The College Board’s Disastrous Digital AP Exams


Forty-five minutes.


Those words describe the mere amount of time that thousands of high school students in 2020 were required to spend for the majority of their AP exams. Most tests simply contained 1-2 free-response questions to be submitted in hopes of scoring that illustrious “5.” Essentially, eight to nine months of stressing over calculus formulas, remembering the order of U.S. presidents, and creating songs about solubility rules all came down to barely an hour of students’ lives. 


Traditionally, most AP exams are about three hours in total, consisting of a variety of questions from multiple choice to long and short free-response. Last year, however, the College Board thought it would be wise to trim their exams since many teachers across the country struggled with staying on track with the AP content during the pandemic. Also, the organization considered the stress many students may have faced with having to take an exam at home.

The College Board, on the days leading up to the exam, tried helping their students as much as possible. For one, they uploaded daily review videos that were free to watch, which highly benefited individuals who lacked access to their teachers during the pandemic. In fact, some celebrities like Lin Manuel Miranda and Kristin Chenoweth offered “AP Masterclasses” to encourage students to excel in their exams during 2020’s pressing times. Secondly, the organization removed content from the AP exams since it understood that educators would have difficulty completing the entire curriculum while unstructured virtual learning was implemented at their schools. The College Board even allowed kids to drop their AP exams at no additional cost, unlike in other years in which students who made that choice had to pay a cancellation fee of $45. Considering it already costs a student $95 per exam he/she/they take, the College Board’s 2020 refund policy was a rare gift. Furthermore, the College Board affirmed that these tests would be open-note, which was a logical claim considering that no proctors could supervise the test takers at this time.


For Shaker senior Sai Thimirisetty, in terms of support, he believes that “the College Board is doing ok.” However, he also “feel[s] like their tests have too much of an impact on student lives.” Most of this situation stems from the rise in academic competition among teenagers, pressuring them to devote hours to studying for the tests to acquire a successful life after high school. Even though one score should not define one’s life, the impact that the exams could have on a student’s future makes it easy for one to think so.

Since the 2020 AP exams were to be submitted online, many students and teachers were worried that the College Board’s technical systems would be insufficient in processing the large volume of responses that it would receive from its exam takers. The College Board itself reported that “1.21 million students took a total of around 4.1 million AP exams [in 2020],” which is definitely a statistic that could not be ignored. 


On Twitter, user Chris McMillan tried reaching out to the head of the Advanced Placement (AP) program, Trevor Packer, by asking “so what happens when the kids try to upload their test and the server crashes?” However, Packer stayed silent. Perhaps he was confident in the capability of the College Board’s servers in processing an impressive amount of tests.


But instead, disaster ensued.


According to Business Insider, an American financial and business news website, “nearly 10,000 students ran into issues submitting their AP exams because of technical glitches.” These glitches have ranged from students being unable to submit their responses due to server crashes, photos of responses ending up as corrupted files, and experiences with being unable to even open up the exam in the first place.

My AP chemistry teacher, Dr. Mendleson, told our class that one student last year, due to technical difficulties, had to retake the AP chemistry exam on the day before her graduation, ruining the latter portion of her last year in high school. I can only imagine the pure frustration that ebbed through the senior’s veins. Additionally, according to Inside Higher Ed, a source for information, opinions, news, and careers regarding higher education, one parent of an AP student lamented that “moments after hitting ‘submit,’ [her daughter] received a message telling her that her submission could not be received and that she would have to take a makeup test in three weeks.” Anguished over her bad luck, the parent’s daughter “[stayed] in bed— not attending the online classes her high school cobbled together for her.”

The College Board was not prepared in the slightest to handle the unanticipated large amount of technical issues faced by students taking the 2020 AP exams, bolstering stress within individuals in an already hectic school year. A report by USA Today conveyed that an alarming “10,000 students or more” encountered submission issues with their tests. At first, most unlucky students had to wait until a later date to retake the test. 

Yet, some students even had glitches during the retake dates. On Reddit, individuals like u/TrustEnvironmental99 and u/Michaelw2049 claimed that they had to take “invite-only August AP exams.” Thankfully, I never had to consider such a terrorizing outcome after my three AP exams last year. Nevertheless, I understand why these students would feel excruciating mental pain, simply wanting to enjoy their summer as much as possible after a stress-inducing and COVID-ridden school year. Eventually, the College Board allowed students to simply email their responses to them if any glitches occurred during their test dates, but by then it was too late for many students.


