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Should we inflate Advanced Placement grades?

The Rochester Community public schools in Michigan do a fine job. Their leaders often have great ideas. But according to school board member Mike Reno, they are talking about doing something to their Advanced Placement courses that could be troublesome, even though I once thought it was a good idea. (Some people who know me say that is the very definition of a bad idea.)

Here is what Reno revealed in an email to me:

"Our district, in an effort to increase AP participation, is proposing to lower the grading scale for AP classes. The idea is based on the notion that kids in Rochester don’t want to take AP classes because they are afraid that the tougher work will lead to a lower grade, and they don’t want to damage their GPA for fear it will harm their college entrance chances. The district’s logic suggests by that lowering the grading scale, students will have a better chance of getting a better grade, and therefore be more willing to take the class.

"This is not their brainchild. They claim other districts are doing it. They are calling it internal weighting. They believe this is a better approach than grade weighting, where an A in an AP class would be worth, say, 5.0 instead of 4.0. The district argues that colleges strip off weighted grades, whereas an internal weight benefits the student during college entrance. (I believe grade weighting has value when calculating class ranking, vals, sals, top scholars, etc, but think colleges are free to recalculate anything they’d like). Am a crazy to think this is a bunch of nonsense?"

When I first began writing about AP in the 1980s, I saw some sense in AP teachers being somewhat easy on report card grades. You wanted kids to stick with the course. Since they would take an AP exam written and graded by outside experts, they would know eventually how close they were to a college standard. If the student got an A in the course but a 3 (the equivalent of a college C-plus) on the AP exam, that would be a useful wakeup call. I recalled that the AP teacher who inspired me to be an education writer, Jaime Escalante, was livid when another AP teacher gave Fs to a lot of students, leading them to drop the course.

But I later realized I had misunderstood what Escalante was doing. He graded his students pretty tough. He wouldn't flunk them because that would be too much of a turn-off, but if they were doing the kind of work that would get them a 3 on the exam, he came them a C, not an A, on their classwork. He understood that they needed to know BEFORE the exam what they were likely to get, so they would be motivated to work harder if they needed to catch up.

That is precisely what many AP and International Baccalaureate (the other popular college-level program in U.S. high schools) experts told me when I asked them about the Rochester idea. Roy Sunada, for many years a leading AP teacher and administrator at Marshall Fundamental High School in Pasadena, Calif., said none of his first reactions to undermining AP course grades were printable. "I will stand firm in my belief that artificial measures or grand-sweeping programs are not productive in encouraging students to seek academic rigor," he said.

Reno himself had good arguments against the Rochester proposal. "If AP in high school is not the time to introduce the real-life challenges to our youngsters, then when is the right time? Do we allow them to leave our community with high hopes and aspirations--and perhaps a false sense of their skills--only to get crushed in college when they are not prepared?" He also put in a good word for "the kids that really bust their humps and get real A grades and stay on top of the game. Don't they deserve the reward and distinction?"

On the other side was Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president who directs the AP program. He thought the Rochester idea had merit. He called it "another, viable way to weight AP grades in ways that more fairly represent the level of achievement." He and other veteran educators also supported the extra grade point weighting system for AP and IB found in many districts. In Fairfax County, Va., for instance, a student who gets a C in her AP course will see that letter on her report card, but she will get an extra grade point for it, a 3.0 instead of the usual 2.0. That bonus, several teachers say, is important to students who know they are going to struggle in the course.

Erin McVadon Albright, the IB coordinator at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, said that was a powerful inducement for one of her most intriguing students. He came from a low-income family that did not even have an Internet connection at home. He wanted to play football, which meant he had to take a government class online over the summer to have time for IB. He was using the computer at the office where his mother was a receptionist, but she was afraid someone would complain. He almost dropped the course until Albright managed to lend him a school laptop which he could take the public library to do his work.

Jon Gubera, AP director for the Indiana education department, said "grades are the single most relevant academic currency for students. In my experience, the best way we were able to incent marginal students to take a leap of faith and join an AP course was through providing a weighted grade so as to reassure them that their overall GPAs would not be ruined by earning a C in an AP course."

Gubera had little problem with the Rochester idea. It reminded him of what happens on many college campuses--"a 70 percent on a final exam, for example, translates into an A in the course." He also thinks some AP teachers do similar internal weighting on their own, without any guidance from their districts. They will give the student working at the 3 level a representative C in course work leading up to the exam. But when they mark the final report card--weeks after the student has taken the AP exam--they will award extra credit and bump them up to a B.

