The 2020 Online AP Exam Glitch: We continue to miss the human connection

By Evann McDowell

Twenty thousand. That is 10 times the size of an average public high school in California. That is almost 20 times the size of every NFL team’s rosters combined. That number represents the number of students the College Board said were unable to submit their Advanced Placement (AP) exams during the first week of the inaugural on-line exam period. AP exams are tests taken at the end of a yearlong high school class. They are not provided by a school or district, but instead by a national organization called the College Board. The AP courses and tests are very challenging but if a student passes the test, they can get college credit. The stakes are high, the payoff is big, and the stress is real.

Submission issues online began on day one — Monday — during the calculus exam, and the troubles were all over the internet by Tuesday. Yet, it took the College Board until the second week of testing to decide to create an email option. Further, students who tried to call for answers waited on hold for hours only to be even more disappointed when nobody picked up and an automated voice told them to email their inquiries instead. 

To add on to that, when students followed that direction to email the College Board, they received another auto reply stating, “Your inquiry will be responded to in seven working days.” Firsthand experience showed that no reply ever came. The anger from the thousands of people who were unfairly treated caused them to collectively sue the College Board for over $500 million for misrepresenting the process.

It was a technology glitch. Frustrated students, families, and dedicated AP teachers immediately called out the AP Board on social media by signing a petition demanding the acceptance of un-submitted tests because the malfunction in the system clearly was not their fault.  As a result, the AP Board responded by stating that you could be “eligible” to retake the test in 3 weeks, not a guarantee and some might even lose the opportunity completely. 

The College Board did not respond well publically either. The College Board wrote on Twitter, “Given the wide variety of devices, browsers, and versions students are using, we anticipated that a small percentage of students would encounter technical difficulties likely due to outdated browsers or poor systems.” Reading closely, the word “anticipated” brings significant frustration to all educators and students involved in the AP process. Not only was the blame placed upon the students and their systems but the Board predicted the problem, underestimated it, and didn’t seem to care enough to investigate other entities that may have had some experience to help identify a back-up plan, clearly ignoring the humans behind the submissions. The AP Board was lost behind technology. How does that make the humans feel after they have just faced a screen stating that their exam and hard work was for nothing?

Although very relevant during COVID-19, online testing is not brand new. The AP Board was not the first organization to offer an online test. Despite this, their lack of a back-up plan for their technology as well as their incredibly slow response in making a back-up plan once the cries for help from the humans involved was unbelievable and arrogant. Problems with the online tests and the resulting outcry on social media occurred on day 1 of testing yet it took the AP Board a week to provide an “email alternative.” 

The email alternative was for students to email their AP response to the college board in case the regular online submission failed again. It takes less than 5 minutes to create a secure email and provide it to students, yet the AP Board allowed thousands of students who took tests the first week to face a predicted glitch with no response. 

Students were stressed all week prior to and during the test, worrying that their test may not submit as the information became viral that the possibility was looming. Why? Because the humans were forgotten. Rather than “how do we deal with the tests and the submission”, it should be, “how do we think about the students involved and what their needs might be.” 

Human connection… What does that mean? It means that the involvement of people’s minds and emotions better a project. It means that maximum effort was put in by a human being. It means success was based more on a person than the technology. Forgetting that technology is no smarter than a person and can only accomplish a small range of tasks will lead to an overconfidence in it.

Humans are too reliant on technology, and believe it is our world’s version of Superman. When a person wants something done, they call for technology to swoop in and do it for them without putting in very much thought. Glitches and problems come about because of the lack of human thought. For example, in 2017, American Airlines found it didn’t have pilots for about 15,000 flights due to a software glitch and in 2015, New York Stock exchange trading was suspended because of a software update gone wrong. Just like Superman, technology has its kryptonite — linear thinking. Without humans, technology cannot adapt, set up backup plans, and think creatively or outside the box. 

The College Board defended themselves by praising their own innovation. First, the College Board said 91% of students taking the exam were in favor of the new online AP testing system while only 1% encountered a problem. They also patted themselves on the back when they developed the back-up plan for the students taking the exam the second week. 

“To protect the security and validity of exams, we’re unable to accept submissions from students who tested May 11-15. However, these students can feel confident that the email option will be in place for them during the makeup exams,” The College Board said in an email. 

1% of 2.2 million is 22,000. Even though 1% sounds like a small amount, it is not when you think about that number in terms of people. That 1% also felt very wrong to the students involved given what was happening around them.  The College Board was asked many times to provide an exact number and they stuck with that 1%. After investigation, it seems that a more accurate representation of that number would be to add a zero at the end of it. 

A survey was sent to all Culver City High School’s AP teachers from tests occurring the first week, asking them to kindly provide the number of students in their classes who had submission glitches. The percent ranged from 3 – 11%. Data was also collected to validate and compare to CCHS from a large high school in the South Bay and the number was a little over 8%. Again, hiding behind an estimated percentage rather than thinking about the students allowed the College Board to dismiss it initially and not respond faster. No one believes that submission problems should have been 0%.  Everyone understands that the epidemic hit organizations hard, they had limited time, and mistakes happen especially when technology is the main source of the solution. What no one can understand is why the College Board didn’t create sufficient backup plans when they clearly could have. 

The College Board was over-reliant on their technology, did not think at all about the humans in the process, and provided no connection to touch the minds and hearts of those involved on both sides of the system. Now, more than ever, human connection should be at the forefront of interactions whether virtual or not.

Evann McDowell will be a junior at Culver City High School in the fall, and is a writer for the school newspaper.