High school senior Lynna Ngo, of San Jose, prepares for the Advanced Placement test in calculus. (Photo courtesy of EdSource)

Brandon Tran, a senior at Valley Christian High School in San Jose, has been preparing all school year to take four Advanced Placement exams this spring. His goal was to get scores high enough to earn a semester’s worth of college credits, finish college early and save on tuition money that he could then apply to graduate school.

But his plans, like those of an estimated 2.8 million students across the country in AP classes, now have to adapt to significant changes in the AP testing program due to the coronavirus crisis.

The exams are usually held at schools and last up to three hours. Now they will be just 45 minutes long and be online for students to take at home on a set schedule from May 11-22. The traditional multiple-choice questions, which in the past have made up half or more of the exams, will be dropped. The revised test will include only short essays and, in tests that require them, math calculation work. Students will be allowed to consult textbooks during the exam but measures like anti-plagiarism software will be in place to discourage cheating.

Some students are rattled by the changes and worry that they won’t do as well as they would under the original format. The 45-minute replacement, they complain, won’t allow them to show skills and knowledge that could earn college credit or scores to burnish their admissions applications. Some are beseeching the College Board, the exams’ sponsor, to allow full-length tests online or to delay testing in hopes that school-based exams might be held in the summer.

However, Tran and others say they are grateful that the tests are being administered at all, given that other standardized tests such as SAT and ACT are being canceled and so much of the education world is in turmoil.

And they say they are particularly glad that many colleges and universities — including the University of California and the California State University — have agreed to award college credits if they get high scores on the shortened online exams. In California, about 423,000 students last year took Advanced Placement tests, many of them tackling two or more.

“I don’t feel my hard work has gone to waste. If the exam was canceled, that would have happened,” said Tran, who will be first in his family to attend college and is right now trying to choose among several acceptances, including Dartmouth and University of Southern California. “I still have an avenue to earn my credits. This is just a little different from what I expected. So, it’s not wasteful at all.”

High school senior Brandon Tran, of San Jose, is getting ready for four AP exams.

He expects to use the free online prep classes offered by the College Board as he prepares for tests in four subjects: Spanish, English literature, U.S. government and microeconomics. And he will continue reviews with his regular high school classes online. But contrary to previous plans, no new material will be covered in those prep classes or tested nationwide beyond what was learned by early March.

Lynna Ngo, a senior at Evergreen Valley High School in San Jose, has a more negative reaction. Last year she took three AP tests, in world and U.S. history and psychology, and earned high enough scores on all three to obtain college credits. Now she is preparing for AP calculus, in hopes she will be able to skip the college level course when she enrolls as a pre-pharmacy major at the University of the Pacific in Stockton in the fall. That would save her time and potential tuition.

The switch to the shorter exam is “kind of frustrating. I don’t think 45 minutes is enough time to take the AP test. We spent a year taking the class and now you have it all tested in 45 minutes. I don’t think it’s a fair portrayal of our knowledge.” She said she fears her scores could suffer by taking it at home and wonders whether the College Board can truly prevent cheating.

Advanced Placement exams are offered in 38 subjects, including Art History, Statistics, Biology, Latin and World History. The tests are scored on a scale of 1 to 5 by college and university professors and experienced AP teachers. Many U.S. colleges offer credit for AP exam scores of 3 or higher, but some require a 4 or 5.

Jocelyn Araos, an AP psychology teacher at Summit High School in Fontana, said she appreciates that the tests are being offered and that her students can still try to earn the college credits. “However, it’s pretty disappointing. They prepped all year for a test that was to be 2/3 multiple choice. And to completely abandon the multiple choices is pretty harsh.” She plans to keep up review classes on zoom.

The College Board says its new security measures will include anti-plagiarism software and some other tech methods it is not publicly discussing. High school AP teachers will receive copies of test answers and will review them to spot inconsistencies with students’ previous known work. Cheaters face harsh sanctions, including notification to colleges to which they applied for possible admissions revocation.

“We are confident the vast majority of AP students will follow the rules for taking the exams. For the small number of students who may try to gain an unfair advantage, we have a comprehensive and strict set of protocols in place to prevent and detect cheating,” a College Board statement said.

Students who need devices like tablets or Internet connections can apply for help from the College Board. And if students want to drop out of the test program altogether, they can receive refund for fees which run as high as $94 per exam.

In a lengthy discussion on Twitter, Trevor Packer, the College Board’s senior vice president of advanced placement and instruction, said the focus “will remain on student safety and ensuring all students have the tools they need to work, and opportunities to receive the credit they have earned, during this challenging time.” He also insisted the shorter format will provide a valid measurement of students’ skills.

But Twitter responses are sharply divided. One student called for the tests to be canceled, writing “it’s a complete sham to make money for College Board. You do not have the best interests of the students at heart. These new versions are a gross departure from the tests students have been prepping for all year.” Another writes that the new exam structure is “blocking every successful pathway for an AP student. The best option was to cancel the test or do the traditional 3-hour exam instead of 45 min at home.”

Such anxiety is understandable but the shortened test represents “the best we can do under these crazy circumstances,” said Allison Kittay, who taught AP biology classes at Redwood High School for many years and now is a College Board consultant who mentors other Advanced Placement teachers in the Bay area. She told EdSource that the changes were made “with the students’ best interests at heart.”

Without multiple choice, the test takers “obviously won’t have an opportunity to dazzle us with their content knowledge,” she said. But the exam still “will give them an opportunity to show these science skills.” Kittay said she is not worried as much about potential cheating as she is about students finding reliable Wi-Fi and a good location to take the test, “a quiet place in the house, where the mailman is not coming, dogs are not barking, little brothers and sisters are not bothering you.” And she said she is sorry that communal test-taking, after a year of classes together, will be replaced by solitary experiences. Students will lose that feeling that “we are all in this together. They will be spread out in homes and are going to feel lonely. That is a concern.”

But in the end, she said, students “are going to be fine. They will do the best they can on this test, whatever version it is.”

Story originally published by EdSource.

Larry Gordon