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Why students fail AP tests

My column last week about how to reveal the secrets of which teacher is getting the best Advanced Placement results received many more comments than I expected. This was, I thought, a topic only for insiders, AP obsessives like me. I forgot, once again, that college-level exams have become a rite of passage for at least a third of American high schoolers, with that proportion increasing every year.

The column provided links to the several local school districts that have posted the subject-by-subject AP results for each school. I was shocked that any were doing it, since five years ago when I asked about this, few school officials had given it much thought. Since the AP tests are written and graded by outside experts, a teacher who does not challenge his students in class is likely to have lots of low scores on that school report, which until now hardly anyone had a chance to see.

Many thought I glossed over the effects of opening up AP courses to anyone who wants to get a useful taste of college trauma, sort of like camping in the back yard before your dad takes you to the Sierras. Enough mediocre students have enrolled in AP, and a similar program International Baccalaureate, to lower average scores even in the classes of the best teachers.

Patrick Mattimore, a veteran AP teacher, said "at my last school, AP U.S. history was open enrollment, whereas AP Psych was not. Not surprisingly, we had much higher pass rates in AP Psych because (a) the national [passing] rates [for that exam] are much higher anyway and (b) we had restricted the range of students taking AP Psych."

Dave Sampselle, an AP English teacher in Montgomery County, said "about one third of our 58 AP seniors were cajoled, prodded, and otherwise led into AP English 12. All of them who stay the course for the entire year will be better prepared for college. About this there is no doubt. But about 12 to 15 of them will not take the actual test seriously. I have gone by the testing room each year out of curiosity, and the number of students with heads down a half-hour into the writing section increases each year. Perhaps the practice of most high schools now to pay for the test in some way de-motivates the test-taker; perhaps it is that many of the kids benefited from the course, but knew they had little chance of scoring a 3 or above, which is what most schools require now."

He had one more interesting observation I had not considered before. Keep in mind that AP scores are on a 5-point scale. A 5 is the rough equivalent of a college A. A 3 is the lowest passing score, equivalent of a college C. He said: "Many colleges who accept a 3 on the AP exam for college credit mandate that such a student cannot place out of college freshman English. That student will receive 3 credit hours toward a diploma, but must still sit in what in all reality is a remedial-English course. In addition, my seniors have discovered that colleges rarely give 3 credit hours for a SECOND AP English grade; I had three very talented students last year who did not take the English 12 AP exam, because they had no incentive: they had earned a '5' as juniors, and had been told that no additional credit hours would be forthcoming."

Many readers feared that the subject-by-subject, school-by-school scores might be misinterpreted, but most also endorsed making them public. Like me, they believe that we can work out the kinks in our understanding once we have the scores and can ask questions about them.

Eston Melton, IB coordinator at Marshall High School in Fairfax County, said "I'm happy to say that Marshall High School posts its three-year subject-by-subject IB performance data in the front hallway, along with our SOL scores, for everyone to see. Marshall is very much a data-driven school; we put much of it in teachers' and parents' hands -- and, increasingly, back in students' hands to give them greater ownership over their learning."

Louis Wilen, an information technology expert who watches Montgomery County government closely, noted my statement that the county schools put AP subject-by-subject data online, but he said when Montgomery County parent Janis Sartucci checked it out she found "it only covers about half of the AP tests." I suspect we will have more people like Sartucci pointing out such deficiencies to their school districts, thus getting us even more information.

The most intriguing message I received came in response to this part of the column:

"Figuring out what the numbers mean is fun. Why, for instance, did 36 of the 52 students taking AP European History at Lackey High School in Charles County get ones (the worst grade), but only 10 of the 30 students taking AP World History? Was the world history teacher better?"

The message was from Donald B. Browder, who identified himself as both the AP European History teacher and the AP World History teacher at Lackey High. "As the teacher you both criticized and praised simultaneously I am concerned about your assumptions and the message your writing sends to our young people," he wrote. "You should take more care in researching your articles before you make assumptions about the quality of education here in Southern Maryland."

I told him the piece wasn't inaccurate. I didn't know anything about the teachers, so I asked the question. I told him I was very grateful for his answer. I offered to write another column in which he could explain why one course produced a higher proportion of failing scores than the other. That is exactly the kind of inquiry I think will help parents, as well as schools and teachers. He hasn't replied yet, but I hope he does.

Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Follow all the Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page, http://washingtonpost.com/education.

By Jay Mathews  | January 29, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  AP failing scores, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, college credit for AP, opening AP to all, subject-by-subject AP results  
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Comments

12-15 people sleeping during a school-funded AP examination!?! At $86 a test Montgomery County might as well take gasoline and a match to a thousand dollars--a facinating but not cost-efficient way to heat their buildings.

At least while scoring essays at the exam reading in June I'll have more blank booklets to say to, "Well, that was easy." And then, my thoughts will be followed by that empty sour feeling that a student or (or if you pay attention to the school codes on the exam booklets) half a classroom was let down by an ineffective teacher or a school that pushes students who are already taking two to three other AP exams.

Posted by: professor70 | January 29, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

Why do schools pay for exams for people that have no intention of even trying on it (and I can't blame them if they have no chance of receiving any credit for it)?

Could it be that 12 sleeping students (rather than 12 students that don't take the test) per AP class probably raises the Challenge Index score by .2 points, thus potentially moving the school 10-15 spots higher on the local list?

Posted by: someguy100 | January 29, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

ETS should offer AP students a $50 refund for writing an explanatory 500-word essay stating why they are unable to answer the written AP exam questions.

We could use the data from these to fix a lot of waste, correct overly optomistic administrator decisions, and identify AP teachers who are (you pick) overloaded, given too many marginal students, are themselves unprepared to teach the higher level content, or (my personal favorite) psychotic control-freaks who should not be allowed near teenagers--especially the smart impressionable ones.

To all the good HS and AP teachers, my apologies for that last comment. I was channeling back to my high school years (late '80s Oakton HS).

Posted by: professor70 | January 29, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

The college credits incentive is a huge one -- I took a bunch of APs in HS and was able to save a semester's worth of tuition at a private school by graduating a semester early, and those semesters I didn't have to take the maximum allowable course-load thanks to how it fell out (max. courseload was 16 credits, minimum was 12, each class was 3 or 4; I averaged 13-14 per semester).

Roughly $700 of testing excused me from about $10K in tuiton. I'm not sure if I would have taken as many of the AP tests in high school as I did without that motivating factor.

[Full disclosure -- I had Mr. Sampselle for AP English my senior year of HS (class of '02). And FWIW, it may have been a bit of academic masochism to take on his class, but that class prepared me for college better than ANY of my others in HS did, even though I only got a 3 on the AP English test and it wasn't accepted for credit at my school. Thank you, Mr. Sampselle.]

Posted by: forget@menot.com | January 29, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Jay,

The answer to why the World scores are lower the the Euro scores is fairly simple. In virtually all cases AP European History is an elective course where students self-select their enrollment. Scores should be higher in an elective course because the students consciously choose to be there. AP World History, on the other hand, is usually offered as the "Advanced Option" for regular world history -- a required course in most places. There are generally students in that class who will sign up for it under the assumption that they need to take World History to graduate from high school so they might as well be in the AP course (for the GPA boost, better transcript, college credit, etc.). Those students as a whole probably aren't as intelligent or motivated as those taking the elective AP class.

Posted by: Rob63 | January 29, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Jay,

Someguy100 has got a point. If a principal or AP coordinator wants to blow a few thousand dollars on "non-participant" AP Exam takers, their Challenge Index score goes up and they get rewarded.

I have supported your promotion of AP and IB with the Challenge Index for many years, but it's time to approach the ETS and College Board to start releasing aggregate annual AP Exam perfomance data per school. Even if its one average score for performance on all AP subject exams, at least it will end this practice of paying for non-participants to take the tests.

Yes, these students should still take the AP course, but no one should be forced to take the AP exam unless they plan on fully particiapating in the test. This should be especially true for school systems who pay for all or part of the exam fees.