Does that make sense? Grading in American high schools is like cage fighting. There aren't many rules. If there are AP or IB teachers out there with their own special tricks, post a comment here to educate the rest of us.

For more on Education, please see

By Jay Mathews  | November 27, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Advanced Placement, College Board, Erin Albright, International Baccalaureate, Jaime Escalante, Jon Gubera, Mike Reno, Rochester school board, Roy Sunada, Trevor Packer, grade weighting  
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Next: Five reasons why I am a bad education writer


As you write about all these complications with grades, does it ever occur to you that the big issue is simply that, the grades?

If we could stretch ourselves to consider education without grades we could actually focus on learning.

Posted by: Jenny04 | November 27, 2009 7:08 AM | Report abuse

As an AP educator I struggle daily with how to correlate “3” level work for an AP exam with the appropriate grade for the class. Without going into any great layer of detail on my own policies I think I can safely say that it won’t be hard to figure out for most colleges. Colleges know if any given high school is using a weighted GPA. A college can also figure out in a hurry, using their vast databases of applicant transcripts, if a school is giving internally weighted grades to AP students. If students with “A” grades are typically getting scores of “1” or “2” on an AP exam, your grading procedures are in need of some improvement.

Posted by: Mostel26 | November 27, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

As an AP instructor I find that an AP course is the first time students and parents find out exactly which skills are in place and which need to be put in place. For my students, the writing assignments indicate the true level of proficiency. These appear to be in accordance with AP exam scores. What I find most disturbing is not the weighting of AP grades, but the inflating of grades in Honors level courses, those courses taken prior to an AP class, which are designed to lead students to AP level study. This is where schools and/or enabling parents are giving students a false sense of skills needed to be successful in AP Level study. Sometimes it's just one or two skills that need work before the student can achieve more. Grades 9 and 10 are where mom and dad need to cut the cord, let go, and let their child make mistakes in order to find his strengths. AP courses will take that child in a healthy academic direction, regardless of grades earned prior to that level of study.

Posted by: emmaparker | November 27, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

It is hard to balance fairness with competition at the top academic levels. However the kids with these problems are the least of our worries.

Posted by: ASKENNEDY | November 27, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Oh please no, don't do this! I am a college professor who struggles daily with the misperceptions of my freshmen students, who think that if they show the merest of effort, they should get A's. If AP classes are supposed to be equivalent to college classes, they need to be graded the same way so the students undestand what is expected in college. The AP exams don't help with that - students tend to internalize the level of effort they put forth in the actual class, not the grade on a one-shot exam.

Posted by: bkmny | November 27, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

"the kids with these problems are the least of our worries."

This is a big part about what is wrong with the American Educational system. Why is it not a concern that the kids at the top get held down?

Too many times, one method used to "close the achievement gap" is to forget about the kids that are on the high side of the gap. If everybody gets an F, the gap is closed! Its not just the average American student that is falling behind his oversees peer, the best and brightest are being ill served as well, and that is just as serious.

Posted by: someguy100 | November 27, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

A minor correction: this story is about Rochester Community Schools in Rochester Hills, MI, not Rochester NY.

Posted by: K12Reformer | November 27, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

I also think that the idea, while well intentioned, addresses a symptom, not the disease. AP and IB succeed in districts that create a culture that values them. This is a gimmick that attempts to shortcut the hard work that goes into creating that culture.

Posted by: K12Reformer | November 27, 2009 12:30 PM | Report abuse

I just made a post that was "held for release"--I'm not sure what activates that, but I'd appreciate it if it were posted.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 27, 2009 12:30 PM | Report abuse

"If students with “A” grades are typically getting scores of “1” or “2” on an AP exam, your grading procedures are in need of some improvement. "

This is the norm in most urban schools that rank high on Jay's Challenge Index.

In fact, there was a big deal a few years ago when two students passed an AP course for the FIRST TIME.

I don't know if my post will ever be released, but I said that Jay, the College Board, and vested administrators everywhere are actively encouraging fraud.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 27, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

These kids are going to have to take a national exam. Shouldn't they have a realistic idea of what the calibre of their work is? One of the things wrong with everything in our society is the inflating of every little thing so that no one has an accurate view of anything, especially themselves.

Posted by: littleoldlady | November 27, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

To "littleoldlady"...

