Online AP tests bring stress, confusion

No talking. Shaking legs. Deep breaths. A packet of 55 questions would soon be replaced with three free responses and two full essays to write in 100 minutes––but not this year. Instead, it’s one essay. In 45 minutes. At home alone. And like thousands of students around the world, sophomore Sophia Sprick’s chance to receive college credit came down to that one question.

When school was first closed in March due to the coronavirus, most students including Sprick assumed the halt would be temporary. People seemed barely concerned about the status of the upcoming Advanced Placement tests, including the AP United States History exam that Sprick planned on taking in May.

“I still thought that we would go somewhere to take the test, sit in a room with pencils and paper, surrounded by fellow APUSH test-takers,” Sprick said. 

But then places started to shut down, SATs got cancelled, school trips were called off, and soon enough, all Michigan schools would be closed for the remainder of the year. It was only a matter of time before AP exams were either cancelled or changed as well. And change they did. The College Board announced that everything would be taken online for the first time in AP exam history since it began in 1955. Now, over a million students were impacted as the knowledge they’ve obtained over the months would be measured in a mere 45 minutes. 

“I became pretty concerned, because time management had always been my biggest struggle, and I had a feeling they would modify the test but give us less time,” said Sprick, who, despite calling the reduction of test content “a blessing in disguise,” continued to prepare for her first-ever AP exam, ignoring pretty much “everything but APUSH material.” 

Time seems to breeze by when the mind is focused, but Sprick noticed herself adapting, taking advantage of time, and becoming more comfortable as exam day loomed. On the day itself, Sprick concluded her weeks of examining every concept, writing a journal with notes, watching review videos, making lists of terms and ideas, and practicing multiple essays, with the single click of “submit” at the end of her exam. 

“Hitting that submit button was like taking a huge deep breath. I felt proud and confident that I had done the best I could do, despite the altered test format,” she said. All the nine months of learning in and out of school was done. Everything was finished. 

But not for everyone.

Senior Daeun Nam, one of the first round of online AP test takers in May was faced with a horror: her answers for the AP Physics exam wouldn’t submit. Exams such as physics and calculus consisted of two questions with 20 and 30 minutes given for each respective question. In Nam’s case, the file format of her answers were rejected, which was confusing since the AP exam demo allowed it just days before. Panic rushed in as the time continued to count down. 

“I was frustrated and anxious because I was scared that I would get a 1 or 2, even though I completed most of my questions,” Nam said.

With just four seconds left, Nam hastily converted her file and her exam went through with a sigh of relief, her screen presenting with “congratulations.” But the next day, an email from College Board alerted that there was an issue with her submission and therefore her exam wasn’t complete. 

“Don’t worry, you can take a makeup exam later in June,” the email said. But Nam was far from feeling reassured, especially when it was announced days later that test takers in the second week could send their answers through an alternative email link in case of any submission issues while first week testers still had to retake exams in June.

“Stupid. I hate College Board. I thought it was so unfair for me and the other [first] week test takers because no one wants to retake our exams,” said Nam. “I don’t even think I’m going to retake the exam in June, because I personally believe that colleges will not take this year’s AP exam.” 

“Did I ever think this would happen? No, this has been crazy and very difficult on everyone involved,” said AP Physics teacher Steve Armstrong. 

After Nam’s test day, College Board announced that just “one percent” of test takers had trouble with navigating their exams. That’s still 10,000 students like Nam who have to spend additional weeks of studying to retain the memory of what they’ve learned. Testers like Sprick were more fortunate to take their tests after the mishaps, warned by fellow students, the outbursts of social media, and teachers, and given tips on how to avoid similar situations. 

“Hearing about the technical issues kids were having, I was terrified,” said Sprick who understood how problems regarding exams would be inevitable. “I just wished it wouldn’t happen to me. I read the troubleshooting document College Board released and updated my Google Chrome application as it said to do and hoped for the best.” 

As more students became aware of potential troubles, it seemed the hysteria was starting to settle over the few days. The second week was the start of the world language exams which was partially taken through an app on the phone. Half an hour before her AP Chinese exam, junior Esme Cohen opened the world language app, filled out the required information routinely, and tapped on the “start the exam” button. Nothing happened. Her exam wouldn’t open. She tried refreshing the page, exiting the app, logging back in with her exam ticket, but her test still wouldn’t start.

“I became a little panicky when this happened. I think because it just took me by surprise. I’d heard about people having problems with their exams, but I never expected it would happen to me,” said Cohen. “The exams are stressful enough as they are, and when they don’t go smoothly, it’s actually quite emotionally taxing.”

With an AP Environmental Science exam on the same day, it further piled onto the stress of just taking one exam. “It’s difficult for me to not get nervous for things like AP tests, no matter how much or how little I care. It’s a natural response,” Cohen said.

“After I calmed down, I was just annoyed—minus the proctoring fees, my parents paid about $90 for me to take this exam, and it wouldn’t even open.” Like Nam, Cohen was directed to retaking her exam in June which would be within days of her piano exam by the Royal Conservatory of Music. 

“I’d really like to have gotten all of my exams out of the way,” said Cohen, who had hoped to dedicate her energy and time on the piano exam after AP tests were finished. 

International students in Asia were already at a disadvantage as different time zones were difficult to navigate. They had to take their exams at times ranging from 11:30 p.m. to 5 a.m., solving equations and writing multi-paged essays at 2 a.m. while others were testing in broad daylight on the opposite side of the world. 

In addition to the trending dark humored memes that followed each exam, the bombardments on Twitter and other social media reflected the distress of students who experienced nerve wracking situations regarding their exams. Whether it was a technological failure, or just the feeling that the test itself didn’t go so well, it seemed evident that this year’s atmosphere around AP exams was more disparate than previous years.

Yet, many will end this school year, at school or at home, with at least some gains and accomplishments. Although Cohen’s friend Natalie Chapel was in the middle of taking her AP English exam when her wifi disconnected, she considers herself an improved writer who can better coordinate various styles of literature and is more efficient with time management from the academic rigors that the class offered. Junior Shailen Chough worked countless nights studying for his six AP exams this year but encourages others to push themselves as well, saying that while workloads may be rigorous, the diligence of completing them brings upon a satisfying sense of reward.

Sprick agrees. “I know that the skills I have learned throughout my AP course will help me in future classes. Despite the challenges and struggles it has presented along the way, they have actually added to my growth as a student,” she said.

As history continues to unwrap, so will lamentable, uncontrollable circumstances. AP exams themselves are rarely delightful memories with fidgeting pencils and sweaty palms, but they always end, if not with the scribble of a last word, then with the click of a button.