Students and Teachers Brace for Unconventional AP Testing Season

As College Board offers more testing options for 2021, including a digital version of the full-length exams, students and teachers express their hopes and concerns.


Duc Than

A screenshot of the 2021 AP Digital Testing App, where students will take the digital versions of the AP exam.

Duc Than and Vy Nguyen

Every May, high school students taking the College Board’s Advanced Placement program brace for their big day: a three-hour marathon of page-flipping, answer-bubbling, and essay-writing that will test the knowledge they have accrued over a year of classwork and studying. In 2020, lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to the College Board administering shortened versions of AP exams online, leading to a flurry of controversies

This year, however, will be slightly different.

Instead of shortening AP exams to only one essay question or two free-response questions, College Board insisted on making the 2021 exams full-length. There are three testing windows: a “traditional” window from May 3-17 where students test in-person, a “hybrid” window from May 18-28 offering a mixture between in-person and online testing, and a final administration from June 1-11 mainly to account for potential scheduling conflicts. While all exams, digital or in-person, will be full length, there are slight differences in the exam formats between both versions depending on the subject. 

School districts are empowered with the choice of which administrations and which method they will administer the exams. The East Side Union High School District chose to offer most exams digitally (except language exams, which will be in-person) on Administration 2, while Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics exams will be offered digitally on Administration 3. 

Even though classes have been entirely online for most of the year, some students expressed their optimism for the exam ahead. “It’s comforting to see how much my AP teachers, Mrs. White and Mrs. Taylor, have put into preparing us for AP tests,” 2022 class officer Maleina Aguinaldo said, referring to her AP English Literature and AP Biology teachers. “I am still a little nervous because these are my first AP tests ever and I don’t know what to expect!” 

Meanwhile, some students are finding online learning to be a more convenient way to study for AP exams. “Something I like to do is to have 2 separate tabs: questions on the left and a text editor or doc on the right,” says senior Kunal Kapur, who plans on taking Calculus BC, Computer Science A, Macroeconomics, and US Government, “I do this when practicing FRQs so I can be more prepared for the digital format on test day.” College Board offers daily review videos on YouTube, as well as review questions on the “AP Classroom” website.

Others, however, expressed their concern. “I think it is unfair that certain students have to take their exams in person when other students are going to be given the option of taking their exams online,” said an AP Spanish Language teacher, who preferred to stay anonymous. “In times of pandemic, all students should have the option of being able to take their exams digitally.” 

Due to “students’ access to online translation applications and other resources,” College Board has not made online versions of the AP foreign language exams. Even though students will be kept six feet apart and made to wear masks for the full duration of the exam, it may still be too risky for some to stay indoors for prolonged periods of time. 

There is, of course, an option to cancel. Students can email the AP Coordinator for a refund should they choose not to take the AP exams they have paid for, but only if they have not taken their exams yet. College Board has stated that they will waive the unused/canceled exam fees for 2021. 

“I canceled some of my AP exams because I didn’t want to stress so much in the last month of high school,” said Felix Zhu, a senior. He chose to cancel the Macroeconomics, US Government, and Statistics exams, while still planning to take the Computer Science A, English Language, and Physics C exams. 

As full-length AP exams are now being taken from the comfort of home, there have been concerns that students might find cheating to be easier. In 2020, College Board addressed these problems by eliminating the multiple-choice section altogether. Tests in 2021 will include a multiple-choice section, but the tests will be conducted in a “lockdown application” where all other applications will close. Students will be unable to access other applications, move backward to a previous question if they have skipped it earlier, or send in handwritten work for free-response sections. 

“College Board is expecting us to behave like robots moving from one question to another,” said Hitiksha Bansal, a junior who is taking Physics C, Psychology, and Statistics, “We just don’t work like that. Students already have a lot to deal with this year, and the fact that they’re being made to flip through a question per minute perfectly is just ridiculous.” 

While the solutions for the 2021 exam administration are not perfect, “I do think that College Board did the best they could given the circumstances,” Kapur said. “Considering students want these courses for college credit, it’s obviously a bonus that they are holding the exam in the first place.”