Only 38% of the students in Rochester who take AP classes actually take the AP exam.

Posted by: K12Reformer | November 27, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

This is assuming that it is a good thing for mediocre students to take AP classes. I don't think it is.

You don't have to shove yourself onto the upper end of the bell curve to be successful in life. The default should be students adjusting their work ethics, study habits, and schedules to meet the demand of their classes. The classes shouldn't be required to always reciprocate, or be the first things to change.

Posted by: j762 | November 27, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Well, I have the opposite experience to comment on. I had a teacher who boasted on the first day of class that he failed students who passed the AP test with a 3. It was AP Biology. I took his class in 12th grade, got a D most of the year (including when colleges saw my grades mid-year), with great effort pulled it up to a C by the end of the year, and got a 4 on the AP test. No college ever understood the amount of effort that I made to get that C was greater than the effort to get an A in some other classes, or saw the 4 on the AP exam that showed that I knew the material (that was long after admission decisions had been made). The AP exam was easy compared to this teacher's own exams.

But, in the end, I did not get admitted to my top-choice college. I am sure that the D that they saw on my transcript in the middle of my senior year had something to do with it.

I agree that students getting an A in the AP class and then getting a 1 or 2 on the AP test is a problem. But, I think that we should acknowledge that students getting a D in a class and a 4 or 5 on the AP exam is also a problem. It's not fair to the student who is applying to competitive-admission colleges.

Posted by: AnonymousBE1 | November 27, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Diluting educational standards is typical in many public schools. The way things are going at many, if not most high schools, the grading "standards" in AP classes will be similar to general education, non college prep classes of ten or so years ago.

The Obama administration, as several previous presidencies, seeks to improve the public schools. Practices as described in this article show how difficult this goal will be to attain.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | November 27, 2009 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I teach AP world to tenth grade students (mostly pre-IB, a few brave tradtional kids) half of my day and IB History of the Americas (seniors) the other half.

My 10th graders are taking, for the most part, their first college level class, and I see my job as taking 9th grade kids and turning them into college-level students. One summer doesn't make a 9th grade student ready for college level work. So, my deal with my students and parents, openly announced, is that I will build in a safety net for the first semester as I teach them how to read a college level textbook and create new strategies (outlining essays, DBQs, guess and go M/C etc.). While our IB program is aspirational (no tests, grade requirements) I especially want to keep and motivate the traditional program kids willing to take my class.

What I don't announce is that I will never, at any point in the year, fail a student who is trying. Give them D's, yes.

How do I do it? A few extra credit opportunities that reinforce skill sets, then try to reinforce work habits. for example, my 9 weeks final for the first quarter consisted of 70 M/C questions taken from previous class tests- for a fifty minute exam. I had given some 200 M/C questions during the first quarter. I let the kids form work groups and prepare a study guide that identified the correct answers for each question I had asked. Then, they had one weekend before the test to memorize the correct answers for every question I had asked so far. That is, I believe, a great way to embed knowledge in a cumulative course.

The result was class averages on the test of well over 90%, which salvaged many a weaker grade to that point. They worked. I rewarded. Those who didn't put in the effort got a quiet talk about what was necessary to make it in a college level course, a few parent-teacher how-can-you-help-your-student meetings, and I had a lot of happy, motivated kids going into second quarter, because they knew that they'd worked hard and EARNED their better grades.

Gifts for simply taking AP classes don't, imo, work. Supporting and motivating kids does. Btw, I am an AP reader with a 80% plus pass rate and my IB kids (93 last year) had a 100 % pass rate. Ergo, whatever I'm doing, it isn't weakening their ability to pass externally moderated exams.

Posted by: Bobller | November 27, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

Erg, to clarify: sorry, I should have said my IB seniors had a 100% pass rate on the IB History exam.

Posted by: Bobller | November 27, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Why not let the actual score on the test determine whether you get a bonus?

Posted by: staticvars | November 27, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

The only thing that matters in an AP Course is how you do on the AP exam. People who take these courses should not really need much motivation in terms of grades. If they do, they don't belong.

Posted by: peterroach | November 27, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you made a mistake. You stated that a weighted "C" would be a 4.0 instead of the usual 3.0. In fact, a weighted "C" would be a 3.0, instead of the usual 2.0.

Posted by: rlalumiere | November 27, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Note to Mike Reno: Students who choose not to enroll in AP courses because they worry their GPA's will be adversely affected are students who probably should not be taking AP courses in the first place.

