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Take a HEIC: Make Sure AP and Other Test Uploads Work from Your iPhone and iPad

Some high school students taking the at-home Advanced Placement (AP) tests were stymied at the end of their exams. They were supposed to take a picture of their written answer sheet and upload it to the College Board Web site, but the system rejected their uploads. While the reasons for the rejections varied, one key culprit was the HEIC format for images used by Apple since iOS 11.

The College Board’s at-home AP test requires students to write out a response to test questions, take a picture of their sheet, and upload it. (Source: College Board video)

While HEIC and related formats are part of an industry standard that was finalized in 2015, the College Board’s software couldn’t read—or at least accept—the file format, an unnecessary lapse. This and follow-up tweets from the alleged nonprofit, which grosses over $1 billion a year and pays its CEO over $1 million, make it clear that the group failed to test its pandemic-shifted exam testing approach sufficiently. Ironic, as is the fact that an organization that tests reading and writing skills failed to convey this fact clearly. The College Board says that 1% of students experienced problems, which means that, if the organization is representing the failure rate accurately, only tens of thousands will have to retake their tests.

One of my children just took the AP Chemistry test, and Adam and Tonya Engst’s son Tristan took numerous AP tests a few years back, so we have a pretty good idea of how stressful this situation has been for students and parents alike. Kids will spend weeks more reviewing (and worrying about) material they thought they were done with! Our sympathies!

Avoiding HEIC

Here are the quick steps to take if you or your student are required to upload a JPEG photo in order to submit an AP test result or other document, such as to an employment site.

  • Before taking a photo: Disable HEIC capture in iOS and iPadOS. In Settings > Camera > Formats, choose Most Compatible instead of High Efficiency. This causes iOS to store photos in JPEG format.
  • After you’ve already taken the photo: If you didn’t switch to JPEG format beforehand, open Photos, tap the Share button, and tap Mail to send the image to yourself. This process automatically converts the image to JPEG. In Mail, select the message, tap to download it, and then press and hold the image. You can then choose Save Image to put it back into Photos as a JPEG.

Some other sharing methods, such as Messages, will also cause the images to be converted to JPEG. However, do not use AirDrop to send it to another Apple device or use Save to Files from within Photos: both of those transfer methods preserve the HEIC format.

About HEIC

HEIC is Apple’s implementation of a highly compressed image format that’s twice as compact as JPEG and substantially more efficient than the previous best video encoder, H.264, with the same effective quality. You can pack twice as many images and about 40% percent more minutes of video into the same space as the previous standards. (For the technical nitty-gritty, read “HEVC and HEIF Will Make Video and Photos More Efficient,” 30 June 2017.)

It has been nearly three years since Apple adopted HEIC, but the company’s products remain by far the most common producers of HEIC media. Image-editing software, like GraphicConverter and Photoshop, long ago received updates to open and work with HEIC and its variations.

However, image-processing software used for other purposes, such as is embedded in Web apps, always seems to lag behind Apple. Because it’s unknown how the College Board handles the images it receives, it’s impossible to know whether its upload Web site was hard-coded to accept only a couple of file formats by extension or if it couldn’t actually process images in HEIC format. The latter seems more likely. One student told The Verge that renaming his HEIC file to end with “.png” allowed him to upload—but that doesn’t change the underlying data, and he was informed the following day that the file was corrupted.

Apple typically gets around compatibility issues by ensuring that whenever data stored in HEIC is transferred from Photos to any other platform, it converts the exported file into a compatible format rather than sending the original. Nonetheless, it would behoove Apple to contribute resources to upgrading open-source image-processing libraries so HEIC could be supported as easily as other, more common image formats.

Good luck to all the students on their final AP tests and the upcoming retests!

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Comments About Take a HEIC: Make Sure AP and Other Test Uploads Work from Your iPhone and iPad

Notable Replies

  1. I think there should be finer control when sharing photos in iOS. When you share a web page, there’s a little “options…” link that provides access to different sharing formats (link-only, Reader or PDF). It should be the same with Photos. If your default format is HEIC, you should have the option when you share to do so in a compatible format.

