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 tweetsfrom 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!