Should I take AP courses, Honors courses, or General courses? How will my GPA be affected? Will AP courses on my transcript get an admission officer to accept me into the college of my choice? How does this play out when competing for scholarships? These are the real questions along with other objective and subjective factors students, parents, teachers, and school counselors take into account when deciding on next years classes, including AP courses. But the primary reasons students choose AP courses are 1) they want the college credit and 2) they want to learn the content and skills that will prepare them for college. Rightfully so.

Posted by: motherseton | November 27, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

"the kids with these problems are the least of our worries."

This is a big part about what is wrong with the American Educational system. Why is it not a concern that the kids at the top get held down?

Too many times, one method used to "close the achievement gap" is to forget about the kids that are on the high side of the gap. If everybody gets an F, the gap is closed! Its not just the average American student that is falling behind his oversees peer, the best and brightest are being ill served as well, and that is just as serious.

Posted by: someguy100 | November 27, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse"

Bullony. Really intelligent kids can educate themselves with little or no help from Teachers or Mentors.

AP is just one of the many subtle aids the System uses to drag your very average kid up to a level sufficent to beat out the really smart but unanointed kids.

Monte Haun

Posted by: mchaun | November 27, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

"I agree that students getting an A in the AP class and then getting a 1 or 2 on the AP test is a problem. But, I think that we should acknowledge that students getting a D in a class and a 4 or 5 on the AP exam is also a problem. "

Jay doesn't think this is a problem at all. But it's one of the things I wrote about in the post that was held up. Why was it held up again, admin folks?

The lack of consistency in grades is an enormous public policy problem and one that Jay's Challenge Index contributes to, for all his sincere motives.

There's an obvious solution: teachers don't set grades in AP classes. The resulting test scores will. A = 4 or 5. B = 3. C = 2.

And before someone comes in here and says that close to half AP testers are seniors--who cares? THeir grades aren't used in college admissions, so they don't matter.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | November 27, 2009 5:53 PM | Report abuse

This is a solution in search of a problem. If teachers want more students to get A's, they set easier grading standards, and vice-versa. There are no national standards, and even in science and math there are many ways for a teacher to boost or depress the grading curve. One of my daughter's teachers liked giving 3 problem quizzes and no partial credit. That brought down the grades markedly in that class. Another gave partial credit for test corrections and a good deal of credit for homework, boosting up course grades.

It is all a game and it doesn't have much meaning.

(Though I do think that the approach this district is considering is better than weighted grades, since that system tends to discourage students from taking non-weighted but useful and interesting classes.)

Posted by: bk0512 | November 27, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse

we don't need to inflate grades in AP classes to encourage more students to take them.

what would be helpful is to have teachers grade work like the AP graders do. Getting 60% of the points on a test is a miserable failure for most AP students, but if that test is the level of difficulty of an AP exam, it's not a fair grade. 60% of the points on an AP exam correlates to a 4 or a 5. Moreover, college courses often operate on curve systems, in which you aren't required to get 90%+ or 95%+ of the points to get an A.

But dumbing down AP and IB courses to make them more accessible is a bad idea.

Posted by: j762 | November 27, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

"The only thing that matters in an AP Course is how you do on the AP exam. People who take these courses should not really need much motivation in terms of grades. If they do, they don't belong.

Posted by: peterroach"

Not really. Colleges, for admission, at least, generally don't place much weight on the actual scores. It's a good way to show proficiency in something, but it isn't that highly valued.
What colleges do value is that students took the AP class in the first place. They appreciate the desire to learn and challenge themselves.

Moreover, if the AP score were the only thing that mattered, high-level material will be simply taught to the test, instead of with the innovation and originality that good teachers have.