  2. So, Glenn…what if you go to Settings > Camera and there is no “Formats” choice?

    I’m on iOS 13.5 with a 6S,

  3. Same here on my 2016 SE. I suspect only newer iPhones have camera hardware that justifies additional format options like HEIC.

  4. The 6s does not support HEIC. iPhone 7 or later for iPhones.

  5. Straight from the College Board’s “Testing Guide,” which all students should have read and followed:

    " * Acceptable file formats: .png, .jpg, .jpeg"

    The real problem is that many students today, while expert at using their smart phones, have limited or no experience working on computers. Few know how to type (with more than just two thumbs). Few know common file formats (or even what a file format is). Few students know even how to change a file’s name: to many students, there is a listing “somewhere on the cloud,” preferably in “recent files” that they access. Folders? Organization? Drive space? Forget it!

  6. That’s absolutely true (and I have a neighbor who teaches music at Ithaca College who rants about this regularly), but in this case, they’re not being tested on their technical skills. There are high school students as young as 14 who take AP classes in topics like music theory, art history, and psychology, so it’s definitely a stretch to assume that they’re all going to be capable of this. We went through this with Tristan during high school and he was pretty technically capable (plus he had extremely technically capable parents). We’re talking about kids—they might know a lot in some areas and be complete dopes in other ways.

    What’s frustrating is that the College Board, an organization with over $1 billion in revenues, anticipated this problem but still opted to develop a testing system that couldn’t accept the industry-standard image formats used by some of the most popular devices in play. It’s a documented image format, not a Mars landing.

  7. Learning basic computer skills is only a matter of exposure and experience. There are toddlers who figure out the electronics thrust onto them. Little kids now get smart phones and tablets. They often learn how to use them better than older folks simply through play (which is really the best way to learn).

    Still, we as a society now expect adults to be able to use computers. Should we not prepare our youth with that knowledge? When I was a kid, all boys were required (I was fortunate enough) to take wood shop and metal shop. I was the last generation that had to learn how to use a slide rule (yes, I had a clip to hang it from my belt). Computers and typing should be considered required skills. It’s not an academic issue: it’s a skill issue.

    As for the College Board, yes there were glitches, but they pivoted extremely fast in this pandemic. They have a worldwide constituency. The more variables introduced, the bigger their problems in this unprecedented event. I understand why they would limit submissions to a given list of file formats. Think of all the students who are in the Google Classroom environment. I imagine that they tried to attach .odt files or even just links to their files “somewhere.” Could it have been better? Yes. Could students have read and followed the rules? Yes.

    We went to the moon and back in less than a decade back in the 1960s (I watched it live). Now, they are saying that to return, it will take longer than our effort in the 1960s. THAT is something I don’t get. We now know all of the unknowns and we have experience with so much more. That is the state of our nation. Going to Mars? Not anytime soon.

  8. A friend of mine has a kid who got hit by this (Android phone) and it’s apparently not a minor inconvenience, as the test has to be taken again, studied for again, and paid for again. Very unfair when it was not like the student did anything wrong or tried to cheat in some way.

    What I don’t get is why the accepted image format list is so short. What difference does it make? It would be trivial to feed a document into an automated conversion routine. (There are online ones that can convert thousands of formats.) This could be done post-process, if the system saved whatever file was sent to it instead of rejecting it (I’m not sure what actually happened with the submitted file).

    I definitely don’t fault the students, as HEIC is used automatically on most recent devices and few users even know the image format changed. I often got bit by this in the past when I transferred files (photos and movies) from my phone to my Dropbox and later tried to view them on a Mac running an older OS and was stunned to see they wouldn’t open. I thought something had been corrupted at first, until I realized it was just HEIC. (Once I upgraded my OS many months later, suddenly those files were viewable.)

