More on 2020 AP Exams (and whether to take them)

UPDATE (April 15, 2020):

The College Board is anticipating the inevitable problems that will accompany in-home online AP Exams this spring: “Students can test in either May or June, but we’re strongly encouraging May test dates. Students are allowed to test in June, but should understand that if they encounter a problem on exam day, they won’t have additional opportunities to test.”

Read this chemistry teacher’s compelling case for not taking the AP Chemistry Exam—or other AP Exams—this spring.)

Harvard has announced in a special message for current high-school juniors that they will not be disadvantaged if they do not submit AP Exam scores when applying to Harvard this fall.


The College Board has just released its much-anticipated April 3rd update with details about this spring’s AP Exams.  (More information is forthcoming in a few weeks: “We will share details about how students will access exams, complete tasks, and submit responses by late April.”)

As we already knew, “this year’s AP Exams will be open book/open note. However, students may not consult with any other individuals during the testing period.”  It will be interesting to see whether and how the College Board is able to enforce the prohibition on consulting with other individuals.

The FAQs page explains what “open-book, open-note” means:

Students may access class notes and class resources to reference concepts covered during their course. We strongly advise students to organize their materials prior to the AP Exam so they do not waste exam time searching for information or incorporating misinformation.

Students are not permitted to incorporate work which is not their own and students are not permitted to provide or receive aid in any kind from anyone, in-person, online or mobile. During the exam, students may not:

  • Communicate with any other person during the exam through any means, including online, in-person, by mobile or other device
  • Crowdsource support from group messages, online forums or social media
  • Incorporate the work of another person or technological service into their own exam response, including language translation

The following notes, resources, and tools are permitted for the 2020 AP Exams:

  • Class notes created by the student
  • Classroom resources provided by the teacher
  • Previous assignments or assessments returned by the teacher
  • Calculators for certain exams (see specific exam information for details)

We understand these resources and tools may be digital, and students are welcome to store and access these notes in the following places:

  • Personal or school email
  • Digital classroom site
  • Online storage accessible only by the student

As announced previously, each exam will be only 45 minutes long (instead of the customary 2-4 hours).

The main news today concerns the format of each specific AP Exam.  Each 45-minute exam will consist of either one or two questions.  For example:

  • English Language, English Literature: one 45-minute question.
  • Comparative Government and Politics: 25 minutes for the first question, 15 minutes for the second question
  • European History: one 45-minute question
  • Human Geography: 25 minutes for the first question, 15 minutes for the second question
  • US History: one 45-minute question
  • World History: one 45-minute question
  • Calculus: 25 minutes for the first question, 15 minutes for the second question
  • Computer Science A: 25 minutes for the first question, 15 minutes for the second question
  • Statistics: 25 minutes for the first question, 15 minutes for the second question
  • Biology, Chemistry, Physics: 25 minutes for the first question, 15 minutes for the second question

Students are being given 5 minutes to upload their answers to each question.

AP Exams will be given from May 11 to May 22, with make-up testing from June 1 to June 5.  “In late April, we’ll provide AP students and educators with information on how to access the testing system on test day, and video demonstrations so that students can familiarize themselves with the system.”

Here, the College Board indicates that scoring will be on the usual 1-5 scale, and rather optimistically and vaguely proclaims, “We’re confident that the vast majority of higher education institutions will award credit and/or placement as they have in the past. We’ve spoken with hundreds of institutions across the country who support our solution for this year’s AP Exams.”  In other words, there is no guarantee that colleges will award credit for strong scores on this year’s AP Exams.  Don’t be surprised if the college you end up attending chooses not to give you college credit for your 2020 AP Exams.

The College Board has provided additional details on the issue of exam security.  For example, “Each subject’s exam will be taken on the same day at the same time, worldwide.”  This means that some students will be forced to take the exams at odd or suboptimal times.

Presumably, the free-response questions will focus on analysis and synthesis of material: “The exam format and questions are being designed specifically for an at-home administration, so points will not be earned from content that can be found in textbooks or online.”

The College Board has not committed (and realistically cannot commit) to creating a truly level playing field for all students taking the AP Exams.  It is admirably striving to help students who lack computers and wifi acquire devices and connectivity, but it will be impossible to give all those students what they need.  And it has not yet offered specifics about accommodations: “Students will be able to take online AP Exams with College Board–approved accommodations such as extended time. Details will be available soon.”

I am deeply dismayed that the College Board continues to tout the ability of students to use their PHONES to take the AP Exams this spring—as if the students who are forced to use their phones because they lack computers and/or wifi will be able to use their 45 minutes of test-taking time as productively as students who are seated comfortably at their computers with reliable wifi.  The latter group of privileged students are already less burdened than their lower-income counterparts, who have less access right now to online AP classes and study materials (and bear heavier day-to-day burdens in the form of caregiving responsibilities, food insecurity, and the specter of eviction).

For most students, from a social-justice and equity standpoint, as well as from a pragmatic standpoint, it will make more sense to skip (or “boycott,” if you will) this year’s AP Exams than to take them. 

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