The 2020 AP exams were anything but conventional. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the College Board administered the tests online, shortened the test length to minutes, and allowed students to access notes. Although the administration of the tests was not perfect, with many students encountering technological difficulties, the open-note policy spurred meaningful discussions about the fundamental structure of AP exams.
The open-note policy has the benefit of giving students a test-taking experience that resembles a typical college-level exam. It places a stronger emphasis on skills such as writing and formulating arguments instead of information recall — something that is becoming obsolete with the proliferation of information accessible via the internet. When facts are only a few clicks away, it has become more important to know what evidence to find, where to find it, and how to utilize it instead of simply memorizing the information itself.
For instance, it might be more vital for students of an AP United States Government course to know how to navigate through govtrack.us than to memorize how many representatives in Massachusetts are from the Democratic Party.
As for test-takers of other AP social science exams, the increased importance of the writing section forces students to focus on answering the prompt in a way that best showcases their comprehension of the topic. This entails crafting a spot-on response with incisive usage of terminology. Establishing a framework that can be expanded as one acquires more knowledge is the primary aim of an introductory class, which most AP classes are. The greater emphasis on foundational skills might encourage students to think more about a subject’s way of thinking or reasoning, instead of solely the information of the subject itself.
That being said, during AP tests, the Google search trends on certain words definitely suggest that students were taking advantage of the open-note policy. For example, “acid base,” “VSEPR,” and “rate law” surged as search terms during AP Chemistry exams.The trends were anticipated by the College Board, which stated “points will not be earned from content that can be found in textbooks or online” on its website.
Although tests that depend partly on memorization seem easier when students have access to the internet, the exam still requires understanding of how to apply memorized content or easily searchable information. For example, knowing the definition of a “rate law” in AP Chemistry is distinct from being able to apply the concept in the context of a problem.
Although the College Board’s open-note policy was not a product of discussions about shifting the tests away from information recall, it has still sparked critical discussion about the way students should learn.