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K-12 Education


Students will take the Advanced Placement chemistry exam in a modified format

Decision to move forward during COVID-19 pandemic relieves some but also raises concerns about cheating

by Bethany Halford
May 7, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 18


The spines of books containing Advanced Placement exams.
Credit: Shutterstock
Advanced Placement exams will be very different this year.

The Advanced Placement (AP) chemistry exam will take place on May 14 in a dramatically different format than what has been given previously. The exam, which earns students college credit if they score well, typically lasts more than 3 h, consists of 90 multiple choice responses as well as 7 long-form written answers submitted on paper, and is taken under supervision at school.

This year, most schools are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so students will take the exam at home in an online format. The exam has been shortened to 45 min, will consist of 2 questions with long-form answers, and students can consult books and notes—but not people—during the exam. The material that the exam will cover has been truncated to account for the shortened time students were in school. All participating students will take the exam simultaneously at 6 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, potentially a hardship for students in Asia.

“We surveyed thousands of students from all over the country, and the overwhelming majority asked us not to cancel their AP opportunities,” the College Board, which administers the exam, wrote in a statement. The other AP exams will follow a similar format.

The decision irks some but comes as a relief to others.

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“We’ve already done all this work throughout the year so why not have the exam?” asks Jacob (whose last name we are not using because of college-admission concerns), a high school junior in New York. But Jacob is nervous about uncertainties, for example, will the college he attends give full credit for a shortened exam?

Adrian Dingle, an AP chemistry teacher in Indiana, says there are dozens of reasons why holding the exam is “a terrible idea,” including issues of equity, the potential for technical problems, and the fact that the exam’s changes puts students whose first language isn’t English at a disadvantage.

But what concerns Dingle most is the high potential for cheating. “The College Board has absolutely no way to control who is in the room with a student taking the exam on the exam day,” he says. “Because that’s true, by definition the whole exam is illegitimate because cheating will be rife.”

Ryan Johnson, an AP chemistry teacher in Colorado has mixed feelings. “These kids have been working really hard towards their understanding of chemistry,” he says. “I know a lot of them are excited about being able to display their skills and earn college credit.” But Johnson has concerns about tackling such challenging material in a test format that is, itself, untested.

Kristen Drury, an AP chemistry teacher in New York agrees. “They were already anxious about a regular written test that they’d seen versions of and now they have to do something that no one’s done before,” she says.

“I think that the traditional test would have been better for the students,” says Eric (we’re also not using his last name), a high school senior in Ohio, who will be taking the exam, “but this is a good adaptation under the circumstances.”


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