ENID, Okla. — Anything tends to distract Reagan McDaniel.
But for her first time taking the College Board’s Advanced Placement exams later this month, Reagan is determined to not check TikTok or Snapchat.
That, and her mom will have her phone until Reagan finishes taking them from her bedroom.
A junior at Enid High School, Reagan has been preparing for her U.S. history and English literature and composition exams ever since the school went into distance learning after spring break ended, leaving all of its students and teachers to continue the semester’s classes from home.
Teaching herself from home has been a challenge for Reagan, who watches virtual lectures from her teachers, pores through already-read chapters and takes whatever practice exams she can find while self-quarantining out of school for the rest of the semester at her home in Enid.
“It’s been a little daunting to see,” Reagan said. “That is something that has been in the back of my mind — to do this and do it well — but this is going to be a lot harder.”
Plenty of firsts
Beginning May 11, Reagan and 214 other EHS students — as well as students worldwide — will take their AP exams online, a first since the exams began in 1955 as a method for high school students to earn college credit. Through May 22, each test will be released at the same local time in different time zones, Central Standard Time’s starting at 11 a.m.
In more firsts, this year’s exams will be open-note and each last a total 45 minutes, and make-up tests will be offered the first week of June.
At Enid High, students will take a combined 318 exams from the school’s 19 offered AP courses (EHS will offer computer science next year, bringing the total to 20). Seventy-nine of those 215 students will take between two- to five-course exams, said EHS testing coordinator Denise Lavoie.
Students will be able to take the tests on whatever device they can access (computer, tablet or smartphone) and be able to either type and upload their responses or write responses by hand and submit a photo via their cellphone, according to the College Board. Students at Enid High are encouraged to use their school-provided Google Chromebook, Principal Dudley Darrow said.
AP exams are scored from 1 to 5, with scores 3 and above what most colleges require for incoming freshmen to receive credits, potentially saving them thousands of dollars of tuition costs. Computers score the multiple-choice portions, while trained readers score the essay and the shorter, free-response question sections that vary with the course.
Courses range from standard academic fare such as English literature and language, U.S. history and chemistry, to more elective courses like psychology, 2-D art and design and music theory. Each exam has lasted upwards of three hours, with no notes available for students to use in an “open-book” policy.
In previous years, the AP U.S. history exam would take three hours and 15 minutes, comprised of two sections. The first included 55 multiple-choice questions and three short answers. The second included a document-based essay prompt, with seven related primary sources that must be used; and a second essay response to one of three prompts. Over half a million students worldwide took the exam in 2018, according to College Board, and just over 51% scored a 3 or higher.
But this year, the same exam will be comprised of one document-based question that students will have 45 minutes to read and respond to, then five minutes to upload their responses.
‘Why I love AP’
The AP courses with the highest enrollment at EHS are English literature and composition, with 64 total students, followed by human geography, at 38, and psychology, at 36, according to figures provided by Lavoie. Most courses are taught at the high school’s University Center. Two courses, calculus BC and physics C mechanics, are taught at Autry Technology Center. Physics 2 also is offered, but Lavoie said no one enrolled this year.
Mostly juniors take the English literature course, taught in three sections by Andrea Semrad-Gober. Semrad-Gober teaches eight books each school year, from classics like “Of Mice and Men” to more contemporary canon like “The Kite Runner.” After every book or unit, students complete a work status sheet and then test on it similarly to AP exams.
Each day in class, after a “bell work” assignment written on the smart board, her students would recap the day before, usually with posted sticky notes answering a question, alternate daily between grammar and writing lessons, and then read together. Fridays wouldn’t have bell work, but students would get colored pencils to annotate poems for literary devices such as connotations, symbols and terms.
“And that’s why I love AP lit, because they’re reading in groups, in pairs, as a class,” said Semrad-Gober, who has taught at EHS for 12 years.
Now with distance learning each week, all Enid Public Schools teachers submit assignments to the department heads (Semrad-Gober is English’s head) with generic titles such as “To test or not to test‚ that is the question.” An EHS newsletter is sent to families at 4 p.m. Sunday.
Semrad-Gober’s own assignments then go out to students Monday morning on Google Classroom with more specific instructions. She then spends several mornings each week with her students in book review sessions, discussions and presentations, done entirely on the virtual conference app Zoom for the rest of the semester.
For a recent assignment for “The Kite Runner,” in which the pomegranate is an important symbol, one student took a sheet of notebook paper, made it red and crumpled it up, making their own pomegranate. Before the pandemic, it would’ve been easier to get the fruit at the grocery store, Semrad-Gober said.
