All AP classes aren’t alike

Betsy, who teaches Advanced Placement classes, explains why evaluating teachers by their students’ AP scores, as suggested by Jay Mathews, wouldn’t work.

Different AP classes have different difficulty rates so it wouldn’t make sense to compare AP Government results to AP Physics. Also, different students take different classes, so you have a self-selected group taking AP Latin or Calculus BC. He gives an example of AP Biology and AP Psych but I would bet that the difficulty levels of those tests vary and the students taking the class might be different sets of kids.

And different schools have vastly different populations. He seems to assume that it is the same group of bright kids across the board taking APs. I was talking to an AP Government teacher from an inner-city school in Michigan this summer, and he has never had a student pass the test. I am not vain enough to think the difference in our results is due to me.

Many schools now encourage students to try AP classes, even if they’re not likely to do well enough on the test to earn college credit. Other schools reserve AP classes for the very best students. I’d hate to see teachers have an incentive to exclude good-but-not-great students from taking the AP challenge.

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  1. The notion that schools and/or teachers should be able to prevent students from taking the AP test is pretty disgusting to me. Think about it, the very notion of telling a kid “No, I will not let you be academically challenged because it might reflect poorly on me.” It smacks of the most elitist forms of tracking.

    Not, mind you, that tracking is (in and of itself) a bad thing. But the idea that a student would be denied the chance to “step up” to a more difficult track (as opposed to being prohibitted from going to inappropiately less challenging classes) smacks of educators with God-complexes deciding what is best for students without the input of the parents or the students themselves.

  2. Miller Smith says:

    We all must remember that the AP exaqms are normed every year. The 3 of ten years ago is the 5 today due to so many school systems pushing as many kids into AP classes as possible. My school system is very proud of and publically touts the increasing number of students taking AP exams every year. We equate the number taking the exam as a reflection of school quality. As for how many “pass” we never hear–unless you pull teeth to get that information.

    The downward spiral of the AP scores is one reason so many colleges are no longer giving credit for passing the AP exams or are giving credit in the subject matter in non-major classes.

  3. Miller Smith-

    Do you have a cite for your assertion that “The 3 of ten years ago is the 5 today due to so many school systems pushing as many kids into AP classes as possible.” My impression was that the scored are normed to performance by college students on the exams, not normed to other AP testers. A quick look at the “College Comparability Studies” at,,154-179-0-0,00.html seems to confirm that there is no definite shift in AP testers’ performance vis a vis college students–and for a 3 then to be equivalent to a 5 now would be a catastophic collapse in collegiate quality in only a decade, a conclusion I doubt seriously.

    I’d also like to know to what exactly you refer when you assert that “so many colleges” are no longer giving credit for AP scores since, according to the College Board, “Over 90 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities have an AP policy granting incoming students credit, placement, or both, for qualifying AP Exam grades.”

  4. superdestroyer says:

    One of the reasons more kids are taking AP classes is to escape the classes filled with blacks and hispanics in many “diverse” high schools. The Washington Post had a story at T.C. Williams High School were all of the white kids in the school are in AP. The white kids joking refer to non-AP/IB classes as “ghetto” classes.

  5. 1. I don’t think AP scores are readjusted based on test-takers. I haven’t heard that it’s easier to get a 4 or a 5. Some elite schools don’t give AP credit to a 3, which is supposed to be the equivalent of a C in a college class. A few don’t give any credit, apparently because they don’t want students using AP credits to graduate early.

    2. A major reason for the popularity of AP is that students want to save money on college by being able to graduate early.

  6. I don’t think that was a conscious incentive for me, but based on AP credits (European and American History, English Lit. and English Composition) and one summer college class during high school, if I’d wanted to I could’ve graduated early: instead, I graduated with two bachelor’s degrees and thus possibly, though this is speculative, something of a leg up in admission to law school. If I’d planned to go straight to work after college rather than pursue a graduate degree, in retrospect I probably would have opted to graduate early, and only because of AP would I have been able to do so. Echoing TexasTeacher, I find the idea that anyone should be able to prevent a student from even taking an AP exam outrageous. Finally, as to whether the tests have been dumbed down in the ten years since I took them, I certainly have no idea.

  7. Bill Leonard says:

    This is an interesting discussion.

    My offering: twenty-plus years ago, when, the kids having grown enough to be in school all day long, my wife still thought she wanted to return to teaching. She worked part-time as a teacher in the gifted program in the local elementary district. Except that in practice, any parent who asked (or pushed) could get his/her kid into the gifted program. So the classes were loaded with Asian and white kids — a good many of whom didn’t qualify as “gifted.” The district never “discriminated” based on intelligence or ability.

