UPDATE on AP Exam Uploading Issues

AP Exams continue next week, 5/18/2020 through 5/22/2020.  Students are gambling with timing the uploading of their answers.

Problems with the new online AP Exams started being reported early last week, but it took a couple of days of investigating to get more details.

Some initial reports appeared to be just instances of random technical glitches which one would expect, but as time went on it appears that there was a systematic problem with lack of server capacity and/or network bandwidth problems when students uploaded answers too close to the time limit.

The entire time while taking each question on the exam, students were exposed to a countdown timer on their screen which looked like this:


At the 5:00 minute warning, the time turned red.  The following is a screen shot from the College Board’s demo video which zoomed in on the timer.  The actual font size did NOT change from the original size in the image above.


The narrator in the demo video stated the following:

The timer will turn red when you have 5 minutes left.  That’s when you should wrap up your work and start submitting your response.  Once that timer hits zero, you will automatically be moved to the next question.

This is important!  You can get partial credit for a partial answer but you will not get any credit if you submit nothing.

Note that the narrator does NOT say “That’s when you should STOP WORK IMMEDIATELY and upload your answer” similar to a “Pencils Down!” warning at the end of a proctored in-person exam.

One should not blame students for continuing to work a bit longer given these instructions.  I heard reports from one of my students who uploaded successfully with 3 minutes left on the timer.  Students who went beyond that time point may have encountered increasing difficulties as the system bogged down.  This might vary depending upon the number of exam takers on each AP exam.

In fact, students told me that there is a Practice demo that they did try in advance of the actual test.

Undoubtedly, because there was not a load on the system when they tried the demo, they found that the upload went quickly and were lulled into thinking that it would be similar on exam day.  That might be naive on their part, but considering that these students were taking a high-stakes abbreviated exam with a countdown timer staring them in the face the entire time, it is easy to understand their motivation to try to gamble at the end.  Of course the College Board can say that they were warned as in the block quote above.

Note that students in other time zones not only had to contend with the above problem but also the following:

The unique security protocols that are required for this year’s online exams require all students worldwide to test at the same time. Students should look for their time zone in the table below or use this tool to see world time zones. AP students whose exam time falls between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. in their local time zone can read about nighttime testing.

In another help file entitled Tips to Avoid Problems on Exam Day, the following section appears:


Note the text “We strongly advise you not to wait until the last minute to attach your responses.

Yes, students, “You were warned!”

But note once again the imprecision of the warning!  Why did the system not tell them on screen to STOP WORK NOW AND UPLOAD IMMEDIATELY OR YOU RISK LOSING ALL CREDIT FOR THIS PROBLEM. ???

Why didn’t the College Board (which gets around $3 billion a year in revenue – it is not a fly-by-night startup with no resources), after initial reports of problems last week, add more server and network bandwidth capacity??

UPDATE at 10:25 AM Pacific Time on 17 May 2020: The College Board is implementing an e-mail fix starting Monday.  Please scroll down to the Comments section below for details.


This is an example of what happens when the American public education system is turned into a high-stakes testing system like the Chinese gaokao and other similar national tests in Asia.

Our country made tremendous advances after World War II in educating our citizens, and during that time we put a man on the Moon, began the computer revolution and the Internet; U.S. scientists won numerous Nobel Prizes, and we led the world in R&D and patent applications.

Now we deal with school shootings across the U.S. and “S”eptember was our local Suicide Prevention month in the SMUHSD.

I have written several articles about how bad this system is:

Critical Warnings re AP Classes

AP Exam Questions on Chapter Tests?!?

It’s AP ex(sc)am time again!

Taking the Fight to Harvard

Attention SMUHSD Parents! State Mandated Testing Negatively Impacts Aragon’s Physics Program

“Mutual Assured Destruction”

Why U.S. Schools Should Not Be Like Shanghai!

Raising our Children – American Society Reflects our Values and Choices

Will “Online Learning” Work?

