In the midst of the mandatory eight-day school closure in Minnesota — which kept students at home while their teachers prepared for a transition to distance learning — Maixee Lee, 18, found out that the four most intense exams on her docket this spring had been canceled.
They were all part of her International Baccalaureate (IB) program track at Highland Park Senior High, in St. Paul, which she’d spent the last two years preparing for.
The courses are rigorous. And a number of colleges and universities in Minnesota, and around the world, reward high IB exam scores with college placement or academic credit.
But this spring, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the IB organization canceled all spring exams for those in IB Diploma Programs, which are hosted by authorized secondary schools.
Students may still earn a full diploma, or subject-specific certificates, through an alternative assessment process. But this is uncharted territory for all involved, and students still have lots of questions — and mixed feelings — about how this will all work out in the weeks ahead.
“It feels kind of like a pity diploma,” Lee said. “It feels like a participation award, if that makes sense. You worked really hard for it, but you didn’t earn it.”
Meanwhile, high schoolers who’d planned on taking Advanced Placement exams at school — which may also be used to acquire placement or credit at participating post-secondary institutions — are now preparing to take these exams at home in May.
‘Surrounded by distractions’
The College Board, the nonprofit organization that oversees the AP program, announced an alternative exam format last week. The exams will still be timed, but students can use their notes and class materials while taking the exams, which they’ll now be taking — at no cost — on an electronic device at home.
For those lacking access to a device or internet at home, the board is partnering with various organizations to outfit students who submit a request for these resources. (The online form can be found here.)
Another key modification: This next batch of AP exams will only include material covered by most AP teachers by early March. “We know that some students have lost more class time than others, and we want to be fair to all students,” the College Board said in a coronavirus update.
These changes will impact a number of students across the state. As reported by the College Board, nearly 35 percent of Minnesota graduates in 2019 had taken an AP test during their high school career. And 23.1 percent of the graduating class of 2019 in Minnesota scored a 3 or higher on an AP exam.
Mao Chang, 18, a senior at Johnson Senior High in St. Paul, still plans to take the AP exam for his calculus class. He says his calc teacher has continued to deliver new content during his few days of distance learning — content lopped out of the modified AP exam this spring, but helpful in ensuring he won’t “lag behind” in calculus once he enrolls in college, he said.
At home, he’s adjusting his exam preparation strategy. Rather than adding new content to his review list, he’s cleaning up his notes.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said of the new open-book format for spring exams, noting the tests are still timed, so he doesn’t want to waste much time consulting his notes.
He also has mixed feelings about taking the exam at home.
“A pro is that I’m able to be under a bit less pressure,” he said, noting he can feel rushed when testing in a room with other test-takers. But he’s also anxious that he might be “too relaxed” at home, where he’s “surrounded by distractions.”
For Alexia Natal, 17, a junior at Eden Prairie High School who’s planning to take the exams in her AP comparative politics and government classes, the alternative format raises additional concerns — including access to fewer review materials and less class instruction.
“Since Eden Prairie has a block schedule, my two AP classes, we basically just started. We only had about a month together, to learn all that we’ve learned so far,” she said. “So we’re unsure what units we’re supposed to learn and what we’re not.”
She adds that she’s worried some colleges may not accept these scores. “I think everyone’s concerned about getting the credit they worked for,” she said.
‘They were looking forward to it’
Fewer Minnesota students are impacted by the cancellation of IB diploma program exams. These programs only existed at 19 secondary schools in Minnesota in 2018, according to the most recent state report on rigorous course taking.
That being said, school sites that seek IB designation go through an intensive multiyear application process, and they build an entire school culture around IB programming. Additionally, students who enroll in the IB track spend a full year, or two years, immersed in IB classes. Those seeking a full IB diploma are required to study and test in six different subject areas.
Be Vang, the principal at Harding Senior High in St. Paul, says her school operates one of the largest IB programs in the St. Paul Public Schools district. Last year, it had more than 300 students registered to take IB exams. So the cancellation of all exams this spring came as a blow to her entire school community.
“It kind of devastated our teachers and our students, because they were looking forward to it,” she said, adding they’d spent months building excitement around this milestone. “With that said, I think that we all understand that with the pandemic things are going to have to be different, and [it’s about] putting safety first.”
Because the end-of-year exams hold so much significance, she and her staff have decided to still have students take old exams so they’ll have an opportunity to, unofficially, “show what your year, or two years, of learning looks like.”
Even though the IB final exams have been canceled, students may still earn IB diplomas and certificates. As posted on the IB website, students will receive a grade for each registered subject “using a calculation that takes into account their coursework marks and their predicted grade, as submitted to the IB by their school.”
Ashley Brown, IB coordinator at Champlin Park High School in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, says that means teachers will continue to deliver internal assessments this spring. And the “predicted grade” component, she explained, has always been something that teachers have submitted — although it tends to hold more weight in other countries. It’s also just one of multiple measures used in awarding IB diplomas and certificates.
“In the U.S., what I always tell my teachers is the predicted grade is kind of a way for us to see if what our kids are capable of, and what we think they’re capable of, are matching up,” she said, adding it also serves as a back-up input in case, for example, a paper gets lost in the mail on its way to IB officials for review.
For many Minnesota students at this point, the exam-free pathway to an IB diploma remains less clear.
All of these changes have left Piper Gallivan, 18, a senior at Highland Park Senior High in St. Paul, feeling worried that she may not fare as well if the internal assessments that she completed earlier this year — generally large research paper assignments, that only account for about 20 percent of the class grade — end up playing a more predominant role in her final assessment.
“I thought: ‘Oh, my test will make up for my internal assessment,’” she said. “Now, if they’re basing it off of that, I don’t think I have as good of a chance of doing well.”
Lee shares the same concern, noting “it’s not that we didn’t do our best,” on those large assignments, but had they known they’d be weighted differently in the end, students may have put in even more effort.
She’s also feeling a bit robbed of the opportunity to cash in on all of the test format prep she and her peers have invested in mastering — a commitment that included taking an essay test, a content test and completing exam papers in classes throughout the year, all to prepare for success this spring. “Really everything in the curriculum is preparing you for the test,” she said.
While disappointed that the culminating exams aren’t happening, Lee has found a silver lining in it all.
“I still liked the format we use for testing in class,” she said. “It helped me understand more of the content and actually remember the content, rather than just remember it for the test and forget about it — because I knew that content would show up in May, again, on the test.”