AP failure rate rises

More students are taking Advanced Placement tests — and the failure rate is climbing, reports USA Today.

The findings about the failure rates raise questions about whether schools are pushing millions of students into AP courses without adequate preparation — and whether a race for higher standards means schools are not training enough teachers to deliver the high-level material.

According to USA Today, 41.5 percent of AP test takers earned a failing score of 1 or 2, up from 36.5 percent in 1999. In the South, nearly half failed.

Even with the higher failure rate, the higher number of test takers means that more students are passing.

The WashPost’s Jay Mathews, a big AP booster, argues that students benefit from the challenge of AP courses, even if they don’t do well enough on the exam to earn college credit.

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. A study of 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.

Are too many students taking AP courses without the skills to pass? I worry that AP classes will be simplified for weaker students, cheating students who are prepared to do the work. If teachers can hold the line, then I don’t worry that more students are trying something that’s a bit too hard and falling short.

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  1. As long as the tests don’t get easier, the integrity of the AP program should remain.

  2. A high school teacher from Prince George’s County, MD, posted a comment in response to a recent Jay Mathews column. His school has an explicit requirement that all students, however unprepared and/or uninterested MUST take an AP course (to boost the school’s standing on the Challenge Index). The result is the presence in his AP English class of kids with reading abilities at early elementary school levels. I can’t see any way that situation would not severely compromise the course level for those students (are there any?) who are prepared, motivated and truly belong in the class.

    In the current public education world, there seems to be a total willingness to compromise the opportunities for able and motivated students in order to concentrate time and resources on the weakest. The recent decisions at Berkeley HS are just another example. Close the achievement gap by curtailing the achievement of the most able and most motivated. I am reminded of an old poster, with the caption “it’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys.” You can imagine the picture.

  3. The externalities of AP, caused by the weighted grades, are a big problem when considering the failure rate. If a teacher is NOT teaching AP level work–and in many charter and inner city schools, the course has nothing to do with AP–then the students are getting weighted As and Bs for course difficulty that they never encountered.

    Trust me, most of those kids getting 1s and 2s on the test are NOT getting Cs and Ds in the class. Most of them are getting As and Bs, a nd that’s what is considered when they apply to college–not their low failing score on the actual test.

  4. Cranberry says:

    It seems clear that increasing overall student performance requires a change in the definition of “college prep” courses at many US high schools. This morning, the New York Times published an article on early college high schools for students at risk:


    “With a careful sequence of courses, including ninth-grade algebra, and attention to skills like note-taking, the early-college high schools accelerate students so that they arrive in college needing less of the remedial work that stalls so many low-income and first-generation students.”

  5. Cranberry: Thanks for the link. It sounds like an interesting option and I am all for options of all kinds. The one-size-fits-all model actually fits very few. Also, some k-12 schools are so chaotic and the social climate so intolerant of academic effort that removal of motivated and can-be-motivated kids is the best option. As was pointed out in some of the comments on that article, there are also some kids who can easily complete a full high-school curriculum in far less time and should be allowed to do so and start college early.

    I am all for taking advantage of such programs, but parents do need to be aware of the age differences and address those issues with their kids, as one comment mentioned. Girls, particularly, often look much older than their actual age. I know one 13-year-old who was asked for a date by a CC classmate who assumed she was college age, since she was taking a regular college class, not a remedial one. She did look at least 17 and was accustomed to interacting with older kids, so the guy wasn’t that inappropriate. Fortunately (much to her parents’ relief) she thanked the guy and explained the age issue. To his credit, he was appalled and apologetic. When we heard about it – she told her mom – we made sure to address that issue with our kids.

  6. Addendum: the CC male in question was 21.

  7. At my high school, we MUST allow anyone who wants to attempt AP into the course regardless of preparation. We used to have grade pre-requisites, but that was seen as biased against minorities. Now, anyone can take the course. Our calculus teacher is about to pull her hair out.

    We are allowed to make reccomendations to the student about their next course based on what we feel their ability level is, but in the end, it is the final deciaion of the parent and student.

  8. momof4, the point of the program–the program profiled in the NYT article is not filled with the cream of the crop. This is not acceleration for the gifted, nor the “motivated or can-be motivated.” To quote, ““We picked these kids out of eighth grade, kids who were academically representative at a school with very low performance. We didn’t cherry-pick them. Their performance has been so startling that you see what high expectations can do.””

    This is a Gates Foundation project. The anti-intellectual culture at many American high schools does not stem solely from the children enrolled in the schools. One answer to the dead-end perspective many students develop may be to restructure the high school curriculum. Do not write off kids. Focus the high school curriculum on the skills needed to succeed in college. Begin in middle school.

