Helping International Students Succeed on the 2020 AP® Exams

by Heather Garcia

In 2018, The College Board administered 5,090,324 AP® Exams. Of those exams, 132,191 were from students in non-U.S. or Canadian territories. That means that thousands of exams were administered to students in various locations all over the world. With increasing enrollment each year, it is safe to assume that at least that many international exams, if not more, have been scheduled for this year.

This year, in a historical first for the College Board, students will be taking radically redesigned AP® Exams in order to accommodate school closures around the globe. Students reeling from social distancing measures will now be taking their AP® Exams electronically. Not only will the delivery platform for all students change, the College Board announced that the exams for many non-U.S.-based students will be administered at times when students are normally sleeping (or at least, not normally taking standardized tests).

I was an AP® student and I am currently an AP® English Language and AP® English Literature teacher. I have shepherded students through the anxiety and unrest that descends as test day draws near—and these are for standard tests: tests where we have practiced the format, where we know what to expect, where we have pencils and paper and a level of familiarity. These were tests that were administered during the school day. At a school. During hours where the sun was shining. International students taking their AP® Exams in 2020 will be taking a shortened test, online, where almost an entire year’s worth of work is measured in a 50-minute time span… in the middle of the night. In the hours when most people will be sleeping, international AP® students will be logging into an online server, under the cover of darkness, trying to ensure that they do not wake siblings or parents. And many of them will do this repeatedly over a two-week testing window, performing this overnight endeavor over and over again as they take different exams.

Students will be expected to perform higher-order thinking during hours our body is trained to sleep. All of this is being touted by the College Board as necessary to ensure test security. There are at least two petitions with thousands of signatures circulating the globe asking the College Board to reconsider the timing of these exams, but so far, nothing about the test administration times has changed.

As teachers, we fight to help our kids, and if that fails, we help our students fight for themselves. How do we empower students to do this? By showing the world that a 3:00 AM exam asking students to solve differential equations or perform stoichiometry can be conquered with enough preparation.

It is time for us to help our international students by passing along some practical test-taking tips:

  • Students should ensure their families are fully aware of their testing needs: Many of us are hunkered down in the same house with our parents, grandparents, and siblings, and quiet space can be challenging to come by. Not all students have the luxury of a home office, or even a bedroom of their own. Therefore, it is essential that students are upfront with their family members about the stakes involved in this period of time. Open communication is going to be essential for students to feel supported during these exams, whether the student is testing in the U.S. during standard school hours or testing internationally with administration times in the middle of the night.
  • Students should establish their testing space in advance: Before the testing window ever opens, students should work with their families to determine where they will be taking these tests in the middle of the night. Will they be testing in the kitchen? Will they be testing in a bedroom? Will they be testing in a cleaned-out closet because there isn’t a separate room for them? Does the space they intend to use have a Wi-Fi connection? Do students have access to a flat testing surface so they can type? All of this should be established well before testing windows ever open. Students need to feel confident and secure, and this is one way to attain that for them, even if they are testing while the rest of the family sleeps.
  • Students should test their technology: The College Board will likely be releasing a mock testing platform where students will be able to practice uploading documents so they can become familiar with the process. Students should take the time to ensure that their devices work with the platform and that they do not encounter any technology hang-ups. Having technology concerns at 3:00 in the morning when parents are unavailable to help could mean the difference between a passing score and having to retake the exam in early June.
  • Students should train their minds: Students should train their mind for weeks prior to the exam. They should take practice exams. They should review content, practice skills, and ensure that the content knowledge is not going to be an anxiety-causing factor on test day. There will be enough stress on test day/night without adding another layer of content insecurities.
  • Students should train their bodies: Many students will be taking multiple exams over a period of two weeks, and these exams, for international students, will all be taking place from 10:00 in the evening until 6:00 in the morning. Students need to alter their sleep patterns days ahead of the test so that the sudden shift from diurnal to nocturnal is not abrupt and disruptive. Students might be tempted to “pull an all-nighter,” but the reality of that leaves students with weakened cognitive faculties, and if practiced too often, potentially weakened immune systems. Our bodies are designed to sleep. Students will need to prepare by sleeping during the day and studying at night. This is where a supportive home-support system will be incredibly important for our international students. This may cause disruption to the normal flow of the household, so everyone involved needs to be on board.
  • Students should get dressed for the exam: If the goal is for students to trick their bodies into thinking they are awake and alert, even in the middle of the night, students should actually get up and get dressed prior to their exam time. If students try to test in bed, in their pajamas, the stage is set for relaxation, not serious thinking.
  • Students should have water and snacks beside them before the test begins: On the night of the test, regardless of the amount of preparation, both physically and mentally, students are going to be nervous. Everything about this year’s test is so incredibly different from anything the testing world has witnessed or students have experienced. Students should have everything they need in their testing space before that tiny 50-minute window begins. Snacking and staying hydrated will help keep students awake and alert during these odd testing hours.
  • Students should establish optimal lighting: When possible, students should try to test with bright lights in an effort to trick themselves into day-time thinking. Bright lights can keep us awake, so in a night-time testing scenario, having a dimly-lit space might encourage more yawns and less cognitive functioning.

These tips obviously will not work for every student being asked to take an AP® exam in untraditional testing hours, and hopefully after the last round of June tests, this article never needs to resurface again. Hopefully no student will ever be asked to test under such extreme circumstances.

As we near the administration of these tests, my advice for teachers and counselors is to be kind to your students. Level with them. Allow them to feel the frustration of a less-than-fair testing environment. Then, in the days before the test, help them to push through it. Encourage them to show the AP® graders what they know, what they have learned, and what they are capable of. Be their support system. Be their rallying cry. Be their cheerleader. Because at 3:00 AM, when it is just them and the computer, they are going to need all the support they can get.

To view the full schedule for the 2020 AP® Exams, check out the calendar here.


Heather GarciaHeather Garcia is an English teacher at Charlotte High School, Florida, where she teaches AP English Literature and AP® English Language. She is a professional development leader in her district, running annual new-teacher trainings and is now the Curriculum and Instructional Specialist for her district for grades 6-12. After 16 years of hands-on experience, Heather has developed a series of strategies to help her students navigate challenging texts. Her favorite book is the Steinbeck classic, East of Eden.