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:
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.