Changes to AP Tests

Students take test online for the first time

Students take an AP exam in Georgia last year, before the required virtual format. Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Students take an AP exam in Georgia last year, before the required virtual format. Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Every year in May, the Math Wing–– a place usually bustling–– becomes unusually quiet. In the Harris Center and various classrooms, students can be seen hunching over packets, stressingly chewing their pencils. They are taking Advanced Placement tests. 

Students this year took a different kind of exam. The past tests, their subjects ranging from math to music, are usually several hours long with a break in between. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, exams were shortened to only two multi-part free response questions. Instead of the test being hours long, it was under an hour. Instead of taking them in a classroom, students took them at home.

Although Parker doesn’t officially offer “AP” classes, certain courses use AP material, and many teachers encourage students to take the exam in May.

Upper School Math teacher Steven Tyler taught Calculus to seniors this year. From the beginning, Tyler made it clear to his students that the course was to prepare them for the AP exam in May. 

The College Board announced the new changes on March 20th. When hearing the news, Tyler was encouraged. “I was very excited,” Tyler said. “My students had worked very, very hard for this exam, and I wanted them to have the opportunity to earn this credit.”

Upper School Science Teacher Leslie Webster taught Advanced Topics in Chemistry this year, a class based off of AP Chemistry. When she heard of the announcement, Webster found out that she no longer had to teach Unit Nine of the AP Chemistry. “By the time we were ready to start Unit Nine, the College Board made their announcement,” Webster said.” And it was like, ‘oh, now we have all of this time to review and some time to practice a specific skill set, the free response.” 

Like Webster, Tyler no longer was required to teach AP Calculus’ last unit–– area and volume between curves. Since Tyler doesn’t follow the AP units exactly, he had already taught the topic to students. Because of this, Tyler thinks he’ll change his course. “Probably starting next year, I will revamp my course to actually go in the sequence [the AP College Board provided], in case this would ever happen again.”

This year’s AP Chemistry and Calculus exams were cut down drastically, and no longer had a multiple choice section. Shortening the exam was a concern for Webster. “It’s a little more scary because when there’s the full exam, it really tests the breadth of the material,” Webster said. “And when it’s just these two multi-part questions, maybe there’s one piece that you didn’t understand as well, and so then it’s a little bit more luck of the draw about what you get asked.”

Tyler agreed that students missed the oppertunity to do well on certain topics. “There were definitely topics that were in this course but not on the exam,” Tyler said. “There were topics that my students would have done very well on that had been left off this exam, just because of time purposes.”

Tyler was wary about the exam being online. “I definitely was fearful that you know, this is a whole nother realm,” Tyler said. “They are technological issues.”

The College Board announced that out of 1.6 million tests, more than 99% were successfully submitted. However, that means that over 10,000 students had technical problems.

“There has been a lot of disgruntled people all over the world, very unhappy with the issue that students put all this time and effort into this course, and because of a technological piece, they weren’t able to upload their exam,” Tyler said. 

Senior Ava Sato had technical difficulties on both her Chemistry and Calculus exams. “You’re supposed to take photos and upload them directly to the website,” Sato said. “I had to take photos on my phone, email them to my computer, and then upload them all within five minutes.” Sato’s WiFi was slow, and her email didn’t go through until after the time ran out. 

Sato was frustrated. “It sucked,” Sato said. “I spent all week, really all year, studying for those two tests. And to have something I couldn’t control happen to me like that–– I was crushed.” 

Makeup exams will be administered in early June.

This year’s exams were open notes, which meant students could have study materials by them. Webster saw this as a good change. “My problem is that stuffing the facts in your brain is not necessarily learning,” Webster said. “Students are not thinking. Being able to use your notes, and have access to those little factoids, that’s great.”

Webster is a part of an international AP Chemistry Facebook group. Different groups were affected differently by the change to the exam.  “There were many different experiences,” Webster said. “There were some people in the group that were teaching at an international school in China that haven’t seen their kids for months and months. And there’s people that are teaching in rural areas where students don’t have good WiFi, and so there was no way for them to communicate with students.”

In addition to teaching the AP Calculus exam, Tyler grades them. Every summer Tyler would fly to a city in America where grading was held. From eight to five, around a thousand calculus teachers would grade exams. This year will be different. Graders are to grade online from their homes.

“They have sworn to us that this will not happen next year for calculus,” Tyler said. “We get such a professional development opportunity for being with other calculus teachers, a thousand calculus teachers from around and outside the United States to talk about our courses, our lives, our profession. It’s worth our time to be together. We are going to lose that.”

Being together lends to more accurate grading. “Just for the grading purposes, being able to talk about, ‘hey, what do you think about how this student wrote this?’ Teachers are learning from that conversation,” Tyler said. “I’m sure we’re going to have those conversations virtually now, but that’s not the same as leaning over to the person on my right and saying, ‘let’s talk about this.’”

Despite all the change, Tyler sees the commonality. “While the exam was slightly different, the end goal and the end production was still the same: that the students were able to receive the credit for this course.”