Posted by: professor70 | January 29, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Over at the Examiner:
AP test scores rise in Fairfax schools
http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/local/AP-test-scores-rise-in-Fairfax-schools-82978652.html

Posted by: edlharris | January 29, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

After reading your blog and the comments from some of my former colleagues throughout the region (I'm a retired AP Biology teacher), it is obvious that the students that put in the time with us (after school review sessions, practice tests, etc.) do well and those that don't, well... they continue funding the ETS. I would also point out that, from my experience, restricting the enrollment produces not only a better experience for those seriously enrolled, but for the teachers as well.

Posted by: biohodge | January 29, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

So the light finally comes on. For years, critics of the Challenge Index have predicted this very outcome. The CI is a prefect example of unintended consequences: what was intended to make school districts step up efforts to better serve under-served populations has become a fig leaf. The Post should also disclose its conflict of interest. It provides prep courses and materials for the AP exams through its Kaplan education division.

Posted by: MDcrab1 | January 29, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

AP classes were good for the same reason Thomas Jefferson is good - you don't let the riff raff into the class. Gifted students have so few vocal advocates amoung the media. Stop dragging us down trying to save people who aren't interested in challenging classes. One of the previous stories linked to a video with an AP Bio teacher claiming they are doing three semesters of college level work in a year, what a joke. The AP Bio exam was the easiest piece of junk test I've ever taken. We got to dissect a cat in class though, well worth the experience.

Posted by: Dremit97 | January 29, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

Rob63 wrote:

"The answer to why the World scores are lower the (sic) the Euro scores is fairly simple. In virtually all cases AP European History is an elective course where students self-select their enrollment. Scores should be higher in an elective course because the students consciously choose to be there. AP World History, on the other hand, is usually offered as the "Advanced Option" for regular world history -- a required course in most places. There are generally students in that class who will sign up for it under the assumption that they need to take World History to graduate from high school so they might as well be in the AP course (for the GPA boost, better transcript, college credit, etc.). Those students as a whole probably aren't as intelligent or motivated as those taking the elective AP class."

This makes sense. BUT...
Jay did not write in his original article on the topic that the World History scores were lower than the European History scores. Just the opposite. He wrote:

"Why, for instance, did 36 of the 52 students taking AP European History at Lackey High School in Charles County get ones (the worst grade), but only 10 of the 30 students taking AP World History? Was the world history teacher better?"

So given that we now know that the same teacher teaches both courses, the explanation as to why the Euro scores are worse would be interesting. In fact, Euro did have a much higher pass rate nationally and a higher mean score (about 67% versus 50% and 2.92 versus 2.63) (2009 statistics). So, if what Jay originally wrote is correct, than it would be really interesting for Mr. Browder (the Lackey AP teacher) to speculate as to why there is such a discrepancy. If Jay flip-flopped the #'s perhaps he could make that clear.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | January 29, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

Professor70: by nonparticipants, you mean kids who show up but sleep through the exam, and don't answer any questions? The College Board does have data on that. It is a tiny number, much less than 1 percent. I will try to get the latest, more precise figure. But if you mean by nonparticipants kids who are seen in the testing room sleeping during the exam, that is not a figure anyone collects, and in many cases is, as far as i can tell, an urban myth. Kids who do not submit any exam after being charged for it? That is a new one. I will check.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 29, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

Kids definitely sleep through exams. In MCPS if you take the AP exam you are exempt from the second semester final exam. If a student gets a B 3rd quarter and an A 4th quarter they would need an A on the final exam to get an A for the semester. However, if they take the AP exam they get an A for the semester without taking the final. I was told by one of my former students that he utilized this exact "strategy" in his World History class because he did not feel he was prepared for the exam by his AP World History teacher.

Posted by: NoMoreWeast | January 30, 2010 12:08 AM | Report abuse

Forgot to mention, since he slept through the exam, he received a 1 on the exam.

Posted by: NoMoreWeast | January 30, 2010 12:11 AM | Report abuse

For all of you complaining about kids wasting dollars taking tests they will not pass. You miss a point about AP tests, they are an early lesson on what it will take in to make it in college. I took 4 of them in High School received 5,4,3,1 in European, American, English and French. They utimately reflected very well what would happen once I hit college. I breezed through history, did need some help with my writing and ultimately learned I am not a foreign language person. The fact is that I went into school a lot better prepared, even with that one in French because I took the test. You could argue that it was wasted, but we could also argue that taking the test is a way to help students understand their stregnths and weaknesses going into college. Plus $89 is still a lot cheaper than tuition at most schools today, even community colleges.

