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“They Owned Their Learning”

Adapting to Changes in AP Exams Brings Out the Best in Ravens

By David Klein | Back to Table of Contents


Archival photo of Zoe Welshs AP Biology class


For many Upper School students, Ravenscroft’s shift to a distance-learning model in March was a harbinger of things to come: canceled college tours, postponed SATs and a fundamental realignment of what has become a rite of spring for high-performing students across the country: Advanced Placement course reviews and exams.

AP coursework at Ravenscroft typically involves a mix of hands-on activities, presentations, in-depth class discussion and small-group work. The work students and faculty did in adjusting to the new approach was, as Head of Upper School Aaron Sundstrom said, “impressive.”

“From seamlessly switching class discussions to a virtual platform to preparing students for the new at-home, online format of the exams, our teachers made great use of new digital tools from the College Board to supplement their own lessons and ensure students were prepared for their AP exams,” he said. “It was a tremendous show of both faculty and student resilience.”

“We hit the ground running”

AP exams — administered in May under the auspices of the nonprofit College Board — are typically set up as three-to-four-hour standardized sessions covering months of college-level courses. As with the SATs, public health restrictions introduced in response to COVID-19 might have led to the tests’ cancellation this year. But the College Board implemented a new online option that allowed students to showcase their knowledge while the material was still fresh.

As Ravenscroft Registrar Debbie Pirotte, whose office is responsible for ordering AP exams, said, “The College Board did an amazing job creating new exams and setting it up in a short timetable.”

Nevertheless, the new format meant fundamental changes in the exam itself. Students were now tasked with answering one or two free-response questions in 45 minutes, limiting how much content mastery they were able to demonstrate. The elimination of multiple-choice questions meant students might not be able to balance out their results if their responses to the free-response questions were weak. However, the College Board supplied assurances that the complexity of the questions would allow students to demonstrate their range of knowledge, for which they would receive credit.

Pirotte and the College Counseling Department had their hands full trying to stay on top of daily changes and provide students with accurate information.

“We were prepared to hit the ground running,” Lia Prugh, Co-Director of College Counseling, said. “What I’ve heard from parents and students is that they have been appreciative of how much they’ve been able to do at home.”

While a handful of students had technical issues with their online test submissions and had to register for a make-up session, Pirotte said most students had completed their AP tests by early June. Results are expected by mid-July.


Archival photo of Phil Kantaros AP Government class


“They owned their learning”

From the perspective of AP teachers at Ravenscroft, the shift to distance learning — instituted as it was in a time of unparalleled upheaval in the broader community — was a success for their students. But it required teacher and pupil alike to exercise one of the core competencies of Lead From Here: growth-mindedness.

For AP Physics teacher Lorre Gifford, major changes in the exam’s content and format meant she had to rethink how she used her stockpile of resources, accumulated over more than 20 years of teaching the course.

“However, I was impressed and grateful for the resilience, dedication and patience that my students exercised in the process,” she said. “We developed strategies for learning and practicing in the virtual world that allowed for a fairly seamless transition into the online classroom experience and, hopefully, success on the AP exam.”

Many of Gifford’s colleagues agreed.

“Nothing compares to the classroom when discussing and debating content and making connections between the theoretical and its application,” AP Government teacher Phil Kantaros said. “But preparing for the exam in a virtual classroom proved to be surprisingly effective. We were able to prepare for the two types of essay questions that constituted the revised 2020 exam. Along the way, I became more proficient at using the resources provided by the College Board, and I made use of YouTube review videos, which I probably would not have done in a classroom setting.”

AP European History teacher Mary Beth Immediata said much of the credit for the success of this year’s test preparation belongs to the Ravens themselves.

“The review was theirs, the initiative was theirs, the interest, the engagement, their willingness to submit their work for review by the assistant chief reader — something that required that they work ahead in the syllabus — that was all them,” she said. “They literally owned their learning, and this pandemic simply gave me the opportunity to guide and cheer from the sidelines.”

Immediata wasn’t the only one cheering: on two occasions, the strong work of her AP Euro students taking part in national, College Board-sanctioned online reviews was highlighted by session leaders.


Archival photo of Anna Netherys AP Psychology class


“There was no gap”

As the long-term effects of this extraordinary time in our nation and world continue to play out, the College Counseling team is working to determine what impact, if any, the delays and changes in national testing might have on college admissions.

Ravenscroft’s team said the extent to which AP courses will be considered in admission decisions in the future remains to be seen. With more colleges and universities making standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT optional, there may be a greater emphasis on application essays and students’ personal qualities. According to Prugh, this shift is likely to boost Ravenscroft students, who typically have excellent writing and communication skills. At the same time, they expect that the UNC System, and likely many other public universities, will continue to accept credit for AP scores of 3 and above.

“Despite the uncertainty, we tell our students they don’t need to stress too much about circumstances beyond their control,” Prugh said.

As for this unprecedented semester of remote learning, Ravenscroft chose to deliver traditional grades even as other independent schools opted to adopt a pass-fail metric. As a result, the College Counseling Office plans to be very clear about what virtual learning looked like at Ravenscroft.

“There was no gap,” Prugh said. “The students were immediately in remote classes with very similar expectations to their on-campus classes. That will be communicated to colleges.”

AP European History teacher Mary Beth Immediata shared this great news about her students’ work in the national online exam reviews:

The AP Euro kids have been submitting homework practice challenges to AP virtual since we started review and have been excited to receive personalized feedback from the assistant chief reader and this year's DBQ question leader, but then Dylan Norona ’22 became a rock star, much to their delight.

Then Ravenscroft got a shout-out, and the kids were tickled as well.