  9. One word about the longer time to get to the moon today: “Out-sourcing”

  10. HEIC is far from an “industry standard” yet, and I’m not at all surprised that it was not on a list of common formats. But image conversion is extremely common and effective, and there was no reason to disallow any of the known modern formats.

  11. I fear that ship sailed long ago. I wrote about the problem in TidBITS back in 2009.

  12. Yes, but not by failing them on unrelated tests.

  13. Your article provided extensive insights for the time. A decade later, not much has changed except phones, pads, and chromebooks (dumb laptops) have become more toy-like in the sense that they are closed environments. Yes, anyone can download and install applications (if they have been vetted by their respective hardware firms), but the core relationship of the operating system is roughly invisible and unavailable. And so, user skills continually dumb-down.

    And that is where I have a huge beef with Apple. Now, In understand that their Mac business is dwarfed by iPhones. But, why in the world has Apple been on a relentless push to dumb-down Macintoshes in order to resemble iPhones more? Yes, I know that they want an easy on-ramp from iPhone users to Macs, but once they get to Macs, the functionality is now disjointed, unlimited, and perhaps most importantly, NOT FUN! Apple has become the man on the giant screen just before being hit by a sledgehammer!

  14. I agree, and I don’t understand why the College Board didn’t prominently feature clear information about acceptable formatting in their instructions for submitting answers. Quite often when I fill out forms online and I did not do something correctly, the form will be flagged when I first attempted to submit it so I could fix it. Since the College Board positions itself as a technological leader in the education field, it’s the least they could have done.

    Although about a million years have passed since I took the SAT test, I remember it was expensive to do so. Will the kids who got screwed have to pay to take the test again? Maybe the College Board just want to make a billion or two extra bucks? What about the kids who cannot afford to take the test a second time? It’s not like these kids have parents that can afford to shell out millions of $ to bribe College Board exam proctors like Felicity Huffman and others in the lifestyles of the rich and famous crowd did:

  15. Every test has requirements. Imagine taking this test before the advent of computers and smart phones. Would students have had to drop their tests at the post office by a certain time? In that case, would we not have expected our students to know about postage stamps and how to deposit their mail into the correct mail slot? Right now with mail-in voting, we require voters to sign the backs of their envelopes (in California); otherwise, the ballot is invalid. We expect people to follow directions. If directions are clear, precise, and provided with sufficient advance notice, then there really is no excuse for not following directions.

    In this case, testing for a college-level course requires knowing how to use a computer, or at least a smart phone and its camera as a proxy. If a student cannot perform those basic tasks, then are they ready for college? When I attended college (pre-personal computer days), my professor told us to bring blue books to our final exams. I had never heard what a blue book was. I certainly found out quickly (in pre-Google days). In today’s equivalent, many students just assume that someone will take care of the details if they do not invest the time to read and follow directions. Again, that is not college-level thinking or action.

  16. I teach only five class periods. For this year, that’s about 140 students. During this distance learning environment, I have had students submit files to me as e-mail attachments. The results have been chaos. Many students have no idea what “files” are. Literally! Students type answers on screen and then use their phones to take pictures of their computer screens and send me those (enormously large) photo files. Others send odd file formats. Others send links to cloud-based drives that require passwords I do not have. And, I am dealing with just a small number of students in the same geographic area.

    Now, extrapolate those problems to tens of thousands of students around the world! If the College Board did not limit or standardize their submission to a well-publicized and common list of file formats, they would have been met with a tsunami of disparate materials, all of which are required to be read by paid readers (high school and college teachers) spread around the country and who themselves have their own personal computers to deal with.

    Given the short time available to develop alternate plans, it is perfectly reasonable for the College Board to have limited the file types. They clearly publicized the allowable types well in advance and even offered practice upload sessions. I don’t personally know any students who participated in the practice sessions, and only a fraction of my students actually practiced writing FRQs (free-response questions) prior to the exam. Why? I can’t tell you.

  17. The College Board did what you asked…if students bothered to read the instructions. The problem, I am guessing, is that many (most?) students nowadays have no idea what formats their files are in. See the attached graphic.

