High school junior Carolyn Stadnyk has been busy studying for three high-pressure tests. In the past few days, she took advanced placement, or AP exams, for U.S. History, biology and English.
But instead of pencil and paper in a classroom with other students, it was a computer in her bedroom by herself.
“I locked my door. I put a sign up. I told everyone in my family, ‘This is the time I’m testing,’” said Carolyn, a student at Fenton High School in northwest suburban Bensenville.
Over the past two weeks, a few million students like Carolyn have been taking AP tests from their bedrooms. Students can earn college credits if they pass the exam. This year, there were major adjustments because of the coronavirus pandemic.
After states across the country canceled in-person class for the rest of the year, the College Board, the organization that administers AP exams, decided to move the test online. It’s offering a glimpse of what could be in store for other high stakes tests, like the SAT and ACT college entrance exams, that might need to go remote in the fall.
Carolyn was glad AP exams weren’t canceled and her hard work wouldn’t go to waste. But she said preparing remotely was difficult.
“If you wanted to study and do good for these exams, you had to study yourself and put in the work,” she said. “Our teachers were there. They were an email away, but they could only do so much.”
A technical run-through was recommended before test day so any issues could be addressed. Students were also asked to find a quiet place in their home and to limit the number of devices running. Carolyn said it definitely wasn’t the school testing environment.
“My brother came in a few times before the test asking if I was about to test,” she said. “I was like ‘Yes, please, go. Be quiet.’ ”
The College Board said they wanted to make the test as equitable as possible and offered devices and internet service to any students who needed it. But the test still had some glitches.
“I have three students who had tech issues, and they applied for and will hopefully be granted the makeup in June,” said Sheila Hardin, AP calculus teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park.
Normally, she’d have end of year projects and treats, like a pizza party the night before the exam to get students motivated. She thinks her students knew the material well, even if technology was a concern.
The College Board adjusted the format of the AP exams. The multiple choice section was removed, leaving a shorter written or typed exam. Students also have the opportunity to use their notes. At the end of each test section, students have five minutes to submit their work.
To prevent cheating, students are given a unique digital ID to enter their responses. Hardin also said for the first time she’ll be viewing her students’ tests as an extra check.
“I was honest with my students,” she said. “I know their handwriting by this time of the year pretty well.”
That’s easy to say for this year, but she worries if this continues.
“Three quarters of the year had been spent in my classroom, and I know them and hopefully they knew me enough to trust me that I was going to navigate this for them,” she said. “It’s harder to face 54 new kids in August that I don’t know.”
The College Board also administers the SAT college entrance exam. It rescheduled the test for the fall if buildings reopen. But moving the exams online remains a possibility.
Andrew Sharos is assistant principal at West Leyden High School in west suburban Northlake. He said it would take considerably more effort to conduct the SAT remotely.
“I’d be interested to see if they’d try to scale up whatever model they have, given the fact that they’d have all summer to potentially work on it,” he said. “But it just brings in a whole new ballgame of how test security is important.”
In the first week of remote AP testing, the College Board said only 1% of test takers across the country had tech issues. Meanwhile, a group of students have filed a federal lawsuit against the College Board because they were unable to submit their answers. They claim far more than 1% of students had technical issues. They want their tests to be scored. There are also makeup test days in June.
The challenge with a remote SAT is the scale. Significantly more students take it than AP exams. It’s a requirement for Illinois juniors. The College Board said it could offer a secure and equitable remote test, but hasn’t yet said what adjustments would be made.
Carolyn Stadnyk said she is more concerned about taking the SAT remotely than her AP exams.
“It’s kind of scary because technology doesn’t always work our way,” she said. “So I definitely think it will be different and kind of difficult.”