Swisher’s test is AP Calculus AB on Tuesday. Shapiro’s is AP U.S. History on Friday. Like most people, they are living with family members who might disturb their concentration. Each exam will be live on their screens for only 45 precious minutes. What to do?
Swisher worries about bandwidth strain. His brothers Michael and Noah have returned home because of the coronavirus, joining him and their parents, Jennie and Anthony, in competition for screen time.
“Our WiFi can get super slow when all five of us are on it, especially if we are streaming,” Swisher said.
He plans to negotiate a compromise. “One of my older brothers is currently taking online classes for his university, so I give him the same courtesy when he takes his tests,” he said.
Shapiro envisions what her mother and younger sister Taylor can do when she dives deep into questions about the arc of the American experience in the first-floor sunroom of their three-story brick house. It will be an excellent time, she thinks, for them to take a long walk with the family dog, a black poodle mix named Adele, and maybe then sit in the patio until she’s done.
“I will definitely need to put my phone all the way upstairs so that I don’t get distracted,” Shapiro said. “My phone is for sure my biggest distraction, especially during online school.”
The nerve-jangling drama of the AP exams may bring some excitement to the slow crawl of long days stranded at home. AP has the country’s most-taken tests, 2.8 million participants last year compared with 2.2 million for the SAT and 1.8 million for the ACT. AP’s competition in the college-level course field, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge International, canceled their 2020 exams.
Previous AP exams were four times as long as this year’s 45-minute online version. State systems such as the University of California and private schools from the University of Southern California to Yale University have agreed to give college credit based on test results. They have accepted good scores on similar shortened AP exams in the past when something went wrong with the regular exam. Students should be ready for their next-level college courses. Long term, Swisher is interested in sports medicine and Shapiro in nursing.
The test is open book. All questions will be free response. No important answers can be Googled in the time allotted. Students will be given scenarios or documents that must be analyzed with whatever they already know. The College Board is spending much on cheating detection and has added a new safeguard. Independent experts will as usual grade the test, but for the first time teachers will receive copies of what their students wrote. They can raise an alarm if their least scholarly pupils suddenly sound like George F. Will.
The College Board has stoked excitement with celebrity YouTube lecturers. You can watch Obama White House adviser Valerie Jarrett on AP U.S. Government and Politics, former Federal Reserve chair Janet L. Yellen on AP Economics and Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda on AP U.S. History, chatting about his favorite Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton.
Trevor Packer, College Board senior vice president for AP and instruction, said based on surveys of registrants he estimates 2.4 million students will take the leap and do the home exams.
Education purists applaud the absence of multiple-choice questions on the new AP tests. But Swisher will miss them. “I was quite bummed to hear” of their demise, he said. “During the school year the multiple-choice questions seemed to help my grade significantly.”
Shapiro’s divorced parents both work at her school. Her father, Josh Shapiro, is a physical education/health teacher and varsity football coach. Her mother, Kristin Devaney, is co-director of counseling. Devaney said she is among those who want AP to stick with just free-response questions in the future. She is also proud of her daughter’s careful preparations for the test.
Her exam-taker child has decided it will be done on her MacBook Air laptop from school, atop a sturdy old coffee table she knows well.
“I am planning on sitting in a cushioned chair that’s been in our house forever,” Shapiro said.
Swisher expects to read the exam on his school MacBook, too, but write his solutions on sheets of paper. He will take pictures of them on his phone and send them in that way, something beyond this elderly flip-phone owner’s imagining before Swisher told me about it. He will sit at his Costco metal folding chair at his small desk in his room, a perfect comfort zone.
Imagine this: Two million teenagers may be working by themselves on various electronic devices for 45 minutes, often behind closed doors. What could go wrong? In Arlington and many other districts, they could have declined to take the exam with no harm to their grade. Swisher has already accepted admission to the University of Virginia.
But he and Shapiro wanted to give it a try. A College Board survey found many AP students begging for this one thrilling moment in an otherwise terrible, tedious spring. It won’t make up for the canceled proms, but veterans of the great in-home exam-taking of 2020 may have amusing stories to tell at reunions.