Virtual AP Tests: Are They Worth It?

AP tests are just around the corner, and many students will be taking them virtually. Given the challenges, are virtual AP tests worth administering? Read on to find out.

By Alex Kahn

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Advanced Placement (AP) testing will be quite different this year compared to pre-pandemic years. First of all, there are options to take tests both online and in-person, with multiple dates offered for each test unlike in a normal year, when all tests would be in-person and taken using paper and a pencil. Additionally, students taking virtual exams this year will not have the ability to go back and review questions with the time they have remaining; once a question has been answered, it cannot be changed. While AP exams were virtual in 2020, they were not full tests and did not resemble the exam that students usually take; this year, there will be full-length virtual tests for the first time. The lack of experience that teachers and students have with administering and taking nationwide virtual tests poses challenges that require action to make the tests as fair as possible. The College Board, the company that administers AP tests, has made some adjustments in pursuit of this goal, but they have not done enough.

The first and most obvious issue with AP tests is that some students are inevitably going to cheat. The test is relatively time-crunched, but if students have documents at their side containing relevant information for the test, cheating will not be difficult. There has been a consistent lack of academic integrity in schools since classes went virtual, and there is no reason why students will have a change of heart for the AP tests. The question of how to prevent cheating has been a dilemma that the College Board and educators around the country have not been able to fully resolve. The College Board’s solution is to have students download software that will make it difficult to cheat on the device being used to take the test. The first reason this will be ineffective is that it is incredibly easy to cheat while using the software; students can still use paper notes, look at notes on another device, or take advantage of the countless other ways to access their notes. Second, forcing students to download the software and set it up correctly will just cause confusion and possibly more problems, especially since students will be using many different types of computers. 

Many students and teachers believe the solution is to do the opposite of what the College Board is trying to do: allow students to use notes. Mr. Matthew Allen, an AP World History and AP European History teacher at Byram Hills, supports this idea and thinks it is the most viable option. In Allen’s opinion, the College Board should “open it up and let the kids use their notes. In the relative scheme of things it won’t make a huge difference anyway, but… you have to eliminate the idea that 50% will cheat and 50% won’t.” While this solution may make studying slightly easier, it will also ensure a more level playing field and address all of the inevitable issues of integrity that will arise otherwise. 

Another problem with the current test model is that it is designed so that students cannot go back to previous questions after answering them. This means if a student has trouble with question 5, they cannot skip it and go back at the end after answering the easier, quicker questions. This will put test-takers in a very difficult position, as they will have to either completely guess on certain questions, and probably get them wrong, or spend a lot of time on some questions and not have enough time to do the easier ones. When answers can be reviewed, students are able to first answer the questions they know and then spend the remaining time attempting to answer the more difficult questions, which allows them to maximize their score without getting easy questions wrong.  Furthermore, it is common for students to temporarily blank or forget a small fact, and with the current model, this can be devastating. Stress levels may also increase because of this; teachers always tell their students to move on and stay calm when stuck on a question, but since it is impossible to go back to previous questions, this may not be an option. These are just some of the many reasons why the inability to go back to previous questions will prevent students from demonstrating their understanding of the course material. While the College Board has claimed that they are implementing this policy for security reasons, they have failed to give a specific and reasonable explanation as to why it is. If the test is made open-note, this security concern might not even matter in the first place.

The final major issue with AP exams this year is that the amount of content covered on the tests is the same as it was pre-pandemic. The College Board recently said that “AP Exams will cover the full course scope and content because colleges expect it” (Collegeboard.org). While it would be ideal for students to have learned as much as they would in a normal school year, the College Board needs to recognize that this is impossible in a world of virtual learning and shortened class time. Teachers are simply not able to teach the amount of content required for the test in such a time-crunched environment. In fact, famous YouTube AP history tutor Steve Heimler just posted a video on his channel called “What If Your Class DOESN’T FINISH the Curriculum BEFORE AP Exams?” in which he gives advice to AP students whose classes were not able to cover the entire curriculum this year. Students are forced to gain a basic understanding of certain concepts just for the test that they would normally be able to learn in-depth, resulting in a lack of both meaningful education and fairness. While the College Board ideally would have shortened this year’s curriculum covered by AP tests, it is too late to do so. Still, topics near the end of each course’s curriculum should be covered lightly and the College Board should make it clear that there won’t be as much weight placed on units that many students could not cover in class. 

Despite the issues, AP tests are extremely beneficial for students who don’t want to spend time and money in college taking certain classes, and the exams are here to stay. It would be foolish to say that AP tests this year are not worth it at all, but there are definitely some issues that need to be rectified, if possible. The ultimate goal is to make virtual AP tests as fair as possible while still challenging students and assessing students’ abilities as accurately as possible. The tests will not be perfect, but they can surely be made better.