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AP failures up, successes too.

Jack Gillum and Greg Toppo of USA Today (bias alert: my wife works there) have two good stories on the growing percentage of failing scores on Advanced Placement tests. They've gone from 36.5 percent in 1999 to 41.5 percent last year--and a 48.4 percent failure rate in the southern states.

Neither AP fans like me nor the AP critics who often write me should have any problem with this factually deep and wonderfully illustrated package of stories. Gillum and Toppo show the impact the growing movement to coax average and below-average students into AP has had on the percentage of students who pass the 3-hour college-level exams. They also give Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president who oversees AP, a chance to make the equally important point that opening AP to everyone who wants to work hard has significantly increased the number of students who are passing the tests and giving themselves a head start on college.

I have only two thoughts to add, both of which Gillum and Toppo would likely have included if they had had enough space:

1. AP tests are graded by outside experts on a five-point scale, 5 being the rough equivalent of a college A, 4 a B, 3 a C, 2 a D and 1 an F. Grades of 3 and above have a chance of earning college credit at many colleges (although not the top 10 percent most selective schools) and so are referred to as passing scores. Grades of 1 or 2 are said to be failing, as the USA Today stories note, but research shows a grade of 2 may have unexpected benefits. Astudyof a very large sample of students in Texas shows that even students with relatively low achievement levels on other standardized tests did better in college if they had a 2 on an AP exam than similar students did who did not take AP.

2. The high AP failure rate for southern schools, carefully examined by USA Today, does reflect, as the writers say, an effort by many high school educators to institute AP classes before many of their students are ready for them. They accept the fact that their failure rates are going to be high at the beginning, but see no way to build the programs that will prepare future classes for AP unless they have an AP program up and running.

The Catching Up list, part of my annual Challenge Index ratings of high schools, is reserved for schools that fit this profile. The teachers at those schools share the view of, say, a rugby coach who doesn't think students at his U.S. school can get ready for a sport that is so new to them unless he puts them in the local school rugby league right away, even though they will probably lose most of their matches the first few years. The USA Today writers make the same point with their second story which shows how Maryland beefed up its AP instruction when it saw its failure rates increasing, and made a significant improvement.

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By Jay Mathews  | February 4, 2010; 2:25 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  AP students passing tests increases, Advanced Placement, College Board, Greg Toppos, Jack Gillum, Trevor Packer, USA Today, rising AP failure rates  
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While it's nice to see some of the MSM beginning to pay attention to the rising percentages of students failing AP exams (about 10% increase over the last 20 years), the logical extension is for the CB to begin to examine the consequences of that failure.
You (and others) point to the Texas study which showed some benefit of a "2" mean versus the "all things being equal kid" as evidence that AP is great for every college-bound kid.
But there are lots of other issues:
1. Not only are failure rates going up but so too are the numbers of kids scoring 1's as opposed to 2's. Fifteen years ago, scores of 2 outnumbered 1's about 2:1. Now they are roughly equal. The Texas study also showed that the kids getting 1's were actually worse off than kids who didn't take the exam.
2. What about effects on kids who go into these college-level courses but b/c the class has been watered down don't get a true college-level course? How about some follow-up surveys of kids in classes where large percentages failed AP?
3. How is open access affecting perception of AP by colleges? We know "cut scores" (scores at which colleges grant AP credit) are rising, for example.
4. Is AP failure benign or even as some suggest a good thing b/c at least the student is getting a "taste" of college? Other than the anecdotal evidence, can we get some surveys out to all the kids who have failed AP classes to better gauge the effects of that failure?
5. Are there better alternatives to the "no way to build the programs that will prepare future classes for AP unless they have an AP program up and running," such as investing first in pre-AP classes? Are there schools with long-range plans in place, for example, that are doing pre-AP now and holding off on AP until they get critical masses of kids ready?

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | February 4, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

While MCPS touts the fact that a "record-setting" number of AP exams were taken in 2009, it ignores the fact that percentage of exams scored at 3 or higher has steadily declined since 2005 for most subgroups.

Overall, the percentage has dropped from 77.0% in 2005 to 72.3% in 2009.