  9. The “careful sequence of courses” is called vertical teaming (I think it is marketed as SpringBoard by the College Board). Yes, it can help prepare kids, especially for Calculus. Jaime Escalante’s “miracle” Calc class was fed by a Pre-AP program that started in middle school.

    In general, though, probably about 1/3rd or so of kids are ready for AP. Dip further into the pool than that, and you’ll start seeing failure rates rise. It’s probably worth seeing the failure rates rise a little to get as many kids as possible, but NOT worth shoving all kids through, which turns AP classes into just regular classes with a big test at the end. If you’re in an urban school struggling to bring up expectations and you have a lot of 2’s for a few years while Pre-AP comes on board, that’s ok. If you’re in a good suburban school and you have a lot of 2’s, then something is wrong. There are a lot of factors when looking at these numbers. Don’t oversimply.

    BTW, my AP classes are harder than the equivalent classes at most colleges (intro comp and intro literature); they really are not for everyone. That’s ok. The kids can still take high school classes in high school.

    FWIW, my AP courses are open enrollment and we have no Pre-AP. My juniors have never taken an honors level English course in their lives because we don’t offer any prior to that. I typically wash out about 20% at semester. I like to see a rough correlation between grades and scores, but it doesn’t always happen. I have C/D slackers who surpise me with 4’s and 5’s and bright kids who just don’t perform well under time pressure (3 essays in 2 hours) and get 2’s.

  10. Cardinal Fang says:

    “A study of 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.”

    The same article, on the same study, reports that students who took an AP course and then the AP test did better than similar students who took the AP course but did not take the AP test. The students were matched for achievement (by SAT score) and family income. But how similar were these students, really? Can anyone believe that merely taking an AP test prepares someone for college? Or could it be that more ambitious, hardworking students take the AP test, and those more ambitious, hardworking students also do better in college than their less hardworking classmates?

  11. Momof4: “The result is the presence in his AP English class of kids with reading abilities at early elementary school levels.” The real problem is that these kids are in high school at all.

  12. Mark: I agree completely. The rot starts in ES and continues. If you don’t learn the basics across the disciplines, you’re hosed. A house without a proper foundation and scaffolding fails and so do students.

    Parent2: I read the specifics of the program mentioned. I was reacting to some of the comments to that program; some of which mentioned other programs. I feel that there are at least several reasons that HS-college (CC, tech or 4-yr) combinations are good ideas: the student population mentioned, the accelerated and vocational students.

    Regarding vocational students, I find it appalling that kids who formerly would have graduated from HS as cosmetologists, office staff, mechanics, nurses’ aides, LPNs, surgical techs,MAs, welders etc. now have to pay for those courses after graduation – and they are expensive. I go to a local cosmetology school and every single student I’ve had said that they would have done it in HS if they had had the chance.

  13. Everhopeful says:

    momof4 writes: “Regarding vocational students, I find it appalling that kids who formerly would have graduated from HS as cosmetologists, office staff, mechanics, nurses’ aides, LPNs, surgical techs,MAs, welders etc. now have to pay for those courses after graduation – and they are expensive.”

    I’ve wondered why vocational schools are no longer in the picture. Am I right to infer from momof4 the reason why: there’s more money to be made if there are no vocational schools?

    On the topic of AP: I teach at a state university. A few years ago a student of mine came into the office and cried; she had never failed a course before. She had never made less than an A in high school, she said. I looked up her test scores. She had taken four AP courses and earned a 1 on every one of them. Poor girl had been sold quite a bill of goods about her ability.

  14. More students are failing AP courses becasue there are more students enrolled in AP courses who do not have the skills to be in those classes. There are many and varied reasons why they are enrolled in AP classes, but possessing the skills to do the work is not one of them.

    By the way, teachers are not “trained” to teach AP courses. They are people who have the requisite knowledge in their discipline acquired over a long period of time and the skill to impart that knowledge to students who are both bright enough and motivated enough to learn it. Schools, especially ed schools, do not “train” teachers. Because ed schools have a monopoly on licensing teachers doesn’t mean they provide much that is valuable.

  15. Sad. Another program that may be compromised, it looks like. Are we compromising standards to ‘democratize’ the test? What may be going on here?

