It’s AP ex(sc)am time again!

What does a test mean when the passing grade is only 36% ???

The first week in May means the annual start of Advanced Placement (AP) examinations.  Unfortunately, having prepared students for these exams for the past 4-5 years, I have learned all too much about these tests.

Parents don’t realize that the passing scores for at least some of these exams are set very low.  When their son or daughter passes with a 3, 4, or 5, parents are elated without understanding what this really means.

For example, the minimum passing score to get a 3 for AP Physics 1 for 2015 was only 41%.  Despite that low bar, 63.1% of all students who took the exam were not able to pass it!

55% was the minimum score for a 4, and 71% for a 5.

Unconfirmed reports state that the AP Physics 1 passing grade in 2016 may have been 36%, but the College Board does not readily release such information to the public.

Meanwhile their test fees are pushing close to $100 per exam!

I have been able to find the following public link to score reports that are several years old.  However, exams scores are supposed to be kept comparable from year-to-year, so these older examples may not be too far off from current scoring tiers.

If we look at the 2008 scores for Calculus AB and BC, we see that the minimum passing score for AB is 39/108 or 36%.  48% correct awarded students a 4, and 63% was the minimum for the top grade of 5!  In most normal classes, 63% would be considered a D!

Despite these low bars, the student results are not outstanding.  Those test results (% of students getting 1’s through 5’s) are public.  Here is one such site that compiles the results from 2016 back to 2011, but the raw % scores resulting in each grade are nowhere to be found.

Other than the cynical purpose of generating a lot of exam fees for the “non-profit” College Board, what purpose do these exams serve?

Clearly they allow the elite colleges to spread out student performance results and give their admissions offices a way to decide between the thousands of students who apply every year, all with 4.0+ GPAs awarded by their local teachers.

HOWEVER, what does this mean for the quality of learning for most students who are not at the very top???

From my direct experience with students, the AP curriculum covers a large amount of material very quickly.  Because the exams are in early May, the curriculum must be completed before then, wasting the final month of school, and making the pace of “learning” even more hectic.

The exams are also filled with very tricky, challenging questions to fulfill the College Board’s quest to, in old school, sexist language, “separate the men from the boys.”

The consequence of this fast-paced, trick-filled curriculum is not quality learning for a very significant number of students, but instead, frantic memorization of test methods and past exam question tricks, most of which disappears right after the student completes the course.

Even worse, this curriculum leads to significant amounts of cheating on local classroom tests!

I participate in a physics teachers mailing list.  Only a month or so back, yet another teacher complained of a cheating scandal at her school in the Bay Area and asked what other teachers do to combat the problem.  Replies came in from all over California.  Some teachers go as far as making up FOUR different versions of each exam for their classes, and all respondents acknowledged that cheating was a widespread problem!

I submitted a reply that maybe we should consider changing the curriculum due to all of the flaws I mentioned above, but AP teachers themselves are powerless to make this change, so the system goes on.

One presidential award-winning teacher from Sacramento claimed that the problem was not with the AP classes themselves, but that too many parents think that their children are Harvard-material when they are not, that too many students take these classes who should not be in them, and that their schools cheer them on instead of requiring prerequisite classes or stopping them before they get in over their heads.

I have written about these problems elsewhere in this blog, and call that article once again to the attention of parents who may not have read it.

Due to the competition to get into top colleges, and the demands on high schools from parents for access to these AP classes, I do not see this system changing any time soon, even though it does a great disservice to many students who are average to above average, but not at the very top.  I do think that there should be challenging, but less frantic, non-AP class options available to high school students, as I have written elsewhere, but this will not happen unless parents ask their schools for these options.

Finally, you do not have to take my opinion on faith.  The top colleges themselves are aware of this problem.  Here is one example from the Berkeley math department.  A similar statement could previously be found at Stanford’s Math department website, but they have replaced it with a math diagnostic test to see what students have really learned.  This is despite the fact that Stanford is now the most selective college in the country, so, if the current system is so great, why should this be necessary for their supposedly incoming geniuses???

The answer is simple.  They can’t trust the test scores for any purpose other than sorting.

P.S. – Please scroll down to the Comments if you would like to see my detailed response to the physics teachers mailing list about cheating in AP classes.

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

23 thoughts on “It’s AP ex(sc)am time again!”

  1. Below is the text of my message to a physics teachers mailing list in response to a discussion about AP test cheating.


