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Olathe Students Prepare To Take AP Tests After A Year Of Pandemic School

Young girl wearing a purple sweatshirt sitting next to her laptop and some study notes in an empty classroom.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Ellie Willson, a senior at Olathe Northwest High School, has been preparing for the five AP exams she will take this year.

Ellie Willson is a senior at Olathe Northwest High School in Kansas. She will be taking her AP exams later this month, despite the pandemic.

It wasn’t until this month that reality set in for Olathe Northwest High School senior Ellie Willson. After months of learning in a remote and hybrid setting, she realized she would soon have to take her Advanced Placement exams.

“From where we’re at in the year, about as prepared as my teachers could get me to be with all the circumstances that we’re under, but in general I don’t feel that I am as prepared as I want to be at this point,” Willson said.

Feeling unprepared is Willson’s main concern about taking AP tests. Like many other students, she has faced pandemic-related challenges throughout this school year. Eight-hour zoom meetings, prolonged online assignments and shifting constantly between online learning and hybrid learning have affected her motivation to learn and her overall preparation for AP testing.

AP testing, in general, is significant because high school juniors and seniors who test well for these exams end up receiving college credit, helping students bypass entry-level college courses and save money on college tuition.

Willson said she’s having trouble retrieving information she learned online in her bedroom in the fall — and that constant transitions from remote to hybrid learning have cut into instructional time.

“Sitting in your room on a Zoom for eight hours straight, no one is going to be able to pay attention for that long no matter how old you are,” Willson said.

Willson is a good student. She is currently taking five AP classes, and she’s been admitted to Trevecca Nazarene University, a private Christian university in Nashville, Tennessee, to study pre-law. Despite the challenges, Willson is positive her experiences with online learning will help her as a college student for the next school year.

But first, she has to get through her exams.

The importance of AP exams

AP students will take tests this spring that look very different because of the pandemic.

“Last spring when the world was on fire, all the AP tests were online,” said Rich Wilson, director of assessments for the Olathe School District. “This year, they’ve actually created two windows. Usually, there’s only one window, and you had to take the test on that day."

Wilson said students will have the option to take the exam digitally from either home or school. The College Board, which administers the test, will make students taking a test at home turn their cameras on. They’ll also have to scan their living area for cellular devices or any other materials related to the AP exam, like books or study guides.

According to the College Board, 15,862 students in Kansas took the AP exam in the spring of 2020. That’s 3% fewer than in spring 2019.

Page of statistic notes lying on a laptop with a mechanical pencil resting on the notes.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Ellie Willson displays some of her study notes for her AP statistics exam.

“Our expectation is that any student who takes the test can perform as well as in the past,” Wilson said. “Last year, as weird as that year was, our overall average was the same as the last couple of years.”

UMKC Associate Vice Provost Dr. Kim McNeley said AP courses and exams provide foundational skills for college-level courses. She said it’s important the college standards that evaluate student’s learning be consistent and maintained, even during a pandemic.

“If we slow down our educational process, we slow down things beyond that,” McNeley said.

McNeley said she understands the hardships many students have faced due to COVID-19, but lowering the standards would only make college difficult for students in the future.

“It’s not so much receiving the credit, it’s about making sure students have the learning and fund of knowledge that sets them up for success,” McNeley said.

A sense of normality

Taegan Herz, a junior at Olathe East High School, has also experienced challenges with remote learning and hybrid learning, and she feels confident taking her AP exams. Still, she said online school affected her desire to learn. As she studied, she had to battle between her lack of motivation and the ability to prepare well for her exams.

“Usually in my bed or in my room studying, and that’s not really a good place to have your brain be active and learning,” Herz said. “It definitely brought my mental health down and motivation to do things down.”

Girl sitting at table looks over her right shoulder at the camera. Behind her is an open laptop and a copy of the book "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Taegan Herz, a junior at Olathe East High School, has been preparing for her AP exams, which include her study of Malcolm Gladwell's 'Blink.'

Herz said one of the biggest challenges of learning online was not being able to physically see her peers and interact with them like she normally would. Herz considers herself a very social person. Once she found out she would go back to school in person, she had a sense of hope.

“Being at school and having that environment really helps me have that motivation and have that want to engage in classes, learn and study,” Herz said. “Now we are back (in-person), I think a lot of it is getting better and changing.”

One she gets through this round of tests, Herz, is hopeful for a sense of normality for the coming school year with typical high school events like Friday football games, school dances and, yes, AP exams.

Johan Marin is a news intern for KCUR 89.3.
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