Posted by: Brooklander | January 30, 2010 5:06 AM | Report abuse

My theory on Euro being lower than world: When students take AP Euro, it is usually their first exposure to strictly European history, but students spend all of their years (at least in this area) talking about various world cultures and history.

@brooklaner: I don't think that point only works if you study a severely traditional liberal arts education. I also took 4 APs (US History, Biology, Literature and Calculus), but when I went to study engineering, I never had to take a History, Biology or Literature course.

@Jay: I don't doubt that there are few if any students that turn in blank exams. But what about students that randomly fill out the multiple choice section, then write an irrelevant essay about hot pretty trees are? Most of the students I know that slacked off did something like that.

Posted by: someguy100 | January 30, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse


"My theory on Euro being lower than world: When students take AP Euro, it is usually their first exposure to strictly European history, but students spend all of their years (at least in this area) talking about various world cultures and history."
someguy100

Whatever is happening at Lackey High is DIFFERENT than what is happening elsewhere, if Jay's #'s are correct. Euro is the EASIER test according to national stats? Higher means; more students pass. It's possible that someguy100s explanation is correct but then the question is why are Lackey HS kids different than other kids? Why did Lackey High kids do worse on the Euro test?
Lots of possible ad hoc explanations but the most insightful ones would come from the teacher.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | January 30, 2010 6:12 PM | Report abuse

The AP World test is far easier than AP Euro, which is the most likely reason for the different passing rates. The number of AP Euro students suggests that more kids got shoved into Euro than actually wanted to be there, too.

As others have mentioned, the waste of funds on kids who don't want to take the test is shocking. Jay, the College Board has a HUGE bias in reporting who doesn't take the test, and you should demand to see actual data on all the "one" scores. I'm amazed at how readily you take their word.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | January 30, 2010 6:54 PM | Report abuse

Oh, a couple more things:

I haven't reviewed this year's results, but in general, World History stats are lower not because it's a harder test but it's more likely to be the test used. Kids who take AP Euro usually do so because they want to, and normally it has the higher average score.

What I wonder is why Jay, after so much history in educational writing, would instantly assume that the teacher was the reason for the average scores? Teachers would only make a difference if the kids started with the same average skills. The obvious thing to start with for the differences would be the student pool, not the teacher.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | January 30, 2010 7:10 PM | Report abuse

Rather than playing (and paying) the AP test game in high school, it would be more productive for colleges and universities to administer their own tests to incoming freshman to determine which courses a freshman can place out of. High schools should just concentrate on offering high quality AP courses.

If I was a high school AP teacher, I would encourage only my strongest students to take the AP test. Having a higher percentage of 4's and 5's from a smaller number of takers looks a lot better than just having a high percentage of takers. Jay could even give it a name: The AI (Achievement Index).

Rather than a school system paying for every student to each take N number of AP tests, I would instead use the money to pay a bounty to those students who scored either a 4 or a 5. Maybe pay $250 for each 4 and $500 for each 5. You might even get some matching money from the private sector for such high achievements.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | January 30, 2010 8:53 PM | Report abuse

I'm one of those students that took a nap during AP tests. I took several test my Junior Year almost ten years ago. I knew going in that I would probably get so many questions right on the multiple choice (AP Lang comp & AP American History) that I didn't have to score very high on the essays in order to get a four. I wrote quick essays and took a short nap. I also ended up with 4s in both subjects. AP Bio was a similar experience. AP Chem not so much.

Posted by: gen1231 | January 30, 2010 11:22 PM | Report abuse

AP and IB are so 20th century.

Posted by: motherseton | January 31, 2010 3:10 AM | Report abuse

OBJECTIVES
The 21st century high school student will be able to: 1) teach him/herself, 2) learn from experts in their field, 3) engage in research, innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship, 4) experience venues near and far, 5) visit hot beds of power, money, and influence, 6) acquire, practice and master skill sets in career settings, 7) work as a member of a team solving real world problems, and 8) discover and pursue their life long passion.

Posted by: motherseton | January 31, 2010 3:10 AM | Report abuse

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