    This is not the first time that cheating in AP classes has been a discussion topic here. Perhaps we should pause for a minute and consider why this happens.

    It is my understanding that last year about 60% of students only received a 1 or 2 on the AP Physics 1 exam. This statistic is concerning enough, but the really damning statistic is not readily available to the public – students apparently only needed approximately >= 36% to score a 3 or higher!!!

    Please pause and think about that for a minute!

    These kids are trapped in a system that encourages them to take AP classes to get into decent colleges and then overloads many of them with too much material for which they are not really intellectually ready to tackle. How often have there been discussion threads here lamenting students’ lack of mathematical preparation, for example?

    Compound this with the fact that many students load up their schedule with multiple AP classes, and it is not surprising that they start looking for every conceivable trick to get through these exams.

    Meanwhile the College Board keeps charging exam fees that are around $100 per student now …

    When I have raised these issues at public parent meetings (and in articles on my blog at ), I always get push back from the parents of the successful students. These parents are naturally in favor of a system that gives their kids an edge.

    However, clearly based on the test scores, a large number of students are struggling with AP material and are unfortunately driven to desperate measures.

    Are we surprised that they cheat? Should we be surprised that our society is dividing into the “1% and the 99%?” We can see it happening in our classrooms! Most wealthy parents hire tutors to get their kids through these classes; poorer families can not afford this route. So much for the education system being the path to “upward mobility” when the curriculum has become so intense that many students need help outside of classroom to master it.

    It seems to me that we are all trapped in a system that encourages rushing through the curriculum, and teaching to the test instead of teaching for mastery.

    Until the top schools change their admissions policies I don’t see how we can exit this morass. There is some evidence Harvard, Yale, etc. are rethinking admissions policy, but don’t hold your breath:

    At the very least I would like to see the College Board post the actual percentage scores for receiving 1-5s instead of only posting the grade distributions, but I would not be surprised if their financial interests would be impacted if they did so. If parents knew what a scam these tests are as evidenced by the AP Physics 1 results above, perhaps there would be a greater movement for reform.

    Again, I am sure that some (many??) teachers will say that their AP students are doing fine. The best kids will always find a way to survive (though whether they would thrive better under a different system is a separate question).

    I also personally believe that this system is turning kids off from pursuing careers in math and science. I see too many students who view their STEM classes simply as a hurdle to overcome instead of something that they enjoy.

    I am old enough that they did not offer AP classes when I went to school, but I loved science and had a career goal of becoming a scientist. I wrote about what motivated me here ( ).

    Sadly, at the risk of sounding like “an old geezer,” I see very little of this motivation among students today. In November 2015, I bought copies for all of my physics students of the Scientific American issue celebrating the 100th anniversary of General Relativity. Since none of the magazine was “on the test,” the reaction that I got in return was underwhelming to say the least…

    In conclusion, we can find ways to possibly deal with cheating, but I submit that we are dealing with symptoms instead of fixing the underlying cause of the problem: *** too much material in the curriculum covered too quickly, compounded by the perceived need to take too many of these classes. ***

    The real question should be: how do we exit from this morass??


    David Kristofferson, Ph.D.
    Kristofferson Tutoring:
    EduIssues Blog:


  2. One aspect of AP exams that my middle child found helpful is that he could take the exams without having to take the courses. Of the 9 exams he took, chem and European history were the only ones backed by a traditional AP class. The US Government and Politics exam was back by an online AP class offered through K12, physics C mechanics and physics C electricity and magnetism by an AP class for Physics AB, environmental science and computer programming were independent study in school, calculus BC was backed by the science/engineering calculus sequence at our local university, and microeconomics was a bit of home tutoring. This is valuable to precocious students who do not have access to specialized academic high schools like Stuyvesant or Thomas Jefferson.


    1. I’m happy your child was successful with AP. This does not negate the fact that the aggregate test results mentioned above are pretty sad for the majority of students. The school system has a responsibility to try to educate all students, and is clearly not doing most of them a service in the cases cited above.


      1. If your argument is that some or even many students now enrolled in AP classes would be better served by taking an alternative class, undoubtedly that is correct. It is also true that some, perhaps many, students would be better served by taking an AP class than the course they are currently enrolled in (The median size high school in my relatively rural state is a bit under 250 students, so many of the high schools in my state do not offer any AP classes). For those students the problem with the classes they are enrolled in is too little material in the curriculum covered too slowly.

