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.
| 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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