Thousands of Students Fail Exams Due to College Board Not Accepting iPhone Photos

Thousands of Students Fail Exams Due to College Board Not Accepting iPhone Photos

Many high school students are dealing with a significant and frustrating setback, as they failed advanced placement exams due to the testing service's inability to accept certain image files sent from smartphones.

AP (advanced placement) exams are offered by the College Board and offer high school students the chance to receive college credit for common topics like physics, calculus, and music theory and represent a significant aspect of shaping a student's college path and development. Normally, these exams are administered in person, but due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the tests were moved online this year. 

Unfortunately, this led to a major problem for many students taking the exam this year. The new format still required students to write out their answers by hand, but they were to then take a picture of the exam with their phone and submit the image via the College Board's online testing portal. The problem was that the portal only accepted JPEG or PNG files, while newer iPhones and some new Android phones have switched to HEIC as the default file format, which generally produces similar quality images at about half the size of a JPEG. When students submitted the HEIC images, the portal would hang on the loading screen until the allotted test-taking time ended, at which point the students would be automatically failed. 

The College Board has shared information on how to change the default image format back to JPEG, but for students who have already had the issue, they will have no choice but to take another exam. In speaking to The Verge, the College Board claims that less than one percent of test-takers encountered the issue, but given that over four million exams are taken every year, this still equates to thousands of failed tests. The organization has also created a backup email submission process, but this is not available to those who have already failed, since files must be submitted immediately after the test has finished to ensure integrity. 

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Nothing a half mil couldn't fix. Oh, but wait.....

That the same that can't turn their phone 90 degrees to watch a video with both eyes inline with the screen ratio.

I just took took an AP exam today, and fortunately no crashes of any kind happened, but students have had other issue beyond the photo format. A lot of people have complained of exams crashing or booting them. Oddly enough, the only crash I had all day was during the website performance questionnaire. I only wish I hadn't rated the website performance "excellent" seconds before. A bit of irony I suppose.

Test number one:

Do you know how to change default picture format on your 1,000 USD phone?

Yes: : Pass
No: Read the manual and come back to us.

(He took me 20 second under google to solve this)

How technological challenged does Apple believe their users are? The choice is, 'high efficiency,' vs 'most compatible.'

Apple has always known how technologically challenged their users are. They built an entire industry around it.

Sorry, but that heif format is still a pure perfect crap of a still photography capture format.

You can praise Apple as much as you want, this format is a dead end. Short to zero support outside of Apple and tech heads.

And no, by default, the still photos have not to be short movie files, but a single frame. Period.

Heif is supported natively by all current Android devices since Sept. of last year. Just an FYI. I don't use the format personally, so I have no horse in this race, but your claim of "zero support" is definitely not correct.

Not entirely true. Android Pie (and Q) support it in software, but it takes more than software to make/read HEIf/HEIC. The format is quite hardware resource intensive. Only phones with Snapdragon 865/662 can encode/decode HEIF/HEIC.

Also, due to patent encumbrances, only Samsung, Apple, and Nokia smartphones actually use it, (since they all have a patent claim to the format, and have a mutual patent rights agreement).

So, no, not “all” androids at all. Only the expensive ones by Samsung, (and maybe Nokia). Like you, most of them do not have a horse in that race, and therefore are not participating.

Additionally, since Android Q, (Android 10, the version to which you alluded), “all” androids also support the practically universal, patent-free, AV1/AVIF format, so their is no need to support the unused, unpopular, expensive, HEIF/HEIC format anymore.

have fun with windows without having to install a freeware to get support of that thing => failure
Or claiming Android get support for that format... sorry but Karim already told how limited support we get for that format.

When your shot has been done in HEIF, great joy when sending that animated photography to a random user not aware of that new format => failure

HEIF in iPhone is a funny trick to get wow effect within the gallery app. Period. But it it just a crappy effect. Just try to send that sick file to an old android through MMS or mail (to grandma or whoever), and big despair in sight.
Work computer without HEIF support are more frequent than HEIF ready computers... etc...

Seriously boys, HEIF is a mess. We already seen far better picture format than jpg, but we always fall back to jpeg. I am not found of that format as it is really limited, for sure. But HEIF/HEIC is maybe a nice format for videos, but not for photos. We have to get something else, less CPU/GPU hungry

You can toy with HEIF photos when it will be supported by 90% of devices. Actually, we are far from having enough critical mass of devices with support to get that thing mandatory.
(by the way, on iPhone, you have to get a nice read of your iphone manual and some nice guess to understand how to get back jpg photos. Is it really that way to get HEIF more used ? just making pissed off users is not a good way to get a standard).

HEIF is not dead; HEIF is the future, at least that's what Canon is thinking. The 1DX Mark III shoots in HEIF, and future Canon cameras will shoot in HEIF. JPEG will probably be phased out.