How to Interest Kids in Science, Engineering, and Math

Unfortunately our local high school district and others around the country continue to think that AP is a “high quality curriculum,” when in fact its main purpose is to be purposely difficult and trap-filled to spread out the scoring curve.  It fulfills that mission admirably, but this does not mean that AP is an effective learning program.  There is no denying that many people think that AP is an essential route to college.  However private schools are increasingly dropping this system, and we should too.

Please don’t forget that poor countries with large populations had no choice but to ration positions in their colleges, and this is a prime rationale for their national exam systems.  I was a Peace Corps teacher in such a country and saw first hand how it worked.  Top students identified by the exams were whisked off to elite technical schools while the vast majority were totally confused in school and went on to manual labor jobs.  Is that what we want for our country?

In the United States, the College Board thrives mainly because of our tendency to think that “all children are above average,” to quote from A Prairie Home Companion, and want to go to Harvard.  Positions at Harvard and other elite schools clearly are a limited resource, but we should not be basing our high school curriculum solely on the needs of the approximately 2000 students who will enter Harvard’s freshman class each year!

In the process of determining who these elite students are, we overwhelm too many students who actually are above average, but do not make it into this elite group.  There is absolutely no need to expose those students to the overloaded curriculum and trap-filled test questions that characterize the AP system, and I believe that it actually does them harm in terms of damaging their interest in science and mathematics.  I’ve been trying to combat this problem with my own tutoring students for the past 8 years.


The SMUHSD is highly skilled at ignoring my lone voice.  I have written over 100 articles on this blog and spoken with district Superintendents and the Board on many occasions, but I can not do this alone.

Parents, it is up to you.  They WILL listen if enough of you speak up!  Unfortunately, the few people who ever take the time to attend Board meetings are usually advocates for only the top students.

If you do not band together and take action, your high school students will continue to run on this hamster wheel; they will continue to have stress issues and sleep deprivation (and possibly worse), especially during junior year.  The College Board will continue to rake in billions despite snafus like the above.  And finally, test prep companies and private tutors like myself, will continue to have thriving businesses which shut out poor students from a chance for advancement.

President Lyndon Johnson, who began his career as a teacher in a poor, largely Hispanic public school near the Rio Grande in south Texas, once said of American public education that it is “the only valid passport from poverty.”  The U.S. has always thought of itself as the land of opportunity where a hardworking person could not only dream but actually rise to the top.

Can a talented person who is not born into a wealthy family still advance in this country?  This door too will rapidly close if we do nothing.



Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

9 thoughts on “UPDATE on AP Exam Uploading Issues”

  1. I’m working in a high school in San Francisco where 51% of the students are eligible for free Lunch. Free breakfast are available for all students. The minority enrollment is 97% of the student body. Some students are thriving in AP classes and it provided a boost for them when they enrolled in city college. Without those classes, it would be difficult for them to transfer in a 4 years college after their 2 years at City college. And I’m not talking how would be in competition against wealthy students who have access to private tutors.


    1. Anne, thanks for your insight, but I have further questions about your comments above.

      I typically see *privileged* students *with tutors* who have trouble digesting the material in the AP curriculum, given the “trying to drink from a fire hose” rate at which the curriculum is spewed at them. However, my objections “stem” 😉 from my experiences with the AP science and math classes which is my area of expertise. I have heard some other teachers claim that the English and history AP classes may be better, but that is not my subject area.

      What AP classes are your students typically taking? I will mention, as an aside, that the AP U.S. History class at our local high school assigns so much reading and writing that I have seen many students taking that class negatively impact their GPA in other classes due to sleep deprivation. Thus even in this non-science subject area, I have reservations about the AP system.

      Secondly, your last sentence above is a little unclear. There is no doubt in my mind that wealthy students who can afford private tutors have a distinct advantage over students who can not. AP science and math classes move so quickly that classroom time is usually not sufficient to grasp all of the numerous subject nuances that will appear on the exam. This is completely antithetical to the idea of public education which was designed to give everyone a chance to succeed based on their merit, not their birth, as idealistic as that sounds. Would you please clarify your final sentence? I don’t think that you are disagreeing with me, but I am not sure.