    And on many an evening my wife wryly commented that it was just like Lake Wobegone: every kid is above average; all the boys are handsome and all the girls are beautiful. She subsequently found real employment outside the teaching profession. From all I can see (we have been married 38 years), it has been a much more rewarding career.

  8. jeff wright says:

    Boy, are superdestroyer’s comments depressing. Not surprising, just depressing. And I don’t doubt it a bit. This is where we’ve come: AP classes to get away from the chaos commonly found in “regular” classes. It drove me crazy during my great teaching experiment and it’s the major reason I decided against spending my later years “giving back.” Actually, it wasn’t the bad kids. It was the good kids: no hope, no way out. How long would they remain good kids?

    Bill Leonard identifies another issue with AP classes: parents, what does it say about you if your kid isn’t in AP? Oh, man, can’t have that.

    Public schools, 2004.

  9. Or is it possible that they’ve got to take “AP” classes to get the equivalent of the regular curriculum 50 years ago?

  10. Richard Brandshaft says:

    “Or is it possible that they’ve got to take “AP” classes to get the equivalent of the regular curriculum 50 years ago?”

    No. I graduated from high school 45 years ago. In New York, when the New York public school system was considered pretty good.

    Only the super-smart kids took calculus in high school. The merely smart kids like me didn’t. (I was smart enough to get an Engineering degree. I never was one of the super-smart people who actually pushed technology forward. On the other hand, “dumb techie” is an oxymoron.)

    I bought one of the high school history books Diane Ravitch recommended. I haven’t really sat down with it yet. But just flipping through it, it seems a lot more detailed than anything in my dim memory.

    On this site, and in Ms. Jacobs’ old Mercury News column, I read complaints of the lack of things that were never conceived of then I went to school.

    What has happened, I think, is a split. Rich kids in high school get a good chunk of what would have been considered a college education 50 years ago. Poor kids are lucky if they learn to read.

  11. My town’s high school discourages all but the strongest kids from taking AP classes. The school does it so that it can claim that most of their AP students pass the AP exam. I think this is a terrible mistake. I think they should strongly encourage every student who is capable of learning calculus, to take one example, to take AP math. I wouldn’t dumb down the AP tests at all, and I wouldn’t worry too much about how well the students are doing on the AP tests, either; the trend these days, at least at the top colleges like MIT, is not to grant AP credit at all, no matter how well you do, or to restrict it to those who get ‘5s’. But I would encourage all students to take the most difficult and challenging courses of which they are capable.

  12. I tend to agree, if you look at most colleges that award AP credit, where they would have accepted 3 some 20 years ago (early 80’s), these days will accept only 4 and 5 (and the really top schools will only accept a 5, and that merely gets you past the introductory classes, but rarely does it provide as many credits as one would LIKE it to have.

    What I’d like to see is more emphasis on improving student skills to be able to think and reason logically, and development of proper study habits (a lot of schools say how many students they actually admit to college, but the downside is, how many students actually graduate with a degree within 3 years (associate’s) or within 6 years (bachelor’s)?

    I hold a number of high level computer certifications, and to take one company for example (cisco), the company doesn’t care how many times you want to pay for and take it’s exams, but the exams are tough, the failure rates are high, and the test taker is really tested when they only get one opportunity to answer the current question before them (you can’t mark questions, and go back to them later), and the exam does have a time limit.

    I think if students want to take AP exams, they should be allowed to (after all, they wind up paying for it) 🙂

  13. A long time ago in 1969. The large state university I attended only gave credit for a score of 5. I took Calculus with lots of students who had it in high school. They were just as confused as I was and did not do any better. There is a big jump from learning in a small high school math class to a college lecture hall of 300 or more. From my experience, I would recommend that students have good algebra and study skills and forget about advanced placement calculus. I would recommend they take 4 years of math in high school.

  14. I know that at some schools require the students to take the average class before the student takes the AP class. For example, the student may have take regular Chemistry the year before or in summer school before the students takes AP Calculus. This is to spend less time on the basic stuff and more time on the difficult items.
    I know that at some schools, you have to take a writing test before you take an AP English class. This is so the teacher spends less time on teaching of how to write an essay. However, the problem is that the students that do know how to write an essay usually have been in Honors classes beforehand. If a student from a regular English wants to be in AP, it is harder because in the regular English classes, the teacher spends less time on essay-writing.
    I know that a school I student taught at, the students are required to take World History before taking AP European History because the district thinks that AP European History is too Euro-centric. Therefore, the district does not count it as a social studies requirement. So the students take World History in summer school beforehand.