“These kids, they have a drive — and thank goodness, because they are really preparing themselves for college. Your professor is going to give you an assignment, and you’ve got to read and come back with questions,” she said.
With three exams on the docket including the literature exam, senior Anthony Carranza said it’s up to each of his classmates how they prepare. Students even can decide to not “click the link” to take their exams at all.
He hasn’t bought any College Board test books or study guides this year, mostly using the College Board website as supplemental material, in addition to his class notes.
“It’s easier in this day and age to use online format to study. It’s more compatible and just more instantaneous,” he said. “I still make sure to make the time to study for the AP exams, but it’s an every-other-day thing.”
‘A building block’
Since he went into quarantine, EHS music teacher Taylor Steier has been painting the upstairs floor of his childhood home, which he moved into when he came back two years ago to teach at Enid High.
One of the other 14 AP teachers at EHS, Taylor Steier teaches one section of AP music theory with eight students, most of whom also perform in the school bands and choirs.
AP music theory was originally in the EHS curriculum for 10 years, but was cut from the budget five years ago, Steier said. Then two years ago, he was hired from Guthrie to teach the course once again, so the school could grow the AP curriculum and have more upper-level course options for students. Students who take music theory, he said, are more likely to stay with music education in college.
The course involves learning basic to more advanced musical terminology, ear-training and choral analysis. Once a week, students will be graded on sight-singing or ear-training by identifying qualities of chords on the piano — whether it’s major/minor, augmented/diminished and so on.
“Everything’s a building block, so I start from ground zero and start adding things from there,” he said.
In the AP music theory exam, on the first section, students would previously answer a multiple-choice section, a writing analysis following a bass line and then writing a figured bass part, and finally a melodic dictation on two contrasting melodies. The second and final section is the ear-training and sight-singing portion. Students are given a melody and a starting pitch, take five minutes to practice and then record it.
These combined make AP music theory “one of the harder exams,” Steier said.This year, however, everything but the sight-singing section has been eliminated. For the 45 minutes of the exam, students will sight-sing two melodies — instead of one — and will be allowed to use keyboard or phone app to play the pitches.
Steier said he doesn’t mind the changes this year, even if they were added to the general test. He at least hopes for a discussion with AP teachers and students alike across the country.
“A lot of my students, with this difficult time, they may have to be taking care of brother and sister while Mom or Dad goes to work, or they work themselves, so I think if we gave them the original test, it would be more of a punishment,” Steier said. “If you think about it — five minutes — that’s not a lot of time, and you’re still having to learn the music.”
A blessing in disguise
When Carranza takes his three tests — for environmental science, English literature and U.S. government, over two days — he will be logged onto the College Board test website in his living room, with his three younger siblings in their rooms, his dog outside and his phone off.
When he took his AP English language exam last year, Carranza had to step out because his allergies were so bad, missing valuable testing time for the sake of not embarrassing himself in front of his classmates. He said this year, he wasn’t concerned about having a repeat performance.
“So essentially for that, I’ll be good, unless something traumatic or dramatic happens,” Carranza said. “You don’t have to be that concerned about making noise with your eraser or sniffling your way through the exam, so I don’t have to worry about that happening again.”
What he said he is concerned about, however, is the possibility of his classmates cheating, despite College Board’s change to an open-book/open-note policy for the AP exams.
Along with tests beginning at the same time worldwide, College Board will use digital security tools and techniques such as plagiarism detection software. Teachers will receive copies of students’ free-response work to flag any inconsistencies with known work.
Any students whose responses violate exam security or show testing misconduct will have their scores canceled, be blocked from any further College Board exams — including future AP exams, as well as the SAT and CLEP (College Level Examination Program) assessment — and even reported to law enforcement.
A way of life
In the past, before the exam, English teacher Semrad-Gober would do a “great big breakfast” for her students, then hand them all pencils they probably already have before they leave for the testing room. Those gestures, to her, give the students a sense of community.
This year, though, there probably won’t be that solidarity — at least for her. The changes in the AP testing she sees most likely leave an impact on her fellow teachers and those of her generation.
But testing — doing anything — online has become a way of life for high schoolers.
So, come that Wednesday morning next week, Semrad-Gober will send her students one last email, wishing them luck and reminding them to check their email and open the testing link.
“I’m gonna tell them that, in writing … but I wish I could hand them a pencil.”