  18. Nope! We would have known that the post office person would guide them in how to do it correctly and not simply refuse to accept the package (or tear it up after they had been given).

    Depends on the college, but what we certainly don’t do is gatekeep them on a random bit of computer knowledge in the context of a completely different kind of test.

    I mean, reverse the situation: a student uploading their college application is asked a question about American history (crucial to going to college in the 21st century, of course!). If they don’t answer it correctly before the deadline expires, they lose their deposit and have to start all over again.

    No?

  19. This one is completely the College Board’s fault. Given the lack of understanding of files and formats by teenagers as noted here…to give instructions to take a photo of your essay and send it…and then not to accept the default camera format of the far and away most pop phone among teenagers…well that’s just monumentally stupid…right up there with the NASA engineers forgetting to convert from metric to US measurements. Whether HEIC is a common worldwide format or not…it is the default iPhone one for several years now and I would guess that most teens get the latest model every year.

    You have to ask yourself…what we’re they thinking…and the answer comes to you…they weren’t.

  20. If the web site required uploads of a particular format, there is no reason to allow the submission of any upload that is not one of the accepted formats. The web site should have rejected the submission with an error message saying that only the following formats can be uploaded, etc.

    When you set up a new iPhone, Apple does not tell you at all that photos are stored in a particular format. There is no information at all on the Photos app itself that a particular photo is any particular format. There is no tool in the Photos app that allows you to convert a photo to another format. In short, nobody with an iPhone should be expected to know that their photos are stored in a particular format - how would they know? The setting for this is buried deep in the settings app.

    Victim-shaming seems wrong here. The test takers are the victims, they are not at fault.

  21. Your analogy would work if you had said that the college had given me the question well in advance of the application’s due date and said that I would need to answer that question for my application to be accepted. The College Board clearly listed the allowable file formats beforehand!

  22. Oh, my analogy works fine, thanks.

  23. For the basic SAT and AP courses, proficiency in image formatting is not a requirement. A student could be a wiz in history, literature, math or whatever and not know what photo format their OS or Android defaults to. Since the College Board stated requirements for using smart phones or tablets, they should have included information that HIEC or other formats are not acceptable and maybe links about checking Apple or Android sites.

  24. …as well as links to every other phone manufacturer, instructions on how to discern file formats on every smart phone operating system, including phones manufactured and supported around the world…Do you see how it is so much easier, and arguably clearer, to specify a smaller number of file formats than it is to provide information on every phone and every operating system ever in use?

    And let’s not forget those who actually took a picture with an electronic camera and transferred the file to their computer. We would need instructions for every came and every version of every operating system.

    It’s not as though everyone is on just one or two “standards” in the world.

  25. My thinking is that the premier and cutting edge college testing and advisory company in the US, a company that positions itself as The Leader in digital and online testing and technology, should have known enough to do some use case testing with appropriate audience members. And error analysis should be a part of any use case tests for large and diverse audience populations. It’s not like iPhone and iPad ownership is a rarity among the pre college age group; according to Piper Jaffray’s" first half 2020 survey of the teen market:

    “Eighty-five percent of teens own an iPhone and 88% expect an iPhone to be their next phone, both new all-time highs”

    http://www.pipersandler.com/3col.aspx?id=5956

    And expert knowledge in computer file formats is not necessary to be an excellent and accomplished student in most college subjects.

    Though I hate to divulge my age, I took the SAT and AP tests in the Before Personal Computers era. I had to take a day off from my Saturday job, shell out the fee for the test, which added up to what I earned over a few Saturdays. I also had to schlep across two NYC subway lines each way to a strange neighborhood in a strange borough and find the school without the benefit of GPS. The College Board did not provide directions, and the ones I got were rather inadequate. I made it just in the nick of time when they were about to close the doors.

