Maria Almaraz is no stranger to Advanced Placement exams.
The Zephyrhills High School senior took the English language and composition test a year ago. This spring, she’s got English literature and U.S. government on tap.
But even though she feels comfortable with the content, Almaraz admits to being “kind of scared” about how this year’s tests will go. So many things about them are new, and each could affect her chances to earn a score good enough to net college credits.
To accommodate for school closures due to COVID-19, the College Board is offering the exams at home on computers. It shortened the tests to 45 minutes, from the usual three to four hours, eliminated the multiple choice section and focused on one or two essay questions.
And it allowed students to use their notes and books, if they want, while answering.
Each one of those changes carries angst for Almaraz, who aspires to become an accountant.
With school closed, she’s practicing sample problems provided by her teacher, but she much prefers a class where she could ask questions. Given the shorter test time, she’s trying to figure out whether she’s faster writing by hand or typing on the computer.
Then there’s the issue of testing at home.
“At school when we did it last year, we were in a big gym room where we can concentrate,” she said. “I have a baby brother. I don’t know if I should go outside. I’m going to be stressed out. I’m going to find a spot where my brother doesn’t come in.”
Testing environment is one of several factors that prompted groups such as the National Association for College Admission Counseling to raise cautionary flags about using the results. They have suggested that low-income, first-generation college applicants stand to be harmed even more than others, contending educational equity and fairness could be jeopardized.
Area AP teachers have acknowledged this possibility.
“I can’t imagine having to take a crunched (essay) test, with all of the ramifications based on it, in such a short period of time in that environment,” said Osceola Fundamental High history teacher Brian Yarbrough.
In previous years, “it was just the kid, the test, the people watching and we’re good. It was as fair as humanly possible," he said. "With this new one there’s the X factor.”
Still, he said, educators are doing what they can to get students ready. And across Florida, that’s thousands of teens.
Over recent years, the state has had among the highest AP participation rates in the nation. In May 2019, for example, Florida public and private high school students took a total of 215,120 AP exams that resulted in scores of 3, 4, or 5, according to state data.
In history classes, Yarbrough said, the types of questions this year are expected to be similar to those everyone prepared for before schools closed. The main change comes in scoring.
So he’s provided his classes study sheets based on the AP curriculum guide. Anything they don’t recognize, they should hit the books, he said, so if they see it on the test they won’t have to waste time looking it up.
Because even though students are allowed to use their notes and books, doing so would only eat into their 45 minutes, noted Zephyrhills High physics teacher Phil Ellis. He, like others, has advised against relying on outside materials once the test begins.
Besides, he added, the way the questions are being described, only knowing basic facts won’t be adequate.
“It’s not about, can you do the operation? It’s about, why did you do it?” said Ellis, whose class review adheres to the College Board’s YouTube lesson schedule. “It’s testing them on their fundamental understanding of the material.”
AP senior vice president Trevor Packer made that clear in a recent webinar. Saying using notes would only slow students, Packer advised that the questions will require students to apply their knowledge, not just recite it.
That’s why Strawberry Crest High senior Ali Bangash said he’s spending most of his study time going over his textbooks and taking notes, so he can refine his knowledge base.
He’s taking four AP tests this year. And though he argued the truncated exams can’t fully show all he’s learned, the future University of South Florida engineering student said he still wanted to take them — just to finish the year, and for the college credits.
Officials at USF, as well as the University of Florida and Florida State University, said the schools will continue to provide credit for AP results as in the past.
Bangash said he had heard that some students were looking for “loopholes” to help them answer questions and game the at-home system. He wanted no part of that, and said he’s studying on his own and isn’t worried that the changes might affect the outcome.
“Forty-five minutes, I think it’s enough to do the test,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that much of a constraint.”
Pinellas Park High junior Andre Benoit, who faces three exams, said he found the shift a bit unnerving.
“We practiced so long for the specific way it was supposed to be done,” said Benoit, who attends his school’s criminal justice academy.
For him, comfort with the new format is key. That means doing more sample questions, much more than studying content.
“It allows me to understand what I’ll be getting when I log into the test,” he said.
College Board plans to open a website for students to practice using the platform.
Like others, Benoit didn’t plan to do much with his book and notes during the exam. He didn’t figure they’d be much help.
“I’m thinking it’s going to be more about applying information, and how we’re able to explain and clarify,” he said. “I don’t think I could feel much better.”
Shruti Patel, a senior at Mitchell High in Trinity, had some jitters despite being an accomplished AP test taker. She’s taken 12 already, and will take eight this month.
Perhaps it’s because she’s such an AP veteran that the new model is throwing her for a loop.
Patel, who plans to study nutritional science at the University of Florida, said the elimination of multiple choice questions bothered her. They’ve boosted her scores in the past.
“It kind of makes us unsure what’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s changed the way that I’ve been preparing.”
And it’s not just how she’s studying that has changed, but also what she’s looking at.
Gone are test prep books and content reviews. In their place are closer attention to concepts and a reliance on the AP online classroom, which includes YouTube lessons and timed essay questions.
Like Almaraz, Patel is trying to figure out whether to type or hand-write the tests. She figures the math and science will get done by hand, with the humanities courses being typed.
But the technology issues have her spooked.
“What if my laptop doesn’t work? What if it doesn’t send?” she said. “That’s the thing that’s scaring me the most.”
College Board spokesman Zach Goldberg said if students face a temporary computer problem and can quickly rejoin the test, they should do so. If at the end they feel the disruption affected them too negatively, they can request a June makeup.
And though she doesn’t worry about getting interrupted at home, Patel still sees the shift as meaningful. At school, she said, you test with everyone you’ve studied with all year.
“It’s like we’re all in this together,” she said.
That’s now gone. But she, like the other students and teachers, acknowledged the options are limited.
“I am happy they are at least giving it a shot, even if it fails," Yarbrough, the Osceola Fundamental teacher, said of the College Board. “To not try is just not fair.”
AP exams begin May 11 and run through May 22.