Posted by: j762 | November 27, 2009 6:27 PM | Report abuse

I am currently a high school senior in Pennsylvania. Since freshman year, I have taken eight AP Exams and have gotten a 5 on every single one. In the spirit of full disclosure, my school actually does the weight AP grades from AP classes higher than those from Honors courses. I do not agree with the AP Class grade inflation plan for the simple reason, as stated in the article, that it defeats the very purpose of the AP Program: to realistically prepare students for college-level classes.
However, I also see the value in encouraging students to take AP Classes without fear of a bad grade "ruining" their college prospects. AP Chemistry in my school is a particularly hard class, and one interesting thing my Chemistry teacher does is align the class grades with the AP Exam score released in July. Thus, my final grade was a 93, but because I scored a 5 on the AP Exam, he raised the grade on my transcript to a 95 (a 4 would be raised to a 85, and so on). He only does this if it raises a student’s grade, so as not to hurt a student who studied and worked hard but may have had a bad day on Exam day. I favor this process particularly because it does not hide the troubles or needs a kid may have before the AP Exam – if I have a grade of an 87, I know I would need to study harder to do well on the Exam.
purpose of the AP Program: to realistically prepare students for college-level classes.
However, I also see the value in encouraging students to take AP Classes wihout fear of a bad grade "ruining" their college prospects. AP Chemistry in my school is a particularly hard class, and one interesting thing my Chemistry teacher does is align the class grades with the AP Exam score released in July. Thus, my final grade was a 93, but because I scored a 5 on the AP he only does this if it raises the grade, however, so as not to hur

Posted by: 10parduel | November 27, 2009 7:19 PM | Report abuse

t a student who studied and worked hard but may have had a bad day on Exam day. I favor this process particularly because it does not hide the troubles or needs a kid may have before the AP Exam – if I have a grade of an 87, I know I would need to study harder to do well on the Exam.

Posted by: 10parduel | November 27, 2009 7:21 PM | Report abuse

Welcome to America, where every child is above average!

The grade-weighting scheme has been around for a long time, but inflating the GPA does little other than to inflate a few egos. Colleges see right through the scam, and many even ask for transcripts with unweighted GPAs.

Likewise, colleges also see through the scam that many students try to pull of keeping GPAs high by skipping AP courses. Good colleges will likely accept a 3.8 GPA with a heap of AP courses over a 4.0 with none.

I think, too, that it also says something when students take an AP course but never take the standardized AP exams. A "B" in an AP course is no shame if the student can turn around and score a 4 or 5 on the AP exam. An "A" in an AP course looks silly if the student then never took the exam.

Posted by: blert | November 27, 2009 7:45 PM | Report abuse

The biggest problem with AP courses are the teachers of said courses. I am in San Diego county California. My local public school district has teachers with only a bachelors degree and a teaching credential. That degree does not have to be in the AP class that they are teaching. At the Catholic high schools and the non-religious private high schools, a minimum of a masters degree in the subject are requirements to teach the class. If a student is to receive college credit, then the class should be taught by a qualified individual. Here in Cali, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to get a teaching credential. The public schools are shortchanging the AP programs credibility by allowing underqualified teachers to teach college level material. To teach in a Cali community college, a minimum of a masters is required even for a part time instructor position. The College Board needs to tighten up the requirements for the teachers of the classes.

Posted by: kodonivan | November 27, 2009 7:56 PM | Report abuse

I've taught at the college level and I currently teach at a prep school in the DC area. Almost half of my students earned 5s on one of the history exams and honestly there is no secret. They must work hard enough to learn the content and they must be taught how to write an analytical essay. I've been an AP reader and the process is sound. If teachers want to find success they should engage the AP process, keep current in their field, and demand the hard work it takes to excel.

Posted by: reynolds605 | November 27, 2009 8:02 PM | Report abuse

After 20 years of teaching, and much to my chagrin, I am teaching two AP courses this year. The majority of the students are 10th graders, making this the first AP class for nearly all of them. The external pressures most feel is matched by an internal desire to succeed. Ostensibly they enrolled to boost their college potential. However, they attend a school, when compared against virtually all others in the school district, looks inadequate using The Challenge Index. Consequently, their applications to the same collegesas others from within the school district are already poxed. Combine that factor with our comparatively low HSA scores and I have no problem "enhancing" my students' grades. Call it affirmative action or socialism, but through no fault of their own these kids are already redlined, due to factors beyond their control: HSAs and the Challenge Index. The latter of which might help some parents choose their future neighborhood or affect local policy, but an unintended consequence has been stigmatizing otherwise-bright kids because of factors beyond their control.

No regrets on my part.

