Out with the Old, in with the New: College Board Updates Format


Image Courtesy of CollegeBoard

On first listen, the stillness in the air is absolute. No one in the classroom dares speak–forming an uncanny veil of silence entirely unbefitting for a group of students this age. Despite the lack of voices, the air still resonates with hidden tensions. If one strains their ears, they might be able to hear the frantic rustling of pages, the frenzied squeaks of a high polymer eraser on paper, or an exasperated exhale. 

Welcome to the AP tests–the greatest academic trial of every overachieving student’s year. 

All the students in AP courses know when AP season is upon them. Each year, for two weeks out of the 36 total, the College Board holds students in an absolute chokehold during a frantic, back-to-back train of testing. testing. testing. *Cue the page rustling, eraser squeaking, and melodramatic sighs.  Except, if one strains their ears a little further, they might hear…typing? 

In 2022, the College Board announced that a select few of the traditionally pen-and-paper AP exams were to be conducted digitally. Whereas students once used pencil and paper to complete their exams, schools would now have the choice to administer certain AP tests on school-managed devices. Among those exams included Computer Science Principles, English Language, English Literature, European History, Seminar, U.S. History, and World History. Notably, these are exams that can be conducted in a digital format, whereas other math-based exams such as AP Calculus and AP Chemistry may never be able to transition online. Even for tests with the option to be taken virtually, schools may still choose to stick with pen and paper. At Morris Hills, the AP Computer Science Principles exam was NOT taken online. Sophomore Niti Mali who took the exam said she was pleased with that decision, as “[quote]”. 

Aside from the physical change, however, the College Board confirmed that all other aspects of the AP tests would remain the same. Students would still have the same allotted amount of time to complete the exam to complete the same number and type of questions, in the same proctored school testing centers. To allow for a consistent testing experience, the College Board announced that the testing interface would be provided using Bluebook, “a testing app that makes test day easier and faster for students and proctors” (Collegeboard). 

Interestingly, the College Board has made the digital option available to students only in the contiguous 48 States, thereby excluding Alaskan and Hawaiian AP students from such an opportunity.  

The Push for Digital

Although the College Board was sparse on its public explanation for offering the tests digitally, one can only assume this change was incited by the reverberating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. After and during the COVID-19 pandemic, students had to adapt to learning at home, which meant their entire worlds suddenly shifted online. Students today are more than familiar with the implications of digital learning, growing ever more accustomed to paper alternatives. Whether it is for note-taking, test-taking, or completing assignments, technology is effectively and efficiently being promoted as a digital alternative to paper in the classroom. 

As a student myself, I must say that I personally welcome the change; my laptop and mouse have long since superseded traditional pen and paper as my note-taking tools of choice. I simply find taking notes digitally to be more streamlined, organized, and comprehensible than what my handwriting would have otherwise allowed for. 

From an environmental standpoint, transitioning tests online also conserves a lot of valuable resources, like paper. Moreover, online exams cut administration costs, as they greatly reduce or almost entirely eliminate associated booklet costs and shipping fees. The process for grading digital tests and reporting scores is often more streamlined than their paper counterparts too, as grading is almost entirely automated and reporting seems as simple as the click of a button. The overall testing experience is significantly more uniform for students as well, without the human hassles and risks involved with the security of the exams. It is for those reasons that students have experienced a broader shift to online tests–from the assessments students take in class to state-wide benchmarks for students across New Jersey. 

Last spring, all the current MH Sophomores and Seniors took standardized state tests–the New Jersey State Learning Assessments (NJSLA)–online over the course of several days. Still, despite the relatively small magnitude of the NSJLA tests in relation to the national AP tests, students and proctors ran into their fair share of technical issues in setting up the testing experience. Tests that were scheduled to begin promptly at 8:00 often dragged on until 9:00 or even 9:15 due to a wide array of technological mishaps, among which half-charged Chromebooks and lagging servers comprised only a few. 