    We need to go back to basics: First the WHAT, then the WHO. WHAT is AP level? WHAT is the curriculum? WHAT is the purpose of AP? Then, WHO has the necessary skills to participate? WHO will benefit from AP? WHO can participate meaningfully without compromising those standards? It looks like in some states, our current approach may be backward. First, it seeks to include more students (the WHO) and then it needs to tinker with the standards (the WHAT). That approach doesn’t work well for anyone. As Linda Darling-Hammond is quoted, “The standards don’t teach themselves.” Adding a high-level test does not cure education knowledge and skills deficits.

    I’m with everyone who seeks to include more students in AP, so long as we put the WHAT before the WHO. So long as we don’t lower AP standards. So long as we remember what our purpose for AP courses was, in the first place!

    This article reminds me of inclusion. Yes, while in some situations it can be excellent for all students, far too often, it does lower standards and expectations in many classes. Let’s be honest here.

    If we are serious about raising standards for all students, it’s first the WHAT; then the WHO.

  16. The same force that pushes unprepared kids into AP classes forces teachers to drop the level of the course because they are not allowed to flunk kids out. That force is racial/ethnic status, with a dash of inclusion. This is illustrated by the Prince George’s County, MD example I cited earlier, since it is majority African-American with many Hispanics. The recent post on AP science labs at Berkeley HS had explicit statements that those labs had too many whites and Asians, which is likely to happen if only prepared kids are allowed into AP classes. Forcing all PG County kids to take an AP class allows MD to brag about their high levels of minority preparation. Of course, if all schools (ES,MS,HS) would focus on explicit instruction and mastery of content across the disciplines, it wouldn’t be an issue because kids would arrive in HS ready to to do HS work, including AP.

  17. CharterMom says:

    I wonder too if some of the growth in APs is also due to the perception that if your school offers them then students must take them in order to be considered for the more selective colleges. It relates to the idea that colleges expect students to demonstrate that they challenged themselves by taking the most difficult courses. I know I’ve been told that. And here where I live that “more selective college” grouping includes the local state universities. Selecting an AP course also guarantees that your classmates will be among the more motivated and well-behaved. Those two factors combine to result in the fact that many juniors take 4 AP courses and find themselves buried. I’ve got to believe that no matter how well prepared the students are, having to deal with 4 AP exams in a very short period while still keeping up with the rest of your high school courses and activities (AP exams are in May when other courses are still in full swing as are school sports and activities such as the prom) makes it tougher than college exams where just about everything on campus stops during exam time. Some kids who might otherwise have been able to pass as AP exam fail just due to the overload. And they do take the exam because unless they do the course is weighted like an honors course not an AP course so they lose the benefit of the AP course on their GPA.

    I know the school is concerned about this and is struggling to figure out a good solution. Limiting APs doesn’t seem to be the answer because some kids do just fine. I do know that my son’s pre-calc teacher did say that he was very restrictive on who he approved for AP Calc. I also know that sophomores were offered an AP course this year in a very structured manner so that they could get a taste of what AP required and then make informed decisions on how many to attempt in junior year.

  18. Roger Sweeny says:

    Cardinal Fang,

    You have discovered the dirty little secret of so much research, comparing two groups that are different in too many ways.

    People who are married make more money, are happier, etc. Is it because they are married or because people who are happier, have better jobs, etc. are more likely to find someone who wants to marry them.

    People who go to selective colleges make more money than people who don’t. But the colleges select people who are hard-working, goal directed, and pretty bright. They’re the people who would naturally be more successful.

  19. I think it’s funny how we are all spread out across the country, but yet we are, for the most part, facing the same problems. At our school they took out all of the teacher recommendations or concerns because it might hurt the students chances of getting in. So basically right now, they need to be proficient or advanced (on the CSTS) in the subject to sign up for the class. But a friend of mine already has had a bunch of students just get thrown in.

    Our rates haven’t dropped yet, but we expect it to happen this year. The AP teachers are pissed about this, but the administrators won’t touch it.

  20. I agree that AP classes are not what they should be. Our administration has the stance that, “If they want to try the harder class, they should be able to.” This stance begs the question, “At whose expense?” The lower ability students slow the class down and frustrate the teacher as well as the students who really want to learn more. Also, I have found that the students who do not have the background they need to take the AP classes are the most likely ones to try to cheat to get through the class. Even if a student can keep up enough to squeak by with a D or low C (which shows they barely caught on to any of the topics covered), wouldn’t that student’s education be better served in the regular classes where they could walk away with a solid B+ or A and the complete understanding of that material? It seems to me that all involved are losing when students who do not belong in AP classes are granted admission into them. I have also noticed the “dumbing down” of the material to account for students who do not have the background to be in the upper level classes, which is very sad indeed.