Posted by: gratefolks | November 27, 2009 9:11 PM | Report abuse

My thanks to K12Reformer for the kind and forgiving correction of the state Rochester is in. I show everything I write in advance to all sources, and Mike Reno told me days ago I had that wrong, but the holiday glow distracted me and I forgot to make the change.
Also thanks to rialumiere for catching my 3.0 goof. I have fixed both, and hope that now I am back from California I will get myself straightened out.
To be greeted with such a lively and erudite discussion on a holiday, of all things, delights me, although makes me wonder if these very knowledgeable readers are getting their off-day priorities straight. Goodness knows I have long failed to do that myself. Happy holidays. I will respond to more of these good comments in a day or so, after I sort the snail mail and get some sleep.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 27, 2009 9:14 PM | Report abuse

And we wonder why we are near the middle to bottom in the Int'l rankings. I wonder what the Finish, Swedish and French kids think. I wonder what their future boss will think. Oh, yeah he won't because they boss will hire a foreigner with an H1B visa from China or India to take the job at half price and twice the smarts than some dumb American kid who got the bump form some liberal sappy AP teacher trying to make the poor kids feel good. Feels good doesn't cut it in the real world. Watch as the German kids in Bethesda's school or the French school kids crush the lazy dumb Americans at math and science.

Posted by: p314159265340 | November 27, 2009 9:29 PM | Report abuse

This “internal weighting” scheme is a lame effort (probably cooked up by some ed-school genius) to end run the time-honored process of working one’s tuches off to learn and earn the grade one deserves.

Forget it.

Dumbing down expectations doesn't work.

Rochester district leaders are proposing a self-serving grading system that makes THEM look good because more kids would be taking AP classes and earning high grades.

But inflated grades like inflated economies are worth a whole lot less than those built on solid foundations.

Nothing about this is smart for US kids hoping to take their place among the world's best and brightest.

Give Rochester students some credit - extra credit for honors & AP classes.

Make 'em work for those grades.

They can handle it!

Posted by: YesTheyCan | November 27, 2009 11:01 PM | Report abuse

The obesession with grades in an AP class completely overshadows the course, its contents, and its purpose.

Posted by: ericpollock | November 27, 2009 11:08 PM | Report abuse

I have 105 students in AP US Government & Politics, in 3 sections. Most are 10th graders. Our school system weights grades. Thus an A averages as a 5, a B as a 4, and so on.

I have another issue. When I get them most of my students cannot do the kind of writing they need to for the exam. But I do not want to break their spirit. When they get back their first Free Response Questions for many it is the first zero they have ever seen - because that is the score they would get on the rubric (and I know, since I serve as a Reader who must assess such responses). But that is not the grade that I give them. I curve those grades, and similarly curve grades on the multiple choice exams I give them. I let them know what to expect on the AP exam right up front, but I do not expect them to be functioning at that level in August and September.

By the time we enter 3rd quarter, my grading on tests will in general be without curves. By then I expect them to have risen to the expectations necessary to be successful on the AP exam. Some don't. Some do not listen to me on how to approach the AP exam itself. But in general, the balancing act seems to work. It gets them not to withdraw nor to give up on themselves, thus allowing them sufficient time to improve and rise to a point where they are actually functioning at pretty close to a college level. Which is perhaps why almost 80% of my students "passed" last year's AP exam.

Posted by: teacherken | November 28, 2009 8:52 AM | Report abuse

The weighting question needs to be considered in the context of any given high school's general assessment and grading practices. If a high school has a grade distribution skewed towards the high end in ALL of its courses, then it is unfair to the AP students, who are presumably doing the most rigorous work, if AP grades are not weighted for ranking purposes. Many state and private universities admit students according to their GPAs/rank; award academic merit scholarships by GPAs/rank, and admit into Honors programs by GPAs/rank. Many don't recalculate GPA. In such a scenario a student taking no AP or honors can outrank a student taking all AP/honors courses, because of inadequate weighting of AP, and the AP student loses out on college admissions and future academic opportunities as a result.

Posted by: artsynj | November 28, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

This response is for kodonivan

While I agree that there are people teaching AP courses who are not qualified to do so, requiring AP teachers to have a post graduate degree will not fix this problem. I taught AP Calculus for the first time last year and the students in my class averaged a 4 on the AP exam while the students taking the class with another teacher that has taught the course for 20 years averaged a 3.2. I do not have a post graduate degree but the other teacher does. If a teacher does not have a post graduate degree they should not be disqualified from teaching an AP course in favor of one that does. There are plenty of sub-par teachers with post graduate degrees. An individual’s experience and level of education should never trump anothers ability and performance. Not in the course they teach or in the compensation they receive. This is why merit pay (another discussion) is being examined across the country.

