctor and they have easy access to their phones and computers. In order to make cheating more difficult, Chiu said he’d advise College Board to avoid putting easily searchable keywords on free-response questions.

The College Board has begun cracking down on cheaters, though its efforts are by no means widespread — yet. Trevor Packer, the head of AP instruction, tweeted Sunday that the College Board had caught a band of students intending to cheat on the exams and then cancelled their registrations. The College Board is investigating other cases of potential cheating; the number of students who have been caught remains unclear.

But Packer’s tweet met with confused reactions from parents and educators alike. In the responses to the tweet, some individuals questioned what materials are allowed while taking the tests, even though College Board released a clear list of materials that students are permitted to access, including their textbooks and notes from class. They’re strictly prohibited from interacting with each other or using shared study materials. Looking up answers online isn’t banned, but the College Board video recommends against it, saying “the information won’t be helpful.”

A few Philadelphia students whom the Notebook contacted over social media expressed concern that the College Board was tracking the IP addresses of students who searched relevant exam terminology during the test and shared answers with their friends. This information is trackable through social media accounts.

The students cited rumors. College Board spokesperson Jaslee Carayol was emailed to ask whether the rumors were true. Her response didn’t directly address the question.

“When we have substantial evidence that students have attempted to cheat — for example, by soliciting someone to take their test or by sharing exam content on social media sites — we will cancel their AP exam registrations or invalidate their scores,” Carayol said. “In order to ensure the integrity of AP Exams, we’ll continue to monitor closely before, during, and after exams.”

The College Board said it can’t provide further details on any specific instances or patterns of cheating.

But cheating isn’t the only problem facing AP students this year. Hundreds of students on social media said they’ve had trouble turning in their exams because the servers have crashed right when they’re about to hit the submit button. Chiu said he didn’t have that problem himself, but a friend of his did.

The College Board said on Twitter that although 99% of students successfully submitted their exams, some had trouble cutting and pasting their responses. The organization looked into the problem and found that outdated browsers were mostly to blame. Make-up testing is available in June for any students who had trouble submitting their exams this time around, and students can request a makeup exam within 48 hours of the time they finish their regularly scheduled exam.

AP exams have high stakes because most colleges offer students the opportunity to place out of introductory-level classes if they have high enough AP scores — usually a 4 or 5. For students, that can mean a savings of several thousand dollars.

As of now, College Board plans to continue administering AP exams through next Friday without any significant modification.