      I am sure well-off parents, after reading my previous paragraph, will probably be thinking to themselves that this guy must be some kind of communist leveler who wants to boost poor students at the expense of “hard working” students who are unjustly penalized simply for being born into better-off families. That also misses my point. I don’t want to repeat here what I have written at length in my articles referenced above, but will briefly mention that the AP curriculum goes completely overboard at the high school level in their attempt to sort students for college admissions. They do this by including an excessive amount of complicated material – too much for the high school level – and then create exam questions with all kinds of traps. This is very stressful and does not lead to great educational outcomes for a lot of students, but it does create a path for wealthy, educated (and vocal) parents to get their kids into the better colleges. This is why it continues to be supported.

      I can easily see an alternative curriculum that teachers develop on their own, where they attempt to stimulate their students’ interest in a subject *and challenge them* without resorting to the demands of the AP curriculum.

      *** I know this is possible because this is the way schools were in California BEFORE the AP curriculum took over. *** I went to those public schools, received a great education, and had a very interesting career in science and industry which you can read about at http://www.kristutoring.com/bio.html.

      My local high school superintendent always tells me that new teachers would not be able to develop a curriculum as good as the AP curriculum, but “new teachers” DO NOT TEACH AP classes in most schools! They are usually taught by veteran teachers.

      In my opinion, if our veteran teachers are not capable of developing more interesting and challenging lesson plans (but not ones that overwhelm students mainly for the sake of spreading out the college admissions curve), then that would be a major failure of our school and teacher training systems. If veteran teachers just have to have the AP curriculum and exams spoon fed to them instead of doing their own lesson planning work, then the quality of our veteran teaching staff in this state has taken a tremendous hit since the 1960s. While everyone always knows a few older teachers who are coasting towards retirement, I do not think that this is true of teachers in general, and would find an attitude that our teaching staff lacks the ability to develop a quality curriculum suitable for their own classes to be **highly insulting.**

      Finally, I can understand that the AP classes would be looked upon favorably in your students’ admission to college in general since they are deemed as “more rigorous” by many admissions departments. However, you almost seem to be implying that a good record at City College would not suffice without high school AP classes on their record as well. Would you please clarify this point? Why wouldn’t an excellent record at City College count for much more than high school classes?? Your assertion seems to cast doubt on that institution’s instructional quality, if true. I personally know a couple of excellent math teachers who have worked there, but I claim no detailed knowledge of that college. I have heard from my friends that City College is definitely a way up for many economically disadvantaged students in the area. You seem to be casting doubt on that proposition except for students who took AP classes in high school?

      Thanks in advance for clarifying the points above.


      1. I’m teaching the 2 AP Computer Science classes, AP CS A and AP CS Principles in SFUSD. I teach also an intro class in CS in SMUHSD. I agree with you that AP tests are not the best format for testing high school students on their knowledge, especially when it costs $94 per test and teachers and students (for certain APs, not CS) have to rushed to finish the curriculum. What I like about having a test at the end of the year, is that it keeps the students motivated. No more senioritis for those students. I agree that having a final test at the end of the year detached from the College Board could be a solution. What I am afraid of is, if colleges don’t require AP tests anymore, districts might cancel AP classes since it costs more than other classes. In SFUSD, AP teachers are allowed to have an AP Prep time period for each class. So instead of teaching 5 classes, they only teach 4 classes, because of the 2 prep period time. Because of budget constraint, those classes will not be offered anymore. Only in wealthy district, those advance classes will be offered. Again, in term of equity, students from wealthy district will have an advantage, compared to others.

        About your question: “However, you almost seem to be implying that a good record at City College would not suffice without high school AP classes on their record as well. Would you please clarify this point? Why wouldn’t an excellent record at City College count for much more than high school classes?”