Posted by: NoMoreWeast | November 28, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

"If a high school has a grade distribution skewed towards the high end in ALL of its courses, then it is unfair to the AP students, who are presumably doing the most rigorous work, if AP grades are not weighted for ranking such a scenario a student taking no AP or honors can outrank a student taking all AP/honors courses, because of inadequate weighting of AP, and the AP student loses out..."

Are there schools out there actually doing this?

If so, then that's the problem!

In a system that refuses to recognize its scholars, kids will take the easy way out by taking the easier classes.

Where are the school leaders leading?

Posted by: YesTheyCan | November 28, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

A lot of the sturm und drang of AP courses could be alleviated through a simpler approach that provides greater clarity on the part of the providing high school.

Prior to the start of the school year, high schools should issue a document that addresses how AP courses have been conducted in the pass and how they are to be conducted in the forthcoming school year. This document should state the following: 1) A list of AP courses to be taught along with the general qualifications of the AP teachers, 2) What AP courses were taught in the past three years and the average GPA in each course, 3) On what basis grades will be awarded in AP courses, and 4) What, if any, influence will the AP exams have on course grades.

This document should be made available to potential AP students, their parents, and to the colleges that the high school's grads typically apply to.

Another idea is to have a separate AP course GPA. Since AP courses are special why shouldn't they constitute a separate GPA? Colleges of course could figure out a separate GPA, but why put them through the math drill. Just state it along with the number of AP courses taken.

With these simple changes that focus on greater clarity, all - students, parents, high schools, and colleges - would be better able to make decisions wrt AP course work.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 28, 2009 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Before asking whether AP grades should be inflated, schools should first examine their teacher's assessment practices, because those are what result in grades. Practices can vary widely between teachers within the same school. Schools should look at the number of opportunities to earn grades, and whether and how much homework, tests, quizzes, papers, projects, lab reports and summer assignments count, and further, whether these opportunities demonstrate student learning are consistent and frequent. There can be great variability between teachers and even between marking periods for the same teacher.

Posted by: artsynj | November 28, 2009 8:49 PM | Report abuse

No "bonus": it's double-dipping.

Everything I have ever read about college admissions suggests that colleges prefer to see students taking rigorous schedules. This means that a schedule full of APs gives a student a well-deserved boost when the colleges survey his or her transcript.

To add a 1.0 or even 0.5 bonus to the grade creates a doubled incentive, perhaps because whoever set up this system doubts that the colleges really do prefer to see rigor.

Please let the transcript be the transcript, the grades be the grades, and count on colleges not to be idiotic enough to conflate an A in college prep with a B in AP.

Seriously: our high schools are terrified that colleges will be too stupid to assess kids with any sense. They ("we": I teach in a high school) figure that the system is corrupt and so they do their darndest to inflate the perception of their own students because, hey, everybody's doing it. This rationale is shockingly similar to one that condones cheating. Now, nobody knows if the colleges know anything, because we adulterate high school with all sorts of incentives, so we don't even know which incentives work.

We -- schools -- should be more honest, and that means no double-dipping. If our students get "bad" results out of college admissions, let's pull up that term "accountability" and look seriously at why, and instead of anticipating unfairness with our own questionable countermeasures, promote a national consideration of colleges' admission policies to get rid of the black box.

Posted by: carlrosin | November 28, 2009 10:08 PM | Report abuse

The depth and variety of comments on this issue is far beyond what I expected, which means I am going to have to look into this issue some more, and plug in some of what has been said here. If anybody wants to be on the record, just send your real name to me at
For Cal_Lanier, when did I ever say anything that could be interpreted as meaning I did not think a kid getting a D in the AP class and a 4 or 5 on the exam was a problem? I think it is a big problem. You are quite right that I do NOT think that a lot of 1s and 2s in a class full of low-income kids is a problem. I think it is a sign of very smart educators giving kids a chance to built their skills. Before you judge such schools, you should visit some. I don't know of any in yr area, but if you are ever in DC, please stop by the Columbia Heights Education Center (formerly Bell Multicultural High School) and you will see how well this works when you have very smart teachers.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 29, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

I graduated from a school in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. In my AP classes, grading was done on the weighted scale. Prior to reading this blog, I thought that all AP courses were graded on a weighted scale. I do see the flaws in this. As these high school students enter their freshman college courses, they will have a false sense of acheivement. If the student was a C average high school student but because of the weighted scale recieved a B, they will be sorely disapointed when, with even more work they still do not receive the B or A they believe they deserve in their college courses. I do not think it is a good idea for more school districts to move towards this weighted grade scale simply for higher enrollment. Students should sign up for these courses, because they can handle the higher work load and have a desire to challange themselves.

