California students sue College Board after being unable to submit AP exams

Credit: Steve Cole Images / iStock

A group of high school students who were unable to submit their Advanced Placement exams earlier this month because of technical glitches are suing the College Board and demanding their tests still be graded so they aren’t forced to retake the exams next month.

The class action lawsuit filed in federal court in California argues that the College Board, which sponsors the exams, should have done more to anticipate and prevent technical problems with the exams, which students are taking online this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

When the exams started last week, some students across the United States said they encountered technical glitches that prevented them from submitting their exams, though the College Board said this week that “less than 1 percent” of students were unable to submit their responses.

At least three of the students who are plaintiffs reside in California.

“Despite revenues of close to half a billion dollars a year from its AP program alone, the College Board failed to do what was necessary to make its at-home AP exams fair and accessible. This is inexcusable in light of the unprecedented challenges faced by students and their families this year,” the students’ attorneys Philip Baker and Marci Lerner Miller said in a statement. 

Baker is from the Los Angeles-based firm Baker, Keener & Nahra LLP and Miller is from Miller Advocacy Group, a firm based in Newport Beach, California. Those firms filed the lawsuit on behalf of several anonymous high school students and their parents. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a standardized test watchdog group known as FairTest, also is a plaintiff. 

The lawsuit claims the College Board ignored warnings that the online tests would discriminate against students with disabilities and students who lack access to the digital technology needed to take the at-home AP exams.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages of more than $500 million and are asking that their answers that they weren’t able to submit still be graded, rather than being forced to retake the tests. 

Peter Schwartz, general counsel for the College Board, dismissed the lawsuit as “baseless.”

“This lawsuit is a PR stunt masquerading as a legal complaint being manufactured by an opportunistic organization that prioritizes media coverage for itself. It is wrong factually and baseless legally; the College Board will vigorously and confidently defend against it, and expect to prevail,” Schwartz said in a statement. 

Advanced Placement exams allow students to earn college credits if they receive a passing score. In past years, the tests have been held at schools and students were given up to three hours to complete them. This year’s tests, which started last week and are continuing to be held this week, are completely online. 

Unlike past exams, this year’s tests don’t include multiple choice sections. The revised tests only include short essays and, for certain tests, math calculations. 

For exams with one question, students have 50 minutes to answer and submit their response. For exams with two questions, students get 30 minutes to answer and submit responses for the first question, and 20 minutes for the second.

For each question, students are supposed to use the last five minutes to submit their work. Students have the option of completing their work on a device, or submitting photos of handwritten responses on paper. Some students who opted to use paper, including one mentioned in the lawsuit, weren’t able to submit their responses because their photos wouldn’t upload to the College Board website.

After some students said they were unable to submit their responses, the College Board announced this week that students can now submit their exams via email. But that’s only an option for students taking their tests this week, not students who took the exams last week and couldn’t submit their responses.

Students who can’t submit their exams will be offered makeup tests in June

The College Board has said that more than 99% of students have successfully submitted their exams and initially said that most technical problems were because those students were not using the latest versions of their internet browsers.

“When we embarked on the effort to offer AP Exams online, we created tools to help guide users through this new experience. After the first few days of testing, our data show the vast majority of students successfully completed their exams, with less than 1 percent unable to submit their responses,” the College Board said in a statement this week.

Llanet Zamora, a parent in Los Angeles County, wrote on Facebook last week that even though her son used a “brand new,” fully updated MacBook, he wasn’t able to submit his responses.

“My son has a brand new mac laptop with all updates and when he tried submitting his essay part of the exam, and still had enough time to do it, it didn’t let him,” Zamora wrote. “After several tries he couldn’t submit it anymore. Said he didn’t submit it on time. Not the students fault even when uploading something. There was obviously something else wrong.”

Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest, said in a statement that “even if only 1%” of students were unable to submit their exams, “at least 20,000 students were affected.”

“The College Board rushed ‘untested’ AP computerized exams into the marketplace in order to preserve the testing company’s largest revenue-generating program after schools shut down this spring, even though they were warned about many potential access, technology and security problems,” he added.

The lawsuit also disputes the College Board’s claim that 99% of students successfully submitted their exams. “Anywhere between 5-20% of their AP test-takers were unable to submit their exam responses,” the lawsuit states, citing estimates by schools.

One unidentified AP Calculus teacher in the lawsuit, based in Santa Barbara, reported that three out of 13 students in her class “faced technical obstacles submitting their work” during the exams. One student “received an upload error message after the testing time had expired.” Another student’s screen froze, went blank and logged the student out as she attempted to submit her answers.

Another student quoted in the lawsuit said he “took all precautions” after hearing about technical problems but was still unable to submit his exam.

“I updated my computer, used Chrome because it was recommended by the College Board, sent my brother to my dad’s house so I wasn’t distracted during my test, and made my family get off the wifi so I could have the maximum potential my WiFi could give me,” he said.

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