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After widespread glitches in online AP testing, students can now submit by email

AP test
Students at El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera take an AP U.S. government test.
(Los Angeles Times)

Alexa Macias studied for months for her Advanced Placement calculus exam — and was devastated to see her hard work negated last week when she ran into a technological glitch that prevented her from uploading her answers and completing the test.

“My stomach dropped,” said Macias, a junior at Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez High school in Boyle Heights. “I was in shock. I thought this was going to look so bad on my college applications.”

That shouldn’t happen again — or so says the College Board, which owns and administers the AP tests. As the second week of AP testing began Monday, the College Board rolled out a new safeguard allowing students to email their responses if they encounter problems submitting their test answers.

Trevor Packer, a College Board senior vice president, announced on Twitter that students who fail to submit their exams through the standard process will immediately be notified that their response was not received and will be given an email address, unique to them, to use instead.

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However, the tens of thousands of students who could not submit their responses last week are not eligible to use the safeguard retroactively in order “to protect the security and validity of exams,” Packer said.

The College Board says those students made up less than 1% of the nearly 2.2 million who took the exams, which test mastery of college-level curricula and can, with a passing score, lead to college credit. Although officials initially considered canceling the tests after the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to shut down, they scrambled to set up the first-ever online AP tests after a survey of 18,000 students showed that 91% supported taking them.

College Board officials say their systems never malfunctioned, and the problems appear to have been caused by technological problems on the students’ end. They advised students to update their browsers, disable plug-ins and make sure their devices are set up to capture JPEG files for those who want to take photos of their work and attach them to the exam.

“Though the vast majority of students were able to submit their responses successfully,” Packer wrote, “we share the deep disappointment of those who weren’t.”

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That response, however, is small comfort to Theo Detweiler, a senior at Malibu High School. Before the AP calculus test last Tuesday, he made sure his technology was updated, practiced the demo exam twice and successfully uploaded his practice work via his phone. But when he tried to do the same thing during the real test, he said, he kept getting an error message.

“I felt sabotaged,” he said. “I was upset because this was the most important test I’ll be taking ... the one I knew for sure would place me at a higher level at college.”

On Monday, he took the AP environmental science exam with no problems but remained annoyed that the email fix came too late to help him with his calculus test, which he will have to retake next month.

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“I’m glad they’re doing this, but it would have been more helpful last week,” he said.

Micah Gold, a sophomore at Harvard-Westlake School, echoed those sentiments. He was unable to submit his responses for his AP computer science exam last Friday even though his devices, including an iPhone XR and a new Lenovo computer, were all up to date. He said he is not nervous about taking a retest since computer science is one of his strengths, but added, “If you’re going to give me a test, I want a test that works.”

His mother, Stephanie Gold, was upset that the College Board had allowed the tests to go forward last week despite the problems and then, in her view, blamed students for them.

“The grown-ups leave it to the kids to take responsibility,” she said. “It’s really wrong.”

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Some critics expressed skepticism about the College Board’s report that less than 1% of students experienced problems submitting responses. Matthew Wong, a senior at Temple City High School, said his survey of 121 schoolmates who took the AP chemistry test found that 11 had technical difficulties, including him.

“Though offering email submission as a fallback for the remaining exams is a step in the right direction, it is too little too late,” Wong said in an email. “It offers no resolution for students who have taken tests in the past week, who are now forced to endure another three weeks of stress and studying until the makeup exams.”

At Mendez High School, calculus teacher Ali Bhai said 16% of his 36 students encountered problems. He said that despite the tears and trauma, exacerbated by pandemic-related worries about health and job losses, his students are resilient and already preparing for the retest.

They include Macias, who said she has gotten over last week’s mishap and is gearing up for her AP psychology test on Tuesday, relieved to know about the email safeguard if she should need it.

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“It would have been a lot better if this safety measure had been in place last week,” she said, “but since I have another test, maybe it will help.”


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