The month of May has always loomed large for high-school students taking Advanced Placement courses — it’s when students sit for high-stakes tests that will determine whether they’ve learned enough to earn college credit.

But this year, with schools shut across the country, the coronavirus pandemic has threatened to upend the exams and disrupt nearly a year of hard work.

Seasoned AP teachers and students across the state and the country have spent the last month figuring out how to prep remotely. At the same time, AP administrators cut the test length significantly, shortening all from three-hour exams to open-book tests that last about 45 minutes each.

Still, Kelly Grace Richardson, a 17-year-old Lake Stevens student who attends a high school that was all online even before the coronavirus outbreak, kept hearing from friends that not all of their schools were well-prepared to teach the last two months of AP online. So Richardson and some of her friends launched their own AP U.S. history review sessions.

From her home, Richardson and several other students teach online several times a week. So far, she’s reached students from across the country, and even connected with a student in Holland.

AP classes are among the most popular dual-credit classes offered in Washington schools, with about 20% of high school students taking one. Students who take a number of AP classes and do well on the exams can start college with credits to spare, which can cut the cost of tuition. The classes also help prepare students for the rigors of college work, making it more likely that they will graduate. 

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In Seattle, Julie Gatti, who teaches AP statistics at Franklin High, employed the teleconferencing software Zoom and struggled at first to get all of her students to hunker down and work from home. Some kids adapted quickly, but for others, “it was senioritis meets the apocalypse,” Gatti said.

“I just can’t find the momentum to do school,” some students told Gatti. Others disappeared, including one student who was struggling academically and told her he had too many at-home responsibilities, including watching his little sister.

But like Richardson, Gatti has found a teaching rhythm.

So, too, has Charlie Acheson, an AP world history teacher in Ellensburg. Acheson meets with his students one day a week for 30 minutes, then uses Google Classroom to give out assignments. He administers quizzes, assigns reading, and gets his students to write practice theses that contain historically defensible claims and evidence — the type of work they’ll need to produce for the shortened exam.

“One of the things we can do for now is to stay consistent,” he said. “It’s such a crazy time — they don’t need any unnecessary stressors.”

Mike Rice, an AP statistics teacher at Seattle’s Ingraham High, gathered up parent email addresses before school shut and started emailing assignments immediately. He’s given two chapter exams and posted the answers so the students can grade their work themselves, and he’s told them: Take this seriously, and grade yourself so you can be better prepared for the AP exam.

Cory Davis, an AP teacher at Lewis & Clark High School in Spokane, has done virtual classes using Zoom, passed out assignments and made himself available for office hours. His students seem most worried about the AP literature exam, which has been pared down from three essays to just one, giving them a single chance to make a good impression, he said.

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In Everett, AP physics teacher Brian Cherniak says his students were able to make the transition fairly quickly because they already had laptops as part of a one-to-one computer program the district started last year. 

A student at Mill Creek’s Jackson High School had one of the country’s earliest reported cases of COVID-19, on Feb. 28, which primed the district to think about school closures early on, and to be prepared for it, Cherniak said.

Teaching a remote class

One sunny day last week, Richardson set up her laptop outside and prepared to teach several dozen students about the American Revolution.

Richardson was home schooled in middle school, and has been attending the all-online Laurel Springs School for high school. Her school days have had to be flexible because of her acting career, which has included Disney’s “Walk the Prank!” and shows by Nickelodeon. 

Remote learning has required her to learn how to study independently, and to be comfortable with online learning tools. Thinking she had valuable experience to share with other teens, she asked her school administrators if she could start a virtual class and open it up to students across the country. So far, she’s attracted several dozen of them.

She starts the class by showing the lesson plan, then has students break up to analyze an original historical document before returning for an end-of-class synthesis. “It went really well,” Richardson said after one of the first sessions. “The students seemed to love it.”

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Shawn Bailey, a Laurel Springs teacher who is helping supervise Richardson’s class, said Richardson is well-organized and thorough. “It’s like she’s running a mini-company,” she said.

Cherniak, who teaches AP physics at Everett’s Cascade High, doesn’t know Richardson, but he was delighted to hear about a student taking charge and leading a class. He organizes his own AP classes so that students take control of their learning. “She’s doing what we, as educators, want to see students doing,” he said.

AP offers some virtual classes in several states, but not in Washington, a spokesperson for The College Board said. (The board administers the AP program.) Cherniak hopes this forced experiment in delivering the classes online might have a silver lining — proving that these subjects can be taught remotely. 

If they can, that might allow the teaching of AP subjects in small communities that don’t have the resources to teach, for example, an AP German class, or another subject that requires deep expertise.

“I’m excited to see how this works,” Cherniak said. “What a great opportunity to test online platforms.”

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