Friday, May 11, 2012
The Question of AP Exams
Over the past decade, the number of students taking AP exams has basically doubled. These tests are supposed to show whether high school students have mastered college-level coursework. Offering AP classes can be a way for schools to challenge students and AP classes are the closest thing we have right now to a common, high-standards curriculum. The AP Calculus exam, or AP Biology exam is the same over the whole country, and a 4 score in California means the same thing as a 4 score in New York. Of course, just because a class is offered doesn't mean students are learning -- and the AP exams show this rather well. According to this article from the Associated Press (another AP!) the proportion of students scoring the lowest number on the exam -- 1 -- has also risen dramatically, from 13% to 21% over the past decade. In addition, there are whole school districts where no one is passing (scoring a 3 or above). As the article notes, "In Indiana -- among the states pushing AP most aggressively, and with results close to the national average -- there were still 21 school districts last year where graduates took AP exams but none passed." There are also a number of specialized schools serving low income children with poor results. "Baltimore's Academy for College & Career Exploration, where 81 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch programs in 2010, added three AP classes in recent years. Over the past two years, just two of 62 exams taken by its students earned a 3." Some argue that these low passing rates show that offering AP classes is a waste. The classes are probably smaller than others, and hence resource consuming, and the teaching time spent on AP classes would be better spent making sure kids don't have gaps in their prior knowledge. Which makes sense except...we spend a lot of time and energy on making sure no child is left behind. Much of American policy is focused on bringing low achievers up to the bar. Even if no one is passing the AP exams, offering more challenging classes is at least throwing more advanced students a bone. Would it be better if more passed? Of course. But thinking in terms of offering AP classes isn't a bad mindset for a school. Ideally, some with low pass rates will keep that mindset but offer new ways of preparing for the classes and teaching them over time -- maybe digital learning strategies or other such things. Sometimes it's about student preparation, and sometimes the AP class just isn't well designed or taught (which digital learning/distance learning could help solve). I only scored a 2 on the AP Physics exam in 11th grade, but scored a 5 on the AP Calculus BC exam, a 5 on the AP Chem and a 5 on the AP Bio. I don't think it's that I wasn't capable of understanding physics. While of course I am ultimately responsible for my own learning, I think the class wasn't as good as the others, and that showed in the results. The good thing about AP exams is that at least they show that -- unlike watered down state level tests. Did you take AP classes? Are your children taking them? What do you think about them?