Google Search Trends Underscore A Cheating Problem As AP Exams Go Online Due To COVID-19

student typing keyboard

The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected our education system in ways many are still trying to fully understand and cope with. Both lessons and exams must now be delivered and regulated online. This includes Advancement Placement (AP) exams which have traditionally been administered in-person to high school students. Unfortunately, Google search trends and reports by the College Board indicate that some students may have resorted to cheating on their AP exams.

AP exams are standardized tests that are used to determine whether a student has “mastered the content and skills of a specific AP course.” If a student receives a high score on the exam, they may be able to skip certain freshman-level college courses. In most cases, this equates to real money saved, especially with high course costs these days. In addition, high AP scores can also help a student’s chances of getting into their desired college. 

AP exams are administered once a year in the middle of May. The exams are $93 a piece in the United States and students need to wait a year if they want to retake an exam. This is a stressful period for many high school students, even during the best of times. Cheating is always an issue, but it's obviously much easier to spot during an in-person exam.

student textbook classroom

The recent pandemic has caused even more chaos and stress. This is the first year that AP exams have ever been administered online. The Philadelphia Public School Notebook examined recent Google search trends and noted that searches for certain terms related to the various AP exams spiked at the time they were given. For example, the term “federalism” spiked during AP U.S. Government and Politics exam, while searches for “angular momentum” substantially increased during the AP Physics C: Mechanics exam. The College Board, the organization that creates the exams, did eliminate multiple choice questions and put a time limit on free-response questions. However, it appears their efforts did not stop the flurry of Google searches.

Federalism Google Search Trend
Google Searches For The Term "Federalism"

AP exams are typically “closed-book” exams, but the pandemic has made it so that the exams are “open-book.” Google searches are therefore not technically prohibited. Nevertheless, the College Board discourages students from searching for terms. As most educators would tell you, context matters.
The College Board does specifically prohibit students from working together or sharing materials, however. Sadly, it appears that some students are not following those hard rules. Trevor Packer, the Senior Vice President of AP and Instruction, recently tweeted that the College Board had cancelled the exams of a group of students who were intending to cheat. His tweet was vague, but he did note that the College Board was investigating other instances of suspected academic dishonesty.

What do these incidents mean for the future of AP exams and higher education? College Board spokesperson Jaslee Carayol remarked, “When we have substantial evidence that students have attempted to cheat-- for example, by soliciting someone to take their test or by sharing exam content on social media sites-- we will cancel their AP exam registrations or invalidate their scores.”

Of course, certainly some episodes of cheating will slip through the cracks. Many educators are also likely concerned by the frequency of these Google searches. Will AP exams continue to be administered online? Will AP exams start to count for less on a college applications in the future? How will these students who have the ability to Google uncertain terms be compared to previous generations of AP students who took “closed-book” exams?

These questions do not currently have answers and it will likely take a few years to determine the full repercussions of this new reality the US education system is now dealing with.