  15. To clarify, the high school can’t control who takes an AP exam any more than the school can decide who takes the SATs. Anyone can try to pass. For example, the foreign language exams attract immigrant students who’ve learned the language at home but haven’t studied it at their U.S. high schools.

    Many schools do restrict AP classes to students who’ve done well in the subject in the past. To some extent, they’re thinking of the AP pass rate, but they’re also trying to maintain high standards. The fear is that the teacher would dumb down the class so the unprepared students don’t flunk, hurting the better students.

  16. oops; my bad; i mean to say the students have to take chemistry before ap chem not calculus

  17. The other fear is that they will put students in a class in which they will not be successful. In my daughter’s school, anybody can take the AP exam; in fact, my daughter tells me that this year’s valedictorian taught herself Spanish at home and took and passed the Spanish AP exam. But to get into the classes, the students must fill out an application for the AP teacher. Parents have to sign it too, acknowledging that we understand how demanding the classes will be and much homework the student is committing to.

  18. “The other fear is that they will put students in a class in which they will not be successful.”

    Yet again, teachers and administrators will do any number of stupid things just to keep from the terrible fate of having to flunk people.

    If you don’t flunk the people that need to be flunked, then the people who passed and deserved to pass have wasted their time; the fraudulent flunkers have destroyed the value of the passing grade that the others have earned. If you make the class easy so no one will flunk, the people who would have passed the more difficult class have wasted their time and passed up the chance to learn what they should have learned in a more rigorous class. If you don’t let people in for fear that you might have to flunk them, you’re making them forego a chance to make themselves into something better than they were before, to achieve at a higher level than they ever have in their lives. If they try it and fail, is that really worse than never trying at all?

  19. Our school does the application thing, but only the most underqualified get rejected (meaning that if you got a D or F in a non-AP class last year, you won’t get accepted). But parents have to sign an agreement that the student must remain in the class through the semester — no coming up to school and demanding that the kid get transferred to a regular class RIGHT NOW.

    Of course, we have dual credit courses taught on our campus and at the community college (literally right next door) so that kids have other wasy of getting those college credits. Taken as a whole, students can polish off most of their college freshamn year by the time they graduate — if the college they go to accepts the transfer credits.

  20. Ken, you think a teacher should want to flunk kids? Good grief.

    In business, when you set goals for yourself and the people who report to you, those goals have to be achievable. Otherwise you are setting yourself or your subordinates up for failure. It’s pretty obvious in the business world; why is it so hard to apply that concept to education? Of course kids who don’t have what it takes or won’t commit and know that ahead of time, shouldn’t take the class. No-brainer.

  21. The problem arises, Laura, when you get administrators like my former principal (took a new job in a nearby district for a substantially higher salary). He announced at a faculty meeting that since his contract renewal would be based upon getting 90% of students to pass the TAKS test, his recommendation on our renewals(no tenure in Texas) would be based upon 90% passing our classes. Fall below a 90% passing rate and you were subject to being non-renewed, or getting a 1 year contract instead of a 3 year contract. Care to guess what the failing rate was in our building that year?

  22. Texas, I don’t think your story applies at all.

    The idea here is not to find a way for all the students to pass. The idea is not to let kids get in over their heads, and not to dumb down the curriculum in the process. The best situation would be for all kids to be challenged to the limit of their ability and ambition, but not beyond. I don’t see what’s so sinister about it.

  23. nicholas Baradello says:

    I think that students who feel motivated should be able to take the AP Class but those who dont shouldnt be able to. I need some information about this because i want to go to the board school of education to defend my equal rights. I am student who works very hard and gives 100% in everything i put in and I am not a great test taker i think those who are motivated and can try to get in and i feel that we can do this as a team and we will all succeed in real life. without some stupid AP exam but as for now lets try to get something out of it please e mail me some information thanks for your help lets value our education with full strength.

  24. I am a student in NH that is currently a junior. I am taking 2 AP classes (history and statistics) and found this topic interesting. I disagree that all students should be allowed into the class. It is very frustrating when a student is constantly slowing down the momentum of a class or lesson. My AP teachers also have no problem failing students, eg. 2 students have 50’s and only 2 out of 50 have A’s (I being one them). I therefore, think that students should have the oppurtunity to take the class, but only if they are qualified, for the sake of other students, not the schools persona and public appearance.