        By not having AP or IB classes available, many school systems in my state are failing to fulfill their responsibility to educate all students.


      2. No disagreement there.

        The dilemma is how are students distributed between the AP and non- AP classes? If they self-select and AP classes are seen as the key to getting in to college, they naturally choose the AP route, and we end up with the results reflected in the test scores above. If the school “streams” them, then the schools get flack for “holding deserving students back.”

        The College Board could require prerequisite classes, but that would be tough to enforce.

        Finally, and this is a bit “tongue-in-cheek,” they could set up pre-AP class prerequisite knowledge testing, and charge students both coming and going!!! Only students that scored at a certain level on the prerequisite test would be permitted to take the corresponding AP class!!! 😉


      3. P.S. – in physics, and I am sure in some other technical areas, a lot of high schools have teachers in the subject who were not physics majors. This sometimes means that AP classes in those schools are a “bridge too far” for the teacher and, consequently, not an unadulterated joy for their students. There is “no one size fits all” solution which is why nationally imposed “solutions” often fail.


      4. I don’t think you can use the percentage scores on AP exams for a 3,4, or 5 as evidence that the AP exams set a low bar without taking a good long look at the questions on the exam. A 63% score on the exams I give in my principles class would be a D, but the student would earn credit toward graduation. A 63% score on the Putnam exam would mean that the student is among the very best undergraduate mathematicians in the country. I should also point out that there is not really a “passing score”. The credit awarded for for an AP course differs from university to university and from department to department within a university. The University of Michigan Mathematics Department, for example, only awards credit to a student who received a 5 on the Calc AB exam (they take a 4 or 5 on the Calc BC exam) while the University of Michigan Political Science Department will award credit for any score of 3 or above.

        Getting students and teachers into the right courses is very important but difficult. We are likely to make type 1 and type 2 errors with any system you might choose. I would worry more about excluding students who should have been allowed to enroll in advanced classes than including students who would benefit more from a slower paced class with less material.


      5. I agree with your point about percentage scores having different meanings for different tests, but I think the AP exams are closer to traditional assessment tests than something that would be given to geniuses at, e.g., an international math Olympiad. After all, AP classes are touted as more rigorous classes for a lot of high school students, not just for the top 0.001%, so the percentage scores should correlate more with what you give in your class instead of with the Putnam exam.

        In any event, my criticism does not rest on this point alone. I see first hand all the problems the AP physics and math curricula causes for a lot of students in terms of its excessive breadth and rapid pace every day. Because of that, the lack of disclosure of the percentage scores by the College Board is merely the confirmation of all of my other experiences, not in itself the key issue.


      6. I wonder if you see a random sample of AP physics and AP math students in your position as a tutor. I would think that you are much more likely to see the students who are having difficulty with the course than students that are doing well in the course and much more likely to see students who have parents who are aggressively involved in their children’s education than parents who let their children make their own educational choices.

        Do you think that there might be a self-selection issues in your first hand experience?


      7. Yes, that is definitely a consideration that I am aware of and is true for a subset of my students, but four of my students have been accepted to Ivies or Stanford in the last two years.

        I was also previously a high school physics teacher and college physics TA at UCSD, so I have a decent idea of what constitutes reasonable pacing and an adequate number of practice problems during a physics course. It is my considered opinion that my students’ AP physics classes move too quickly and assign inadequate practice problems for homework. The AP math classes tend to assign a more reasonable number of practice problems but still tend to move so fast that the constant changing of topics flummoxes many students and damages their grades on classroom tests.

        The gifted students can survive (and some thrive) in this situation as you indicate. You are clearly concerned about gifted students not being held back, and that is a very valid concern.

        My point is that the advantage that these kids get from the AP curriculum also leads to significant learning problems for those not so fortunate. Those good, but not absolutely top-notch, students feel compelled to compete in these AP classes or risk being assigned to an inferior college education. This leads to a significant number getting in over their heads as the tests scores that I cite show. I believe this results in an inferior, far more frustrating learning experience for them than if they took non-AP classes.

        Unfortunately in our local high school math department, there are almost no non-AP options after a certain level.


      8. Perhaps it is more a problem of the perception that “students feel compelled to compete in these AP classes or risk being assigned to an inferior college education” than it is a problem with the AP courses themselves.