Canon thought it was the future because Canon is one of the patent holders of HEIF/HEIC, and want it to succeed. It won't, due to ① the very patents which it owns, and ② the expensive hardware required to use it.

Name all the Canon cameras which use HEIF/HEIC. …And, go!

Have you named it (the one and only) yet? Now how much does it costs? Understand why it will never become the future?

That, and the fact that shortly before the HEVC standard was announced, the Alliance for Open Media had already started working on AV1/AVIF, which has no patents, has very modest HW requirements, does better compression with greater detail, and is supported by practically everyone in the industry, including Apple, Samsung, Mozilla, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, ARM, Intel, & nVidia (all founding members), plus many more, including AMD, Adobe, Hulu, & Vimeo.

But, yes, you are right. JPEG JFIF (and JPEG2000) will be phased out completely.

You're holding it wrong.

Out of curiosity, which Android produces HEIF/HEIC images? ...And is it the default?

All Latest Samsung Phones support HEIC but not by default. I don't know about other Android phones.

I meant to start by saying thanks for the info. I must have deleted that part during edit. This came across as combative when I re-read it. Not the intention.

Depends on what you actually meant by “support”. This is what I found. Via software support, Android has been “supporting” HEIF/HEIC since Android Pie, but HEIF/HEIC also requires† hardware support.

Only Snapdragon 865 & Snapdragon 662 have support for HEIF/HEIC, therefore, only android phones with these processors and Android Pie or later can possibly save in HEIF/HEIC. Android Q has opted (obviously)‡ to go the route of AVIF, which does NOT require extensive hardware support.

Samsung is, in fact, one of the patent holders of HEVC, hence, HEIC. They, Nokia* and Apple, are the only stakeholders in HEVC/HEIF in the smartphone market.

* Nokia claims a patent on HEIF, but it seems to be in dispute. HEIF is the container, and HEIC is an image file in an HEIF container, using the HEVC [INS] inter-frame [/INS] compression algorithm.

† HEVC inter-frame compression algorithm has a hefty hardware resource requirement. Most desktop/server CPUs can encode/decode it in a reasonable amount of time, given adequate RAM, and CPU cycles. Most smartphone CPUs lack the processing power and/or RAM to encode/decode within a reasonable amount of time, or without causing a race/overflow condition, with large (Mpx size, file size) images. Video is typically only 2Mpx (1080p) or less, and is easier to handle, than say a 5Mpx to 16Mpx image.

‡ Google is a founding member of the AV1 Alliance for Open Media, as is Samsung, Apple, and ARM. AV1 will probably be in all future smartphones.

[ASIDE] My Galaxy J3 supports HEVC video, with the big disclaimer that, although it saves space, is not compatible with “other” devices, and online viewing. It does NOT support HEIF/HEIC photos, and is Android Pie. My newer LG Stylo 4, Android Pie has no support for HEVC video nor HEIF/HEIC images. [/ASIDE]

Did the students fail, or the College Board?

If I am submitting anything on line I always check the requirements, the College Board clearly states which formats are acceptable in their submission guidelines.

It took me 10 seconds to find this, so there really wasn't a valid excuse for submitting unacceptable formats.

...except that most users wouldn't know that the phone was using a format that nobody uses.

There is a particular point made in this article that is false. It says that students were required to submit pictures of handwritten work, which I and my fellow AP students know is not true. For otherwise uninformed readers, there is also a typing option, where you can copy-and-paste text into a Courier-font text box. Line returns and indents are preserved (at least they were for me), so formatting should not be an issue.

Also, the College Board made us AP students aware of a checklist of preparations to make before the test, one of which was to take the "practice" AP test so that we can practice uploading pictures and copying text, an unlimited number of times before the first actual test. The platform is identical to that used for the real tests, so anyone who took the practice test and had problems should not have been surprised that the same thing would happen on the real test. The test platform shows the file extension of image files, and anyone who has ever dealt with digital images knows how ubiquitous and therefore reliable the good ol' JPEG is.

What I am saying is that it would have been wise for students to have fixed these problems beforehand, by changing the file extension from HEIF to at least something we have heard of, or just use a different device altogether. And it's not as if we didn't have the chance to identify the problems beforehand. Also, I hope that Mr. Cooke was merely misinformed in writing this article, rather than knowingly providing incorrect information to readers who might not all know the truth as we AP students do, regarding submission options on the test. From what I have heard, the College Board has tried to be very comprehensive in creating these online tests, and my physics teacher has given updates and small peeks into what the College Board has been doing throughout this time that we have been away from school. They know that technological glitches and such might happen, which is partly why they offer make-up tests. This whole situation is really quite undesirable, that we have to take the tests online and deal with some issues that arise, but I am sure the College Board tried their best to be accessible from any Internet-browsing device, and they have safeguards and prior notifications in place to deal with potential problems. So this I ask of you: Please don't think the College Board doesn't care or is otherwise inept. The Coronavirus has made everything difficult for everyone, and I think we just need to keep our heads and know the facts.

