close up of a high school students hands writing in a notebook as he sits in front of a computer


Different AP Exam, Same College Credit

Universities reassure students that online tests will still count

Advanced Placement® Exams will look a lot different his year—but college credit policies won’t.

In a livestreamed discussion on April 9, College Board Senior Vice President of AP and Instruction Trevor Packer joined admissions leaders at Emory and Purdue Universities to reassure students that this year’s online exams will get the same consideration from colleges as traditional AP Exams. (The webinar is archived on Zoom. You can watch it by registering here.)

“We have absolute confidence in the assessment that’s being administered this year,” said Kristina Wong Davis, Purdue’s vice provost for enrollment management. “We’ll honor the credit that students earn.”

Davis emphasized that students everywhere are managing similar disruptions from the coronavirus (covid-19) pandemic, and colleges are eager to work with students on AP credit or any other concerns they have about admissions. “We want to hold all students harmless in this really uncertain situation,” she said. “We recognize what you’re faced with.”

Since the vast majority of schools have moved to remote learning for the final months of the spring semester, this year’s AP Exams will be offered as 45-minute online tests that only cover material taught up to the first week of March, when schools were still in session. Students can take the exams at home on any device they have available. Students will even have the option of writing responses by hand and uploading a cell phone image.

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Giselle Martin, director of recruitment and talent at Emory University, said students and colleges alike are adapting to new circumstances. “We are all going through this change together,” she said. “There is not a single university or learning environment that hasn’t been impacted by covid.”

Unlike the traditional three-hour exams, which feature a combination of multiple-choice and free-response sections, the online AP Exam will feature only open-ended questions. That’s partially as a security measure, and partly because the free-response questions are the most valuable in assessing how well students have mastered course content.

“This is not entirely new,” Packer said. “For decades, when students have been in emergencies, colleges have accepted streamlined AP Exams for credit. Colleges seem very confident in that.”

The online exam is designed to take the full 45 minutes to finish, so students shouldn’t panic if they don’t get all the way through. Pushing right up to the time limit is expected, and students with test accommodations will automatically be granted additional time.

“It’s more important that they do the work well rather than rushing through it,” Packer said. “These are questions students have practiced all year long. Building an argument, supporting it with evidence—things you can’t learn from Google in 45 minutes, but enduring skills that colleges will value.”

grid of four images showing, clockwise from top left, jeff selingo, giselle martin, trevor packer, and Kristina Wong Davis during the webinar selingo hosted


Jeff Selingo listens to (clockwise from top right) Giselle Martin, Trevor Packer, and Kristina Wong Davis at different points during the webinar Selingo hosted.

Beyond the exam design, the College Board is taking other precautions around test security. Students all over the world will test at the same time, guarding against any sharing of content across time zones. Software will automatically analyze student answers for plagiarism or evidence of shared work, and responses will be reviewed by each student’s AP teacher to check for consistency with their earlier efforts.

“We cannot jeopardize the fairness of this exam for the hundreds of thousands of students who will be taking it seriously,” Packer said. “We will be firm that cheating will not be tolerated. We have means to detect impersonation, cheating, or group work.”

AP planners have also made allowances for technical difficulties. While the vast majority of students should test with no trouble on the initial May test dates, there are June makeup days for any student who runs into a problem during the first test window. Packer said his team has already gamed out what will happen if a laptop battery dies or there’s an internet outage. “If a student is disrupted during the exam, we’re offering them automatic permission to test on the makeup days,” Packer said. The makeup tests will, of course, feature different questions.

The effort to make AP Exams possible in these very challenging circumstances was sparked by surveys showing more than 9 in 10 AP students wanted the opportunity to test. “DON’T cancel it,” one student wrote. “Others like myself have worked so hard for this exam.”

Purdue’s Davis said that universities will be very understanding about the challenges many families face right now, but that students need to take every opportunity to show their best work.

“We’re fully aware that there needs to be ready flexibility in all of our processes to adapt and shift,” she said. “But don’t take it as an automatic pass that you can slack off. If we can see that you continue to persevere and you continue to engage in your classes and try to maximize your opportunities to learn, that will shine through in your application.”