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.