Posted by: knye1 | November 29, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

University admission officers are well aware of AP classes, AP test scores, and the rigor standards. Hence, if Rochester School District dilutes the grading rigor, they will eventually find out.

Far too many hign grade point graduates from prestigious High Schools are on the receiving end of a rude awakening. HS counselors need to do a better job of informing their flock that the choice may an AP classs (with a lower grade) and remedial freshmen courses. What is that saying, "you can pay me now, or you can pay me later (more tuition for that extra remedial course). Thanks Mike for the alert!

Posted by: rolexwatch | November 29, 2009 10:11 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps another problem in this proposal is the underlying premise that students will not do well.

And is it really the end of their academic career if they don't get an "A"?

I'm curious if there is some way to get a sense of how a "B" or "C" in a few AP classes would impact college admissions.

College recruiters don't help the situation... in fact they tend to make it worse.

If you ask them, "Is it better to get all A's, or to instead take AP classes?", they will reply with some goofy answer like, "We look for all A's in AP." Not helpful.

I'm told that many selective universities will accept students who have taken rigorous courses, and have a smattering of B's. Not sure about C's.

Any thoughts?

Posted by: K12Reformer | November 30, 2009 8:12 AM | Report abuse

Great question from K12Reformer. I have talked to a lot of admissions directors about this in my other life as self-appointed college guidance counselor. You have to keep in mind the two worlds of college. For the upper crust of colleges that reject most applicants, and are lusted after by the top 10 percent of students, any C in any course will hurt their chances, as will more than a couple of Bs, as will a 3 on an AP test, particularly if they attend a high school where other applicants to the same selective college have done better, and don't have some impressive extracurricular activity---student body prez, soccer team starting midfielder, member of regional youth orchestra---to compensate. \
In the other and much larger world of colleges that accept most applicants, and which 90 percent of students attend, just taking an AP or IB course and test is a net plus, no matter what the class grade or the test score, because the majority of students applying to those schools will not have that on their resumes. Taking the risk of a college-level course says to those admissions officers that this applicant knows that college will be tough and want to get ready. It is a nice big check mark to have on their record, and removes any stain from a low grade because the only kids in danger of being rejected by such schools also have low grades.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 30, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

At the risk of directing this discussion elsewhere, it's important to point out that admissions criteria vary from student to student based on "underrepresented minority" status and applicable diversity quotas.

Hence, Jay's last post does not strictly apply to all students.

Posted by: YesTheyCan | November 30, 2009 11:06 PM | Report abuse

I teach AP classes. All of this is shear nonsense. The AP program was created to give "exceptional" students a way to experience more rigorous classes than the other students. Now several years later this program has been bastardized. It is no longer for the truly "exceptional" students. Mr. Matthews, with his so-called "Challenge Index" is the primary culprit of this change. Parents, quick to believe their darlings are indeed "exceptional" have been suckered in to this black hole. In particular the vast growth in the AP program in the DC suburbs is directly related to Mr. Matthews and the sham he has perpetrated. This has had an overall negative effect on education. The weighted grade system has caused a decline in enrollment in things such as performing arts classes that do not have these weighted grades. The College Board is a corrupt organization concerned only with it's own needs. They have destroyed their marquis products (the AP program and the SAT) by allowing the data from these tests to be misinterpreted and used for purposes for which they were never intended such as the "Challenge" index and the publication of "average" SAT scores which is a statistically useless number if you understand what the test is supposed to measure. Mr. Matthews, The Post, and Newsweek should all be ashamed for the damage they have caused to our schools.

Posted by: rsburton78 | December 1, 2009 8:40 PM | Report abuse

For rsburton78:

Your take on the AP program is certainly unusual for a teacher. Your comments suggest that access to knowledge and scholarship should be restricted to a priveleged few, but perhaps I have misinterpreted.

Would you be willing to share your definition of the "exceptional" student for whom you feel the AP program was created...and also how "exceptional" differs from "other" or the "truly exceptional", to whom you refer?

Have you considered the possibility that the AP program evolved from its inception, to fill a fundamental void neglected by the vast education bureaucracy?

Posted by: YesTheyCan | December 2, 2009 8:02 AM | Report abuse

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