Nick Bryner, a high school senior in Los Angeles, spent hours completing his AP English Literature and Composition test last week. But when he snapped a photo of a written answer with his iPhone and attempted to upload it to the testing portal, it stopped responding.
The website got stuck on the loading screen until Bryner’s time ran out. Bryner failed the test. He’s retaking it in a few weeks.
Bryner is among the many high school students around the country who completed Advanced Placement tests online last week but were unable to submit them at the end. The culprit: image formats.
For the uninitiated: AP exams require longform answers. Students can either type their response or upload a photo of handwritten work. Students who choose the latter option can do so as a JPG, JPEG, or PNG format according to the College Board’s coronavirus FAQ.
But the testing portal doesn’t support the default format on iOS devices and some newer Android phones, HEIC files. HEIC files are smaller than JPEGs and other formats, thus allowing you to store a lot more photos on an iPhone. Basically, only Apple (and, more recently, Samsung) use the HEIC format — most other websites and platforms don’t support it. Even popular Silicon Valley-based services, such as Slack, don’t treat HEICs the same way as standard JPEGs.
Bryner says many of his classmates also tried to submit iPhone photos and experienced the same problem. The issue was so common that his school’s AP program forwarded an email from the College Board to students on Sunday including tidbits of advice to prevent submission errors.
“What’s devastating is that thousands of students now have an additional three weeks of stressful studying for retakes,” Bryner said.
In a statement emailed to The Verge, the College Board said that “the vast majority of students successfully completed their exams” in the first few days of online testing, “with less than 1 percent unable to submit their responses.” The company also noted that “We share the deep disappointment of students who were unable to submit responses.”
The email Bryner received doesn’t mention the HEIC format, though it does link to the College Board’s website, which instructs students with iPhones to change their camera settings so that photos save as JPEGs rather than HEICs. The company also linked to that information in a tweet early last week.
If you want to submit a photo of a handwritten AP Exam answer from an iPhone or iPad, make sure to change your camera settings so your photos are saved as JPEGs, not HEICs. Go to Settings > Camera > Formats > Select “Most Compatible.”
— The College Board (@CollegeBoard) May 12, 2020
The advice, however, was too late for many students. One senior, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid repercussions from school, said that the College Board’s tweet went out just a few minutes before his Physics C test began. “No one taking the AP Physics test would have been able to see it because we were already logged into the test,” he said.
Senior Dave Spencer took a demo test before his Calculus AB exam to make sure he understood the process for uploading photos. He Airdropped an iPhone image of his responses to his Mac and tried to convert it by renaming the HEIC file to PNG. Changing a file’s extension does not guarantee that it will be converted, but Spencer was still able to submit the demo test with no problem.
Spencer used the same process on the real exam and thought it went through, but he received an email the next day saying the files were corrupted and that he needed to retake the test. The College Board’s tweet went out just a few hours before Spencer’s scheduled exam; he doesn’t have a Twitter account and didn’t see it.
“This is absolutely unacceptable, as some kids may not have Twitter like me,” Spencer said in a text message. “That nuance was not addressed anywhere in the demo.”
Everly Kai, a senior in British Columbia, had the same problem with Computer Science A last week — she attempted to rename the file to JPEG and received the same email a few hours after submitting her test.
“It was honestly a bit devastating,” Kai said in a text. “I studied almost the entirety of the previous week and feel I did quite well, only to realize it was for nothing and I’d have to go through the entire stressful process again.”
Bryner thinks the clarification isn’t enough, even for students who are taking the test later. “Most students are probably going to continue to run into this,” he said. Bryner doesn’t think the company should have expected him and his classmates to jump through so many hoops. “To flip the switch from HEIC to JPEG is buried in settings, and something that no one is thinking about going into the test,” he said.
Even students who knew about the HEIC problem have had trouble figuring out how to fix it, especially in the high-pressure testing environment. Sean S., a junior from Chicago who took Calculus AB, used OneDrive to port a photo to his Windows desktop from his iPhone, then attempted to convert the file with Windows Photo. Due to the photo’s size, the conversion took over five minutes. Then, before the JPEG had fully submitted, his time ran out. (Sean requested to be identified only by his first name and last initial because his parents didn’t want his name in the news.)
Luckily, it sounds like students will have more recourse in the future. The College Board is now allowing test-takers who have issues submitting their tests to email them instead — iPhones convert HEICs to JPEGs automatically when they’re attached to emails in the Mail app. If you fail to submit, you’ll immediately receive a notification and a unique email address to use. This option is only available for future exams, however — it won’t help Bryner and others who failed their tests last week.
Tens of thousands of students are demanding that the College Board do more. Following technical issues with her own test last week, Los Angeles senior Eliana Sisman created a petition calling on the company to allow her and fellow students to resubmit their previous work. The petition has collected over 23,000 signatures.
“I thank the College Board for setting up a re-submission channel for students taking APs this year,” Sisman said in a statement to The Verge. “I urge them to be fair to students who’ve already taken the APs and can’t submit them. Many students will be in the military or working at summer jobs by June 1st and won’t be able to take the makeup test.”
She added, “If the college board does this, they will make it clear to everyone that they are a responsible and caring community institution.”