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?


Jo in OKC said...

In the late 80s, I took AP Exams in Calculus (BC), Computer Science, and English Language. I got credit for English I, Calc I, and the first Computer Science class (I was a computer science major).

There were no special "AP" courses at my high school. People knew about certain courses that prepared you for the exams (Calc, Chem II, etc.), but it wasn't the big deal then that it is now.

My daughter has taken 13 AP exams (#14 is this afternoon and is her last). Some of the colleges where she was accepted would have given her a lot of credit for her APs. She chose to go to one that will end up giving her no credit. However, she doesn't think she will have to repeat any coursework and she's fine with that.

She never took APs with the idea of finishing college early. She's one grade skipped and doesn't want to go to grad school. I don't think she needs to finish undergraduate early.

Instead, she took APs with an eye to documenting the difficulty of her courseload.

She has gotten some recognition -- AP National Scholar, AP State Scholar, and Siemens AP Award winner. Of those, only the Siemens came with money.

Anonymous said...

My high school in mid 90's only offered 3--Calculus (not sure of AB vs BC), Biology, and English Composition. I scored 5, 5, 4, respectively.

For my efforts, I passed out of Calc I (got 3 "free" credits once I finished Calc II), received 6 credits of biology (but that wouldn't count toward the major), and got placed in an advanced English Comp class instead of the regular section (no free English credit). I hated that English Comp teacher, and would probably have preferred to take the regular section....

So, 9 credits which at my chosen university were running ~$700/credit at the time, so it was time well spent (it was at a top-20 college too and not a lower-ranking or state school, for whatever that is worth). I did graduate with two degrees in 4 years with advanced placement and a couple of summer courses thrown in to meet the 150 credit dual-degree requirement, so I guess it also helped me finish college "early".

I bet that even the students who took the classes and didn't score a 3/4/5 probably had a head start when they hit the same material in college, so I think they are a good thing.

Jrl said...

I have nothing but good things to say about my AP experience. In the early 90s' I took and passed 8 AP exams. Two as a junior, six as a senior. I entered college a few hours short of junior status. That allowed me to spend four years completing a double major, rather than plowing through prerequisites. It also forced me to learn the study skills necessary to handle a competitive undergraduate and graduate school environment. And, really, it was the only year of prep school where I was fully engaged and challenged. APs aren't the only answer, of course, but they were great for me.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I took AP exams back in 1970 or 1971—I can't remember exactly which ones I took: probably calculus, physics, German, and maybe English. I remember thinking later that I probably should have taken chemistry also.

My son (10th grade) is taking 2 AP exams this year (Calculus BC and Physics C: Mechanics). Next year he'll probably take 2 more (Spanish and Physics C: E&M). I don't know whether he'll get AP chem or AP CS—most likely he'll just rely on community college or university courses as a high school student to validate those.

The problem with AP courses that have high fail rates is that they are shortchanging the students who could handle a proper AP course, by lowering the level of the course to an ordinary high school class.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Incidentally, I posted on AP courses earlier today at

Mick said...

We didn't have AP courses offered, but I took several of the exams on my own or as a lunch period independent study option. Those exams either gave me credit or advanced pracement for quite a few classes in college, as did dual enrollment.

DC21 and DC18 have taken a few AP classes and were well-challenged and taught during those courses. DC21 probably had the best time with the courses, as he is PG and 2E--the courses were a good balance of advanced material without as much written output as dual enrollment would have involved.

lgm said...

No AP courses offered at my rural high school in the early 80s. I went to a homework free high school and only felt underprepared in freshman chemistry in college with an engineering major. Having an AP level would not have helped; the instructor was too new to know how to teach well. Improving course quality is the answer to improving AP scores - ime students who are stronger visually than verbally are in need of textbooks plus teachers that know how to do more than talk. Be interesting to know how many low scoring students don't have a decent textbook or online resource such as Study Island or Castle Learning available to overcome the teaching. I had a bad algebra teacher at first; fortunately I had had independent study in 8th grade math, so knew how to read a textbook and learn despite the teacher. (Thankfully I only attended that school or a short period of time).

Jude said...

When I graduated from high school in 1973, there wasn't a heck of a lot of point to sticking around for a gifted kid at a rural school. My son, on the other hand, just graduated with 10 classes--two band, three AP, one philosophy, and three independent studies, one in music theory. He was bored as a freshman and as a sophomore, but once he started taking AP classes, he became much happier with his education. He took three tests this year and presumably did fine, although we don't know yet.