        In case of AP classes will be dropped by some school districts, more students enrolled in City College will have a tougher time to get a good record since they didn’t get the AP High school’s experience.

        – On a personal note, I remember that my oldest told me that he regretted he didn’t take AP Biology in high school. He would have been so much more prepared for his first biology college class.-

        I understand it’s an hypothetical discussion, and for now AP classes are still available, the format is not the best one but at least those advance classes are available for students who can handle it. Districts are required to serve all students, some with disabilities but also some who need challenges.


  2. The following was just posted by Hilary Coral in response to my earlier article on this same topic:

    Good news! Looks like emailing if you get an upload error message is now an option. Message from the College Board today:

    Submitting Exam Responses

    Beginning Monday, May 18, and continuing through the makeup window, if your student is unable to upload their response due to a technical disruption, they’ll be able to email it to us immediately following the conclusion of their browser-based exam. If this happens during their exam, they will follow instructions on how to email their response on the page that says, “We Did Not Receive Your Response.” The email address that appears on this page will be unique to each student.


    1. Too little, too late… BTW, it doesn’t apply for World language Tests.

      Would have been perfect for students who took the Computer Science test, last Friday afternoon:

      Got 2 of my students who couldn’t submit the second problem of AP computer science A, since the button didn’t work at all. It was not an isolated issue: https://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2020/05/15/the-college-board-covid-era-ap-exam-another-botch-job/
      One who is a smart cookie, opened a new tab and relogged in the exam and submitted it. The problem is that his first tab was saying it didn’t go through and the second said the opposite. Yesterday, he had 48h to decide if he wants a retake or not. If he decides for a retake, it will nullify his possible complete first exam. He has no way to get the info if the second submit went through or not. As a teacher, I sent an email to the regional director of the college board explaining the situation and asking for information, and his response was “how only 1% of the students had a glitch because of an old version of the browser or because of connectivity, which was not the case for my students. He added that he couldn’t get the info for my student.
      What I don’t understand, is why there is not way for each student to be able to see what they submitted and when they did it. At least having a possibility to have a blurry image of what they submitted/uploaded and the time stamped associated with it. This is not difficult to provide this type of functionality for the College Board. The College Board didn’t want to cancel the tests for monetary reason, but for $94, they could at least provide a good customer support for the students.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good news! Looks like emailing if you get an upload error message is now an option.

    Message from the College Board today:

    Submitting Exam Responses
    Beginning Monday, May 18, and continuing through the makeup window, if your student is unable to upload their response due to a technical disruption, they’ll be able to email it to us immediately following the conclusion of their browser-based exam. If this happens during their exam, they will follow instructions on how to email their response on the page that says, “We Did Not Receive Your Response.” The email address that appears on this page will be unique to each student.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My article above was featured today on Diane Ravitch’s education blog at


    Diane Ravitch is a professor of education history at NYU, former Assistant Secretary of Education in the George H. W. Bush administration, and the author of books against the “education reform” and standardized testing movement such as “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” “The Reign of Error,” and “Slaying Goliath.”

    The following comment was also posted there by “LisaM” and mentions other costs of the AP program to school districts. Readers will note that she is pretty passionate in her opposition to the program 😉, but this also reveals how deeply embedded the College Board has become in the American education and college admission system:

    “AMEN!!!! Could this be posted in every online newspaper please. And let’s talk public school budgets and how the epidemic is causing money issues. All these parents think that that the AP courses in HS are free. They are NOT free. The AP curriculum is PURCHASED from the College Board using education TAX DOLLARS. Teachers must be “trained” to teach each course which also costs money. The more AP classes offered in a school system, the more tax payer money is used to purchase the “product”. If school systems wish to cut costs, AP is the perfect cost saving method. Sorry, but I will never think highly of the tests (even though I have a child who scored very well on them because she wanted to take them), or the curriculum. The whole scheme of it is to make money for the College Board by setting up cut throat competition among children (via their helicopter parents). Let ALL the children learn by providing well rounded curriculum written by teachers and scrap the bunk of AP.”


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