        I teach at state flagship research university which offers automatic admission to any student with a C average over a set of academic courses. No AP classes required, no extra weighting of AP course grades. My department has educated several Nobel Prize winners, multiple captains of industry, and at least one person listed in Time Magazines 100 most influential people in the world. My former undergraduate students have earned doctoral degrees from Harvard, Duke, and MIT among other institutions. It would be a mistake to think that the over two dozen Rhodes scholars from my university (more than UC Berkley) received an inferior education.


      9. I agree. There are many excellent institutions of higher learning in this country and a person’s results usually depend more upon what they put into the educational process than where they study. However, it sure does help to have, e.g., the Harvard network, when looking for a job! Many Silicon Valley companies are reported to skew their hiring heavily towards those schools’ alums, which is why the push for AP is so strong out here.

        My original goal was to be a professor. I did my undergraduate work at UCSD in a program called “chemical physics” which was a joint program between the physics and chem departments there. I worked in a physics lab my senior year and was also a TA for freshmen physics. I later taught physics and math in the Peace Corps for two years and then went back to get a Ph.D. in biochemistry to do something more medically relevant. I gravitated to biophysics, and was offered postdoc positions from a Nobel Laureate at MIT and one from a Nobel Laureate at Yale (the latter had not yet won the prize though). Partially for family reasons, I turned those down and chose a postdoc at UCSF in the lab of a prof who was head of the American Biophysical Society, and then, as the academic job market was so saturated, a second postdoc in the lab of person who is now a department head at Harvard and was president of the American Society for Cell Biology.

        Competition for academic jobs was fierce, e.g., 300-500 applicants for one position at good schools. The place where I finally got an offer was not somewhere whereI wanted to live, so I ultimately joined a scientific software company in Silicon Valley. I have been involved in molecular biology computing projects for the Human Genome Project and became a Fellow of AAAS for work that I did for biologists in the early days of the Internet, so it has been an interesting career.

        I am going on 64 now and retired early with the goal of passing on what I learned to the next generation, but what I have seen in the high schools has often perturbed me, leading to my opening up this blog after writing an earlier series of articles for local social media that are archived at That’s where I relate the rest of the story about why I chose this retirement career if you are interested.

        Thanks again for your comments and participation!


      10. Perhaps you could point some of the parents of your students to the economic literature about the returns to college education. Choice of major has a much larger impact on earning than choice of school. A student accepted at an elite school who does not attend the elite school earns as much as a student who actually attends the elite school. There is some evidence that there is no difference in earnings for students that applied to schools like Harvard and Stanford and students who attended Harvard and Stanford. I should add that this is not the case for students of underrepresented minorities or first generation college students, but I am guessing that those are not your typical clients.

        The child who took the 9 AP exams (and earned 25 university undergraduate and graduate credit hours while in high school) now writes code in the valley. Among his fellow software engineers at his first job was a high school drop out. If you can write code, you can get a job, no matter the formal certification you have. This is likely specific to being a software engineer, but it might be a comfort to the parents of your clients.

        You might have dodged a bullet by leaving the academic track. My colleague who works on the academic labor market says that the science market is “broken” and that the wise undergraduate goes to medical school rather than graduate school in the natural sciences and the wise graduate student is not seduced by post doc after post doc.

        Liked by 1 person

      11. Thanks again. Feel free to post references if you have them handy.

        I have no regrets on my career path in retrospect, though the choice to leave academics was very hard at the time at age 33 since I had focused on that goal for such a long time. After I finally made the jump, I kicked myself in the posterior for not doing it sooner.

        I’ve made contributions in several areas during the course of my academic and business career, am financially secure which enables me to help others and stand up for what I believe, have two successful grown daughters, and am giving back to my community. Couldn’t ask for much more!

        Liked by 1 person

      12. PS – Although I try hard to interest my students in science and math, I usually encourage them to pursue something more practical such as engineering as opposed to pure research as I did. This is because you are correct about the job problems for academic scientists.

        Unfortunately, all of the high pressure classes that my students are taking are often counterproductive in this regards which led to my advice to parents in my blog article about how to really interest kids in math and science.


  3. From the N.Y. Times:

    “Elite institutions like Dartmouth have long discussed how to handle the growing number of freshmen seeking credit for top scores on A.P. or International Baccalaureate exams. Dartmouth changed its policy after an experiment measuring whether top A.P. scores indicated college-level competence.