Among the main concerns heading into the digital AP exams was the fear that College Board servers would be unable to handle the sheer amount of traffic to facilitate tests held nationally and internationally. 

Moreover, digital tests are a lot for their proctors to adapt to as well. Any teacher can attest to how discomfiting it often is to be stuck in a room of completely silent students for hours, and the AP tests are no exception. Although the College Board has released lengthy tutorial videos for proctoring online tests, there still remain questions that can only be answered after the inaugural online tests have been taken. 

To Help or to Hinder? 

While the College Board has reiterated that administering online AP tests is entirely up to the individual school’s decision, this transition has still produced a considerable amount of backlash, particularly in regard to the early and limited versions of test-taking mobility. In early versions of the Bluebook testing interface, as MH APUSH teacher Mr. Ellis recalls, test-takers were unable to revisit a question after it had been answered, which understandably raised a few concerns. Since then, this feature has since been revised to allow students to “go back within a section or part to review or complete previous questions” (College Board), but as online testing is still in its inaugural year, the College Board may still enact other changes to this functionality. 

Aside from technical difficulties arising from the testing interface itself, were the technical difficulties associated with simply using technology. The online AP tests were to be strictly administered via school-issued devices only, yet exasperated teachers reported that a surprising number of students either showed up on testing day either without their school-issued Chromebooks or with their devices barely charged. 

Morris Hills Junior and APUSH student Emma Zhang recalls that these technical difficulties delayed the APUSH exam “by nearly an hour… A student’s bluebook (the College Board digital testing app) wasn’t working properly, so the entire testing room of 60 people had to wait for her Chromebook to work”. Emma also mentioned that small mistakes such as accidentally deleting paragraphs delayed her significantly, particularly because the “undo button was malfunctioning”. Although Emma’s testing experience had been partially hindered, she still favors virtual because her actual handwriting is “illegible…not a breathing person would be able to decipher it”. She concludes in our conversation, “typing is way better as long as you’re careful and don’t accidentally delete your work”, and I can see she is barely holding back tears from the trauma of the APUSH exam.  

Mr. Ellis shared Emma’s mixed emotions, stating that while little things like forgotten credentials may have delayed the testing process, the overall experience went relatively smoothly. 

This is particularly in contrast to what students from other schools have experienced. Teachers in an APUSH teacher Facebook group Mr. Ellis is part of shared that their students faced power outages, WiFi connectivity issues, and landline complications that interrupted and even derailed students’ testing experiences. At least from a teacher’s perspective, Mr. Ellis shares, there will be reduced stress regarding the security of testing materials in case of such a disruption. 

Going forward, Mr. Ellis predicts that technology will continue to dominate the testing environment, especially given the online presence and formatting AP exams already have via AP Classroom and other websites. He’s hopeful in the future that the College Board will continue improving the functionality of AP Classroom, but is simultaneously, “glad technology seems to be evolving to the point where it needs to be”. 

A Transformed Testing Experience

After all, there are still many merits of the online exams (otherwise College Board would not have made the transition). Many students were thrilled by the opportunity to take writing-intensive exams like AP Language and AP Literature online. 

Senior Emily Hao reflected that, “Not having to fill in all the ID credentials beforehand really saved a lot of time”. Without tedious bubbling and the meticulous placement of ID labels, students reported that the overall testing experience had gone rather smoothly. The general consensus among AP Lang students seemed to be that they preferred the online option due to its convenience in areas such as writing speed, handwriting, and ease of editing. These changes also make grading written responses easier on AP readers, who no longer must contend with haphazard scribbles and insensible strikethroughs. 

Senior Miranda Kawiecki noted that the online interface even made it easier to read the exam questions and find important information. 

Whether students and teachers prefer the digital alternative to paper or not, it is undeniable that online learning and testing are becoming more prevalent in today’s academic landscape. Ultimately, the success of online AP exams will depend on the ability of educators and students to adapt to these new circumstances. For a generation of typers, the development of online exams seems like a natural progression in the testing experience. And who knows? Maybe after APs, digital SATs will come next…