Technical issues aside, many expressed discontent over the fact that one 45-minute free-response test was going to determine whether or not they could receive course credit or advanced class placement at certain colleges. Some students are simply not the best at writing, which is why they rely on multiple-choice questions to balance their score calculation. 2020’s AP exams, however, did not offer that comfort. 


Furthermore, the fact that much of the content was cut from the exams concerned many educators over the exams’ legitimacy in determining a student’s aptitude for college. Could a college really feel comfortable letting a person who got a “5” on the 2020 AP Psychology exam skip its introductory psychology course when the student barely knows a thing about social psychology?


Thimirisetty reflected that “last year’s AP exams were both good and bad. The fact that the test was one essay or only a few problems meant if you knew the answer, you would get a good grade. However, not knowing the answer to one question or not fully understanding the question could cost you the whole test.” Essentially, it was a matter of luck for students last year if the minimal topics of the questions that appeared on the tests turned out to be ones that they excelled at or struggled with.


On Instagram, the College Board was attacked with hostile comments over its poor management of the 2020 AP exams. One user, “uwumoods,” commented, “you guys are doing a great job of passing at being fools.” Another, “nauticalreef,” expressed “Bob Ross said there are no mistakes, only happy mistakes. Ain’t nothing happy about this situation.”


Students’ uproar became so intense that Ed Source, a website dedicated to educational challenges in California and elsewhere, reported that “a group of high school students who were unable to submit their Advanced Placement exams because of technical glitches su[ed] the College Board and demand[ed] their tests still be graded so they [we]ren’t forced to retake the exams.” 

Wanting to avoid another lawsuit and voluminous backlash for this year’s AP exams, this time the College Board proposed many exams to be held in school. These exams, unlike last year’s, are actually going to be around three hours long, as the traditional tests were. Additionally, unlike last year, this year’s AP exams (except the AP Physics 1 exam) will cover the entire original AP curriculum to ensure that, as noted by the College Board blogger Michelle Kuhl, Ph.D., “colleges and universities [have] full confidence that students who score well will be ready to succeed in college.” Therefore, schools will no longer have to face the pressure of trusting that students who excel at 45-minute exams are intellectually capable of handling their true rigor.


Yet, as TeenVogue, a website dedicated to news about fashion and celebrities, highlights, some students are still discontent with the 2021 Advanced Placement exams. For one, “the College Board’s digital requirements mean that students without proper technology would need to take in-person exams, putting them at higher risk for exposure to COVID-19.” Thus, some accuse the College Board of being unfair to those who are economically disadvantaged and cannot afford such technology. 


Additionally, digital testing this year comes with many more worries and limitations compared to last. For instance, there is “no going back-and-forth between questions, no uploading pictures of our work (so all math equations must be typed), along with concerns about the WiFi and submission issues that were present in last year’s online tests.” 


Furthermore, the College Board promised that “to support Muslim students, no exams are being administered on May 13” since Ramadan is on that day, yet the company does not acknowledge that the Islamic holiday is a month-long observance. For students like Sabirah Mahmud, an inner-city high school senior from Pennsylvania, fasting “inevitably impact[s] her ability to focus,” and the College Board’s cultural ignorance only aggravates the issue rather than remedies it.


When analyzing the policies the College Board outlined for the 2021 AP exams, Thimirisetty admits that “this year’s exams seem frightening since we learned less content and have been learning remote.” He acknowledges that “it’s nice we have the chance to cancel the exams but that doesn’t affect all the students.” Personally, “[he] would prefer last year’s format because it [would] seem easier, but [he] understands that it’s less reliable.”


Considering the apparent dislike toward the College Board and its seemingly apathetic behavior, why do thousands of teenagers still register for these exams? Because despite all of these issues, many students worked too hard to bail out on AP exams now. 


College is expensive and time-consuming. Therefore, many ambitious individuals still would benefit from already satisfying college prerequisites in high school to ensure that they can take full advantage of a college’s opportunities with minimal payments for introductory courses. The College Board may still be a disappointing organization for America’s gifted students, but at least for now, it is, for many, the most affordable and tolerable method of attaining course credit and exemption before college. Students will just have to bear a little longer with the company until they finally graduate.