    “The psychology department got more and more suspicious about how good an indicator a 5 on the A.P. psych exam was for academic success,” said Hakan Tell, a classics professor who heads Dartmouth’s Committee on Instruction, so the department decided to give a condensed version of the Psych 1 final to incoming students instead of giving them credits.

    Of more than 100 students who had scored a 5 on the A.P. exam, 90 percent failed the Dartmouth test. The other 10 percent were given Dartmouth credit.

    An official of the College Board, which administers the A.P. program, found Dartmouth’s findings “very difficult to believe.””


  4. Huh?!? 36% is a passing score because CollegeBoard has created a rigorous assessment and is normalizing after the fact.

    When I design a math test *for the classroom* I know that my administrators are not looking for me to curve something significantly, as this tends to raise alarm bells. So instead, I have to come up with a test where the average RAW score is above classroom-passing (at my school, a 70%). This leads to problems: students quickly hit the maximum (100) if you’ve designed a test for many of the students to get in the 70-80 range.

    On the flip side, it is VERY common in college instruction to see exams curved significantly because a) the POINT is to see your normalized score compared to others, not your score in a vacuum! and b) it offers much more room to parse out students since it is almost impossible to hit the cap. CollegeBoard is using this model, and administering a rigorous exam s.t. it will be possible to examine students’ mastery in relation to each other. The 36% is not a “bad” Physics student (if you look at their classroom grades, they are probably not failing the class) other than the fact that they’re taking Physics 1, which is trivial. They are simply taking a more challenging test.


    1. Yes, Mr. Moon, you describe precisely what the College Board is doing to spread out the curve. There is nothing inherently wrong with that practice when viewed in isolation.

      My point is that the AP physics and calculus classes take this to an extreme in the curriculum. The classes load up the curriculum with so many topics and include so much nitpicking detail, that the result is a poor learning experience for high school students that usually leaves them feeling frantic and does not lead to an abiding interest in the subjects. The classes are great at spreading out the curve; they do a very poor job of creating future physicists or mathematicians with an abiding interest in the subjects.


      1. That, personally, was not my experience — AP Calculus BC was too fast for me, but AB moved at a very comfortable pace to get through all the curriculum. I took Physics C and as a result had a bear of a year, but c’mon — students know what they’re getting into! I found the information-rich nature of these courses wonderful, as I felt I got much more out of these classes than most of my high school coursework (and indeed some of my college courses!). Many years later, Chemistry, Physics, and Calculus are still great loves of mine and the skills never seem to fade.

        What you said above about kids being forced into these classes for college admissions is a good point. If they are truly unprepared for Calculus, it can always wait until the Senior year (or can be made up in college, in more serious cases). I do not think unprepared students should be forced into AP STEM classes, but I also shudder at the idea that more than a few high schoolers without serious interference from something else going on in their lives would sincerely be unprepared for Calc AB or Physics 1. Disturbingly, this is a class of student I have noticed more and more in my years teaching. Hopefully, we are able to reverse this pattern as a society and return to raising students who can at least get through the opening steps into mathematics 🙂


      2. Let me sum up my concern succinctly. Too many high school students go straight into AP (college) Physics without taking a high school physics class as a prerequisite and are not prepared for the amount of material in the AP curriculum. This is evidenced by AP Physics 1 having the lowest average score of any AP exam *even after* the exam was overhauled in 2015 to reduce the topics covered.

        Your personal experience *is* quite different from the great majority of the students I encounter – too often memorization and other testing “strategies” become an end in itself even among “good” students.


  5. David, Your observations match exactly my personal experiences with my kids in the US. (I have a PhD in Chemical Engineering from a top US university, but I grew up and got my undergraduate degree in Europe.) The publication referenced below clearly states that a regular physics course in high school is as good as an AP physics course in preparing the students for college level physics courses. Even more dramatic is the fact that the score in the AP Physics exam does not correlate with the performance of the students in their physics courses in college.

    I find all the STEM AP courses having too much material, and this is particularly true for the AP Physics (BTW I love physics, and my first kid is an MD today). Unfortunately, after stopping the AP Physics B course, the physics courses in our high school cover only half of the core subjects (!). As you say, the 1 vs. 99% design at work…

    What do AP physics courses teach and the AP physics exam measure?
    Eric W. Burkholder and Carl E. Wieman
    Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 15, 020117 – Published 26 August 2019


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