The Times They Are a-Changing… Again: 2021 AP® Exam Changes

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As the second month of 2021 gets underway, we continue to deal with the same harsh realities ushered in by 2020. The global pandemic persists, and we are all trying to navigate the many uncertainties and disruptions it brings as best we can. That’s why it comes as no surprise that, after making unprecedented changes in 2020, the College Board® has announced new administration options for the Advancement Placement® (AP) Exams for 2021.

You may recall that last year, to accommodate students reeling from the disruption of regularly scheduled in-school learning, the College Board changed the AP Exam format from its traditional paper and pencil version administered in-person to an abbreviated, free-response format taken online. 

After a mixed bag experience with last year’s format, the College Board is providing a new approach and more options this year to help make the exams more accessible to students. For 2021, schools will have the option of choosing the test format that best suits their unique circumstances. Students attending class in school may take a traditional paper-and-pencil AP exam as it has always been administered, or they may be given a new digital in-school version. Students who continue to receive remote instruction will be able to take the digital version of their exam at home. 

However, unlike the 2020 version of the digital AP exam, the 2021 digital AP exam will have the following notable changes:

  1. Length
    As opposed to the 2020 digital AP exam, which was an abbreviated 45 minutes, the 2021 digital AP exam will be full-length, ie, three to four hours–approximately the same length of time as the traditional paper-and-pencil exam. 
  2. Format
    The digital test will return from free response only to a similar format as the paper-and-pencil test featuring multiple-choice questions and testing the same knowledge and skills as the paper-and-pencil version.
  3. Flexible Administration and Test Dates
    Schools will have three exam administration options–paper and pencil, digital in-school, and digital at-home tests–for each subject. This will allow proctors the flexibility to accommodate social distancing by scheduling students for different test sessions. Exams will be offered on paper in early May and as a digital exam in late May and early June. Schools will also have the option to schedule in-person and digital AP exams on different test dates according to their circumstances and students’ needs.
  4. Limited Subjects
    For security reasons and to prevent cheating, some subjects like those that require reading and writing in another language will not be available to be taken online.
  5. Restrictions Apply
    Students will no longer have the ability to change their responses to questions, go back and forth between questions they haven’t yet answered, or submit pictures of their handwritten work.
  6. Approved Devices
    The digital exam will be available on a computer only (laptop or desktop); smartphones are no longer considered acceptable devices for taking the test.
  7. Connectivity
    To account for the unpredictability of the Internet and connectivity issues students may face, students will be able to complete their exams even if their internet connection is disrupted while they are taking the exam.

As for the differences between the paper and digital exams, they will be subtle, but test scorers will take into account the nuances and challenges digital exams present for traditional handwritten exams in an effort to standardize difficulty levels.

These recent changes are designed to provide even more flexibility at a time when schools and testing centers face the challenge of safely administering in-person tests amidst a global pandemic. Like last year, lessons will be learned from these changes, even though the general expectation is that 2021 will deliver a more streamlined digital exam experience. It appears that change to the AP Exam is here to stay, even in a post-pandemic world, meaning that schools and students alike will continue to enjoy the flexibility of more options. Check out this AP®  Exam Format Information resource for a detailed breakdown of the 2021 exam format by subject.


Whichever format your school chooses to administer the 2021 AP Exam, UWorld is here to help your students prepare. Learn more about our Online Learning Tools for AP® Courses. Download our AP Brochure.

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