    But there were some kids who were had not remembered they needed to bring number 2 pencils but were able to bum extras from other kids. One girl was crying because she could have been turned away and missed the only chance to take the test. The requirement was in a long list of requirements; it could have been me also if I had not aleady had number 2s I liked to draw with always in my bag. We were kids, not unlike many pre college kids are today. And I didn’t know about blue books till College either.

  26. In the US, it’s Android or iOS for mobile devices. HEIC is no longer a rare or unusual image format. The College Board positions itself as the premier and industry standard measuring service for pre and college skills testing, and THE cutting edge, digital technology leader for online testing. If this is true, and if they wish it to remain to be true (they do have some recent competition), they would make their testing inclusive of new and more modern formats that are rapidly gaining usage among its target audiences.

    It is the College Boards’ job to make their tests accessible and available to all who apply, including those who are not technically savvy at all. iPhone and iPad users are probably a big % of their test takers, and owners of newer models should not have to jump through hoops, or be shut out, after they paid what is probably for a kid a nice chunk of change, to take a College Board test. And a lot of unsuspecting kids got screwed very badly in this mess.

  27. You and I are likely the same approximate age: at least in terms of technology available in college!

    Colleges want resourceful students like you who are responsible and accountable. Such students identify issues, foresee problems, and take action to correct them. Your story about how you got through the college process reflects that (and roughly mirrors mine).

    Now, if I were put in a time machine and transported to today’s technology, as I was reading through College Board’s the instructions for submission (see my graphic above), if I had no clue as to what a file format was, I would not simply assume that everything was fine. Instead, just like the blue books, I would have found out about them, educated myself as necessary, and ensured that I was ready by exam day.

  28. I will not restate the need to find a least common denominator, which the College Board did. I have never seen anything from the College Board saying that they are at the forefront of digital technology. Personally, I think that their website is one of the worst, if not the worst, I know of. It is inconsistent, clunky, knocks off users repeatedly (I typically have to log in 4-5 times in a one hour session), and it almost impossible to find what you’re looking for.

    Now, for those issue, I would say criticize the College Board. But, they have never been a worldwide digital technology testing services. This year is the first that they have undertaken widespread computerized testing of this sort. Yes, they had exceptions for special needs students, but not anything like this. Again, I think that they moved mountains to make the testing process as easy as possible given the time frame. Did you know that they put online review videos for all of the courses in the last two months as well? They shifted their entire working model in just a couple of months. Some companies are able to do that, but most are not.

  29. Sure – and they deserve credit for that. But they also have to be aware that such a transition is likely to be imperfect and flawed, and that punishing the students because of that imperfection is not the way to go.

  30. One of the lessons I’ve learned over my years of writing books is that when you’re documenting something in an application and it’s requiring a lot of text, that’s an indication that the feature (or app) is badly written. When we were running Take Control and publishing books about particular apps that were in beta, we would often go to the developer and say “We’re having trouble explaining how to use this feature, and it would be much easier if it worked like this.” Much of the time, they’d change the feature to match our suggestion and it would be easier on everyone.

    That’s basically what happened here. The College Board did document the necessary file formats on its Web site (though much less consistently in email), but the mere fact that it needed to do so much documentation is indication that it should have just updated its site to accept HEIC.

  31. True…but there are relatively few formats for smartphone images. Almost everything Android uses jpeg likely as well as iPhones up until the X or whenever it changed. For the College Board not to accept the standard iPhone format was monumentally stupid. They didn’t need to accept every possible image format…just the ones they were likely to receive. Complete lack of understanding of the target audience combined with technical incompetence.

    This was a no brainer, ridiculously simple to avoid mistake.

  32. Right. Using that same logic, the College Board should have done what I originally thought they were going to do, and what the vast majority of students actually di: require that students type their answers so that no photographs of hand-written responses would be allowed in the first place.

