Opinion: AP Exams should stay on paper


Olivia O'Rourke

On paper Advanced Placement coursework for AP European History at Hayes

Olivia O'Rourke, Managing Editor

This school year, CollegeBoard made the decision to offer digital exams for seven Advanced Placement (AP) subjects in May 2023: AP Computer Science Principles, AP English Language and Composition, AP English Literature and Composition, AP European History, AP Seminar, AP U.S. History and AP World History: Modern. Schools are responsible for making local decisions over whether they will offer digital, paper or a combination of paper and digital exams, and many schools, including Hayes, have elected to go the digital route. This change in standard has many students, parents and educators asking just one question: Why?
It’s no secret that students statistically perform better on exams taken on paper. A large-scale 2019 study revealed that students who took an online model of a specific exam scored remarkably lower than their peers who took the same exam on paper, performing as though they had lost the equivalent of roughly four months of learning in mathematics and seven months of learning in the language arts.
Researchers involved in this study examined the results of a 2015 PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test recorded in Massachusetts, a state that consistently maintains one of the top public education systems in the country.
Similar research conducted in Rhode Island schools found that 42.5 percent of the students who took the PARCC English/language arts exam on paper scored proficient, compared to 34 percent of those who took the test on a computer.
The findings of these studies show significantly and obviously lower scores on digital exams compared to written ones. Unless CollegeBoard is planning to adjust the AP exam grading rubric to compensate for the drops in scores that students may face, there doesn’t seem to be a justifiable reason for making this switch when it comes to the sake of AP students.
Online tests have also been found to increase the gap between high and low performing students. This unfortunately means that typically disadvantaged students, such as those from low-income families and English language learners, are most heavily affected, further driving an unnecessary academic wedge between privileged and underprivileged teenagers.
Along with statistical research, student opinions also give reason to keep exams on paper. In a survey sent out to AP students at Hayes, over 60 percent of contributors voted that they would prefer a written exam. In a perfect world, individual students would be allowed to choose their own exam format, but unfortunately that isn’t an option, so student opinions should always be considered when decisions like this are made at a higher level.
AP students dedicate a good deal of time towards their academic careers, and ultimately are the ones who are affected by the decisions of administrators. After spending an entire school year studying a college curriculum, they elect to pay to take a single exam that determines whether or not all the time spent on the subject will even earn them college credit. The least that those working at the higher level can do for these students is take the time to evaluate what is in their best interest. When looking at this decision, analysis of the research done around this topic begs the question of whether or not those students are actually a priority.