In her senior year at East Central High School, Keira Gilmore diligently prepared for three Advanced Placement exams in government and politics, English literature, and economics. This was Gilmore’s first year to take AP courses, which are college-level classes that end with rigorous tests.
If she performed well on the exams, she could earn college credits to use this fall at Texas A&M University.
That’s why Gilmore took practice quizzes throughout the year, learning how to best answer the multiple choice and free response questions expected on the May exams. But on Monday, when Gilmore sat down to take her first ever AP test, it was in her dining room in front of her laptop.
With schools closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the College Board, the organization that oversees AP exams, made significant alterations to the tests. The assessments, normally a four-hour affair divided into multiple-choice and long-answer portions taken in a proctored environment, became something entirely different.
Students now are taking a 45-minute test at home on a variety of devices like laptops, tablets, and even smartphones. They also can submit photos of written responses.
Security measures are in place with tools employed to detect plagiarism and rules that prohibit consulting with anyone else during the exam. Exams will be sent to AP teachers who will be tasked with spotting any inconsistencies with a student’s previous work. Students who violate the rules will have their scores canceled.
The content on which students are tested is limited, and students will be required only to know topics covered up until early March. They also can use notes and textbooks while answering questions. While exams in each subject vary, most will contain just two written-response questions.
The way these AP exams are given provides a window into potential changes to come should stay-at-home schooling remain in place and as standardized tests like the SAT, PSAT, or ACT are administered.
The format changes could prove to be a challenge for the thousands of San Antonio students preparing to take the tests.
“For me, being able to have that multiple-choice question would probably have been better,” Gilmore said. “If you don’t do well on the free-write, you can always go and do better on the multiple choice.”
In San Antonio Independent School District, where about 4,000 students are expected to sit for 6,100 AP exams, educators have tried to prepare their students for the changes.
In March, when San Antonio-area school districts began to announce extensions of spring break and shifts to remote learning, SAISD officials thought about how to continue lessons for AP students without losing valuable instruction time.
SAISD designed a special section for AP courses on its Digital Playground, the district’s hub for online learning. Lessons tied into review books the district purchased for students, Advanced Placement Coordinator Kevin Rasco said.
“We had a feeling that writing was going to be a bigger part and we took a lucky educated guess there,” he said. “Within a couple weeks, that’s what College Board came out and confirmed.”
However well students may prepare, there is a fear that some may opt out of the tests in the face of obstacles such as having the right technology and finding a quiet space to study for and take the test.
Expressing a related concern, the San Antonio Chamber last week called on the business community to accommodate employees who needed time off to take AP exams. Although the exams are shorter, they must be taken at a set time.
“We have heard from some of our school district partners that working students are considering not taking their AP exams, because they need to work to provide financial support to their families or they are concerned that employers will not give them the time off or let them make up hours,” Chamber President and CEO Richard Perez said in a statement. “The tough time we are going through right now is temporary, and we cannot lose sight of the importance of encouraging our students to pursue higher education degrees.”
Courtney Mayer, Northside ISD’s director of gifted and talented programs and advanced academics, said she wouldn’t be surprised if fewer students take the tests this year.
“We’re trying to make sure that kids are aware this is an opportunity,” Mayer said. “However, we also know that many of them are in situations at home that may not be ideal.”
The College Board is also offering makeup tests in early June for problems that will likely arise during some students’ exams.
“We know there is going to be issues all over the nation and all over the world,” Mayer said, citing potential issues like the internet problems or a baby sister screaming throughout.
Christian Facio, a senior at Southwest High School, will prepare for the latter scenario and talk to his family members about staying quiet during the exam.
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“My siblings are very respectful so if I ask them for time alone … normally they give me that time to myself,” Facio said. “When it’s over they can be noisy.”
Facio has taken AP exams before and thought he knew what to expect. The assessment for AP Spanish will certainly look different; AP exams for language courses use a special app that records verbal responses.
But as a native Spanish speaker, Facio isn’t too worried. He’s just hoping to get college credit that will both save him money and allow him to take other classes at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“Money is scarce and, you know, my family doesn’t make that much, so I have to take advance of the opportunities given to me,” Facio said.
In East Central ISD, Gilmore completed her first AP exam on Monday by 4 p.m., and a few moments later celebrated her 18th birthday with her family. In the next nine days, she’ll take her AP exams in literature and macroeconomics, but decided Monday to give herself a birthday gift and take some time off from studying in between.