Ethan Yang had to recopy his essay into unfamiliar software as the clock ran down on the Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics exam Monday.
The Memorial High School senior hit submit with seconds left, but the “Congratulations” screen never popped up — instead, he saw a message about the test being over due to the time.
“What we don’t know is if it was actually submitted,” his teacher, David Olson, said the next day. “Ethan may have to end up taking the make-up exam in June because of an upload issue.”
Monday was the first of two weeks straight of AP tests for high school students around the country. The tests, which can earn students college credits at a fraction of the cost, are being done online for the first time amid school closures for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ethan’s story wasn’t unique, as others reported some technical issues as well. West High School math teacher Sigrid Murphy said she knows of three issues among the 140 or so West students who took the calculus exam Tuesday.
“It’s not great that it happens to anyone, and now you have to worry about whether you have to retake it in June, but that’s not terrible considering how many people worldwide were taking it at the same time,” Murphy said.
According to College Board senior vice president Trevor Packer’s Twitter, which he’s using to respond to people having problems, 450 students out of more than 300,000 taking the government and politics exam had problems submitting their answers.
“Given the wide variety of devices, browsers, and versions students are using, we anticipated that a small percentage of students would encounter technical difficulties, and we have a makeup window in June so students have another opportunity to test,” he wrote in another thread about technical challenges.
The College Board, which administers the tests, has estimated in various media reports throughout the week that about 1% of students have experienced technical difficulties related to submitting their answers. Students can sign up for a June retake if they have that issue.
In normal years, Madison Metropolitan School District students take the tests in a large space at the Alliant Energy Center. That was the plan until the middle of this spring, when the College Board had to recalibrate how to most fairly offer the exams to students around the world.
By subject, the tests are taken at the same time to avoid any potential cheating, but to do that worldwide online meant students in Japan were taking tests at 1 a.m. while here in Wisconsin it was 11 a.m.
As it became clear the gatherings for in-person tests weren’t feasible in the pandemic, the College Board scrambled to get information out to teachers and students. Olson said there was “quite a bit of frustration along the way,” with the final information on the format not coming until early April.
“I totally get that College Board had to make this up on the fly and figure out how to make this work,” Olson said. “There were a number of times it felt like a moving target.”
Senior Brian Liebau, also in Olson’s class at Memorial, said it felt odd logging on to his computer and realizing he was about to take an AP test, given his experience taking others over the past two years.
“You drive to the Alliant Energy Center, you get into the mode, you have no phone, no anything, you’re completely disconnected,” he said. “Now you’re sitting at a laptop.”
While the tests were open-book this year — there wasn’t much choice, given the at-home setting — Monona Grove High School senior Maelia Dziedzic said she didn’t have time to use her notes for much.
“You’re able to reassure yourself that you’re doing the right thing,” she said. “At the same time, the timing is a lot quicker on these. You can’t really flip through your notes for too much, you’ll get backtracked and won’t be able to finish.”
McFarland High School junior Christy Zheng also appreciated the opportunity to use notes, which she said she did for each of her exams on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. It was especially helpful given the challenging learning situation over the past two months, she said.
“It’s nice to have a bit of a crutch there when you need it,” she said. “I did use notes for all of my exams and they were really helpful.”
Olson has developed a sense for what needs to be done to have students prepared for the May tests in a normal school year.
“I start the year knowing pretty much exactly what I need to do, certainly week by week and almost day by day,” he said.
The mid-March school closing threw that for a loop this year. For one, even though the College Board limited what units would be covered on the exam, he had one more to get through after the last day of in-person school March 13. He wasn’t sure what units to complete until the College Board released the final test information in early April.
Once he knew that, he still had to figure out how best to reach his students, who he said were an “awesome group.”
“When I have a captive audience in a classroom, it’s so much easier to figure out, where are my students, what do they understand, what do they not understand?” he said. “In a virtual environment … that part is so much harder.
“It demands something different of students.”
West's Murphy said her biggest challenge was adjusting to the technical limitations of teaching virtually, noting that she still had one unit to cover for the test after school closed, as well. Showing the steps to complex mathematical equations is challenging through typing.
“It’s a whole lot different teaching virtually,” she said. “A really important part of learning for students is the conversation that they have with each other in the classroom. I haven’t really figured out how to replace that virtually or asynchronously.”
For the calculus exams, especially, students also had to navigate a web of technology.
To alleviate the challenge Murphy outlined of demonstrating complex mathematical steps, students were allowed to write and draw their answers on a piece of paper and upload a photograph to the exam website.
That’s what Christy did, but it left her stressed as the clock ticked down, taking multiple photos and uploading them to Google Drive on her phone, only to download them from there on her computer to upload back to the testing website.
“I was trying to get them in good lighting so people could read it, and I wasn’t sure which one I submitted,” she said. “That made me panic a little bit, but I’m pretty sure it’s all good now.”
She called it a “guessing game” about what had been submitted, and suggested that if the tests continue online, the College Board make that an easier process.
Without the daily classroom presence, Christy and other students had to find motivation to prepare for the tests within themselves, whether that meant showing up to a review with their teacher over Zoom or finding their own materials online.
“For me and Ethan, this is our senior year,” Brian said. “For us, the grades don’t 100% matter for second semester, we don’t really send that to colleges. Our GPAs have been frozen — so what’s the point of doing assignments if it’s not going to be changing anything?”
That motivation was paired with added pressure on the shortened exams. The College Board eliminated the multiple choice portions, leaving students to answer essay questions only.
“This year it feels like, it’s almost like there’s more pressure because they’re not as long so I feel like if I make a mistake on one part, then it’s going to affect my score more,” Maelia said.
Christy, who as a junior expects to take more tests next year, is hoping to go back to the old system.
“It could’ve been made more accessible and more student-friendly,” she said. “I’ve just heard of so many issues.
“I’m looking forward to when the tests won’t be online.”
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