By subgroup, the results are:

African-American: 53.7 to 47.6
Hispanic: 65.8 to 55.3
White: 81.3 to 77.9
Only Asian students were fairly consistent over the years: 76.8 to 76.6

Why are the percentages falling? Are the kids taking the tests unprepared? Are the teachers teaching the courses qualified to teach a "college-level" class? These types of questions aren't asked if MCPS manipulates the numbers in order to tout only "good" news.

Posted by: daveairozo | February 4, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

Kids don't do well on the AP tests because teachers have lost their input into individual curriculum decisions in the school. Most any child can enter an AP course and eventually take the AP test. Parents make the call to get them in, not the teachers. Teachers can't get the poorly performing students out without an act of Congress. Parents and children run the schools now, not the administrations.

Now, teachers are overwhelmed with busywork, required memberships on committees that don't do anything, and putting forth more energy in the classroom lessons than the kids whom they teach. Less time to prepare for lessons as a result. This is, in part, why kids have more coloring and posters to do in high school now than they used to have. Much easier to grade arts and craft projects than it is to grade scholarly work.

Larger class sizes are another issue. Too many kids, not enough teachers. High foreclosure rates are keeping down local revenues. Hence, less to pay and retain the teachers.

It's a systemic thing. Can't just look at the AP tests and say, "Why can't the kids do better? They're just lazy." Absolutely, there are lazy kids. Need to look at the environment that the parents have created through their tax dollars. Careful how you vote. You'll get what you asked for.

Posted by: GSN1787 | February 5, 2010 12:58 AM | Report abuse

"They also give Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president who oversees AP, a chance to make the equally important point that opening AP to everyone who wants to work hard has significantly increased the number of students who are passing the tests and giving themselves a head start on college." Jay Mathews

Nowhere in either of the two USAT stories that I can see does Trevor try and make this point for you of "open access." We've been down this road before but my reading of the College Board's AP equity policy is that the CB supports limits on who gets into AP. This is what Trevor Packer wrote me last May regarding AP. (ellipsis Trevor's).
"Here’s the original College Board AP Equity Policy, which was written in 2001, and became the boilerplate policy statement included in all AP publications: You’ll note that this is not an endorsement of open access to AP—but it certainly has been used by many to justify open access policies, and many (but not all) College Board staff have used this statement as a springboard into advocating for open access. But technically, the official, published AP Equity Policy stopped a step shy of open access. Note in particular the wording: 'All students who are willing to accept the challenge . . . should be considered for admission to AP courses.' Technically, this is not stating that all willing students should be placed in AP."
Last February the College Board replaced the original equity policy with one making it clear that in addition to willingness academic preparation should be a prerequisite for students who want to get into AP.
“All willing and academically prepared students deserve the opportunity to succeed in rigorous, college-level experiences and the advantages they bring. For this reason, the AP Program shares educators’ mission to connect traditionally underserved minority and low-income students to Advanced Placement courses. AP encourages all educators to make equitable access a guiding principle for their schools’ AP programs, and to make every effort to ensure that their AP classes reflect the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of their student body.”

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | February 5, 2010 4:25 AM | Report abuse

Maybe the reason so many AP Scores are dropping is because school systems are overloading students, pressuring them into taking these classes. As a former High school student, my school I was attending was actually forcing me to take all AP courses. I felt pressured and stressed. Taking one AP class enough, but to have 8 AP classes in one year doesn't give anyone time to rest, sleep, or even spend time with family. The amount of work put into these courses in no way compares to college work. My Advanced Anatomy and Physiology Class barely requires the amount of work that my AP Chemistry class did, and that class did not even cover any of my prerequisites for college credit. The time consumed for my chemistry class could have been better spent filling out college applications and scholarships, as well as the time spent on other AP course I took. The Main Function of a public school system is not to force or overwhelm students with numerous rigorous classes, but to offer these program for those that are more disadvantaged and would otherwise not have the opportunity to take them.
Jane Bennet

Posted by: LadyJane341 | February 6, 2010 2:07 AM | Report abuse

Hello, Jay - you said* that on Friday you would provide data on Columbia Heights AP scores, including the # of native Spanish speakers taking AP spanish.

When will you have that?


Posted by: efavorite | February 6, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

for efavorite--- sorry, havent gotten it yet, but will.

for patrickmattimore---but can't we agree that these numbers show that the AP tests are not being dumbed down, as some have charged?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 7, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

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