Not to mention they had us log in 30 minutes early and review the submission guidelines. There really isn't an excuse for not submitting the right picture format, besides one's own lack of preparation. I think there may have been a few tests that required handwritten work; I heard something like that for AP Calc.

Hi Cameron,

Thanks for the inside perspective. None of the articles that broke this story that I've read have mentioned the practice submissions you mentioned. I think it's also important to note that for topics like calculus, typing responses is not possible. I also think that if the practice submission form didn't explicitly reject HEIF files (which it wouldn't have if it was identical), students might not have realized this issue. Furthermore, not every person is versed in image file formats, nor should they necessarily suspect that their phone defaults to a non-JPEG format that might not be compatible. Still, it's good to hear a perspective from someone who took the test. Thank you for sharing!

So if they googled phone scanner and used the CamScanner app they would have been fine?

They have to take another exam because of a system glitch that was entirely the fault of the board?!!!


It's not a system glitch. It's user error.

Both partially right.

There's no way they couldn't add a backend API to detect heif files and convert them to jpg on the fly if needed, or reject them from uploading anything other than .JPG in the first place, or even have them upload a selfie or something to start the test, to confirm compliance with what they need (and confirm the identity of the test taker at the same time). This problem, at least in hindsight, is 100% predictable, and should have been at the time too.

On the other side, these are AP students, the "A" stands for "Advanced", and they couldn't follow simple instructions, or do a 20 second google search before taking an extremely important exam that they need to pass, to change their phone format to jpg?? (also, almost no one under 30 doesn't know what "jpg" refers to, so you don't have to be a big nerd to know that info).

On a completely separate note, this reminds me of one of my biggest pet peeve with online forms, when you have to type in something like a phone number, and they want "1234567890", but somehow can't be bothered to add the single line of coding needed to strip any non-numerical input, and so, they reject entries like "123-456-7890", or even limit the field to 10 digits so you can't even type it in, and then force the user to type it the way they want, even though there's no standard, and they could do it themselves after entry and no one would ever know the difference. (I wrote code for some international companies that do exactly this, and I did that more than a decade ago, it is *literally* one line of code for any of the languages I was programming in at the time, I can't believe that it still isn't an option for any modern programming language).

«…backend API to detect heif files and convert them to jpg ….»
…Except HEIC is patent encumbered, so, not that. Everything else, fine. There was no excuse. As a systems analyst, it irks me to see the sort of things which get by in today's world.

As an AP Calculus AB teacher myself, my students had to submit handwritten work (they could have typed, but they don't have the fluency to type mathematical notation).

As one student has already mentioned in these comments, College Board created this whole system in TWO MONTHS without the ability to widely test. Additionally, AP exams typically take nearly 3 years to create (these are the standard, three hour sit down versions) and they rewrote every topic in multiple variations in this two month time span too.

There was a demo site that let students practice uploading and submitting work as much as they wanted until they felt comfortable. The downside for Calc and Physics test takers is that not only do iPhones take HEIC photos, but you still need to transfer it to your laptop/computer if that's where you viewed the exam. If you correctly took the photos in JPEG and airdropped them, MacOS converts them to HEIC! Crazy. We told our students to email them to themselves instead, as this will leave JPEG as JPEG and automatically convert HEIC to JPEG. There were other issues beyond just file format, but for College Board to put this together in two months at significant cost the reserves, and for it to work as well as it did, I applaud them.

Students overwhelmingly wanted to take the exams, and College Board pivoted early on to make it happen. Even in a perfect world when thorough testing could have done, there still would have been issues. We're in a pandemic, nothing is perfect and absolutely no one should expect perfection, but to achieve what they have achieved in two months is quite impressive.

why not just simply reject non jpg file when submitting the response ? Really guys, this is a website design failure, not an end user error. Turn it how you want it to look like, it will stay as a badly designed process, one that is able to accept any file but silently reject them in the back-end processing workflow without asking the user to send again the required jpeg file format.
Do you guys realise 99% of internet users are unaware how to even distinguish a jpeg from a png file ? so how could they really distinguish a heif file that apple devices are able to generate on the fly ? Even looking at iPhone control panel, I wish you good luck to understand where that thing should better produce jpeg instead of heif as the parameter is really more a criptic and ridiculous 'performance' question rather a file format question...

It is very strange. I also passed exams at my university in this way: we wrote exams and then sent photos to teachers. Some teachers only had a problem - too many photos. They didn't like that after downloading all the photos of all the students, they had no memory left. By the way, we had to write an essay as an exam and I used the service in order to get a better grade. Due to the fact that the essay was not written by me, it was large and I had to take a lot of photos, which took up a lot of memory. So I compressed all the photos and added them to the archive. This way I have fulfilled all the requirements of the teachers.