  33. A quick look at the College Board’s PR pages turns up a lot of press releases like this:

    And links that got picked up in the press:

    I didn’t know that the College Board is a non profit that developed and oversees AP programs, and many responsible, resourceful and dedicated students are up in arms about College Board’s
    latest disaster and have initiated new class action lawsuits. The AP exam class action one of quite a few recent ones against the College Board:

    “Students whose AP exams could not be submitted last week have filed a federal class action suit against the College Board. Many students could not submit their answers and were told that they would have to take a makeup exam next month. The suit seeks to force the College Board to score their answers. FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing joined the suit, which claims breach of contract, gross negligence, misrepresentation, unjust enrichment and violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Plaintiffs will seek “compensatory damages in an amount that exceeds $500 million” and “punitive damages in an amount sufficient to punish defendants” and “to deter them from engaging in wrongful conduct in the future.”

    And I think is especially creepy for a nonprofit to engage in on the sly:

    "According to the SAT testing class action, the College Board deceives students into handing over their personal information by claiming that the data could “[g]uide your counselors in helping you plan your future” and result in better outcomes for college acceptance and financial aid.

    These representations reportedly prey on the fears and worries of high school students which convinces them to sign up with the “Student Search Service.”

    After the College Board reportedly tricks students into giving their personal information to the Student Search Service, the association sells information for between $0.42 and $0.47 per student. Information sold by the College Board allegedly includes names, birthdates, addresses, email addresses, GPA, gender, ethnicity, citizenship status, and more."

    And this:

    “The suit charges that the College Board knowingly went ahead with the use of recycled questions, despite knowing of the security risk the use of such questions creates. The suit notes that Reuters in 2016 published an in-depth report on SAT security problems, with a focus on the way versions of the test leak in Asia, and that these versions contain questions that are later recycled on other tests.”

    I think that Apple has done a brilliant job of integrating its devices into an ecosystem. Rather than dumbing Macs down, they’ve ensured their products and services play nice with one another. It’s what sets them apart from Microsoft, Google, etc. in software and Samsung, Dell, HP, Sony, Lenovo, etc.

  34. There is broad consensus that macOS has been “dumbed down” in one way or another. Very broad, as in virtually everybody but the fanbois.

    Also, whoever claimed that a desktop OS would have to be dumbed down to make it “play nice” with mobile? Nobody in their right mind would argue that because it’s preposterous. Apple can ensure Macs and iOS devices play nice without dumbing down anything. A shame they didn’t and in the process removed valuable features and options from macOS. That helped neither iOS nor integration, but did serious damage to the Mac. Fortunately, nothing that good leadership and solid engineering couldn’t fix. :crossed_fingers:

  35. Just because they are “non profit”…does not mean they don’t make money. They just don’t have shareholders, keep the money themselves, and put it “towards their mission”. My wife worked for several large doctors organizations…I will skip the names but you would recognize them if I put them in…that were non profit and those folk were rolling in money.

    Lots of nice trips for the executives, and the Christmas Party was at places like The Palms in DC…where the stuffed shrimp appetizer was larger than most entrees would be and the lobster dinner was 2 lobsters and a side of filet mignon. Then a cheesecake dessert that we had our fill at dinner and enough leftovers from all of that for 2 more dinners at home and a lunch.

    But they were non profit…right.

  36. There really isn’t.

  37. I worked for two well known and highly regarded non profits, and I can verify this is quite often 100% true. One of them had leaders who were frequently “in meetings” or “attending conferences” or “seminars” that just happened to be in luxury resorts or hotels and Michelin Guide rated restaurants in highly desirable travel destinations. Some would also coincidentally schedule meetings In cities their families live in just before holidays, to enumerate just a few. I took a job with this non profit because a few years earlier I worked for a non profit whose leaders were 100% dedicated to their mission and not a penny was questionably spent.

  38. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I am among those who think Macs have substantially improved over time. And I hope that I will live to see the day when iPads are advanced enough to run Photoshop, InDesign and other processor intensive apps by just plugging one in to a big screen and a keyboard.

  39. OK, no more about whether or not Macs have been dumbed down—it’s not a discussion that has anywhere to go, nor is it related to HEIC or the College Board.

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