AP access expands, but results are poor

Maryland schools are placing more students in Advanced Placement classes, reports the Baltimore Sun. But many fail the AP exam and and “arrive at college with. . . skills so low they must take remedial classes.”

“We just set those kids up for complete failure because they just get hammered when they get to college,” said Steve Syverson, a board member of the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

From left, Zainab Abbasi and Rasaundra Morrison study fungus under a microscope during AP Biology at Woodlawn High School, taught by Brian Patterson. Five of Patterson’s students took the AP Biology exam; two passed.

More than half of Maryland’s public school graduates now take an AP class and nearly 30 percent have passed at least one exam, the highest rate in the country. But in 19 high schools in the Baltimore region, more than half of the students who earned an A or B in an AP class failed the exam, a Sun analysis found.

 Trevor Packer, head of AP for the College Board, acknowledges that the program is being misused in some schools, with students taking classes before they are ready. For instance, he said, 20,000 African-American students in Maryland took AP exams last year, but the College Board predicted that only 2,000 had a strong chance of passing because of scores on other tests.

At Woodlawn, a high-poverty, high-minority school, only 7 percent of AP students passed the exam last year, reports the Sun. At Dulaney High, which enrolls primarily middle-class whites and Asian-Americans, most AP students will earn college credit.

“A common response to the access problem was to helicopter-drop AP courses into disadvantaged high schools,” said Kristin Klopfenstein, executive director for the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado. “The thinking was that this would improve these schools by setting high expectations.”

Adam Sutton teaches AP economics at Woodlawn. “I refuse to lie to my students about where they are with regards to meeting AP standards,” Sutton said. By mid-year, nearly half his students had quit the class.

Woodlawn doesn’t have a critical mass of top students who have grown up in a culture of high achievement, teachers said. Too often, students sail through the gifted and honors classes with top grades by showing up and following directions. And when they look around the school, they see themselves as the best students.

They don’t realize they’re not ready to do college-level work till they get to campus.

Many teachers think students will do better in college if they take an AP class, even if they fail to earn credit. It’s not clear that’s true, reports the Sun.

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  1. I suspect that the AP program should be tossed out at
    most high schools, or that colleges only start accepting
    scores of 5 to gain credit for college level coursework.

    A student who shows up at the Univ. of Maryland, which
    i’d imagine is a pretty decent college who needs to take
    remedial coursework should be placed on academic
    suspension and sent to the nearest community college
    or adult education program to actually learn the skills
    they should have learned in high school.


    • Bill: Agreed, the student should bear some responsibility. What about the school system that graduated him, the teachers that gave him grades good enough for college, etc, etc? Students who show up needing remediation, and there are MANY, often with good or stellar “grades”; have been … errm … let’s say misinformed for sometime. By people and institutions who should KNOW better.

    • There should be no remedial classes. You can’t hack it? Our apologizes, but you should be at County CC, not U. of State. Period.

  2. My daughter’s school would rather have its students get Cs in AP English rather than As in regular English because it boosts the school’s standing on national rankings such as the WaPo (jay Matthews LOVES AP classes). The Cs are bumped up to Bs on the weighted scale.

    • What is the school pass rate for students who attempt
      the AP exams (pass means a score of 3 or higher on
      the exam)?

      The question I also have is that a C in AP English
      shows the student as ‘average’, assuming this is an
      accurate reflection of the student’s ability, but on that
      scale, the student should be able to manage at least
      a ‘3’ on the AP English Exam.

      Though I know a LOT of students take AP classes
      without taking the corresponding AP exam for
      those classes (if I were an admission type at a
      college, the first question i’d have is ‘why didn’t
      you take any AP exams, if you took the AP classes?’


  3. AP without teacher support and helping students gain the skills for success is not useful. National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) has a school in Aberdeen that is the top NMSI school in the nation – posting 80% increases in passing due to the supports – http://bit.ly/18kRht7

  4. I also think Jay Mathews has helped to drive the idiocy that all kids can and should take AP classes. This has resulted in widespread academic fraud; massive grade inflation in classes that are misrepresenting themselves as AP level.

    It takes at least 11 years to get kids ready for real AP work. My older kids graduated from a high-performing MD high school, where the kids taking APs had taken upper-level classes in ES, honors classes in MS and honors prereqs for all of the HS AP classes. No one could take AP bio without doing well in honors bio, no one could take AP European History without doing well in honors world history etc. and that meant that kids were academically prepared for AP work and would do very well on the AP tests. When my kids were there, at least 85% of the kids taking AP chem or AP Physics would get at least a 4, and many would get 5s.

    What this article describes is not only academically dishonest and fraudulent, but it’s cruel to the students involved, who are being misled about their performance and their readiness for college-level work. The idea that only AP classes can be challenging and well-taught is an indictment of the school system. It sounds as if most of these kids would have been better off in a real honors-level class. This is not just happening in the Baltimore area; Prince George’s County (DC suburb) also has the same kind of problems. According to a teacher who often comments on WaPo education articles, Prince George’s requires at least one AP course for graduation, and his “AP” English class always has plenty of kids who read at 5th-grade level (or worse). Idiocy.

  5. Our local high school encourages FRESHMEN to take AP classes. Their pass rates are also pretty dismal. I think we really need AP reform. When I took AP classes, we expected to get 5s and felt embarrassed about any 4s. The classes were rigorous enough that passing the class = passing the test. In fact, you could get a B in the class and STILL expect a 5 on the exam.

    • In the linked article, one of the mentioned students took 6 AP tests and passed none. She said she was pleased that she had had a “high grade” (a 2) in bio because she wanted to major in bio and go on to med school. She’s going to Tuskegee now, so she should have some support, but what might she have done if she – and other motivated kids – had been separated from the herd early and given the proper preparation? No, it must be one-size-fits-all, even if it fits few kids well.

  6. Our current educational system seems very weird. On one of his blog posts Educational Realist mentioned having kids in his Algebra II class who couldn’t add fractions! Why are they in an Algebra II class? My memory of my long ago school days is that addition of fractions was routine by the sixth grade. I didn’t take Algebra II until sometime in my last 3 years of high school. I had mastered addition of fractions long before I took the course.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      If you have read Education Realist for long, you know that one of his themes is the dishonesty of many course titles.

      If the state (or the city or your principal) requires your students to take an Algebra II course but most of them can’t do the work, you will of necessity spend most of the course teaching Algebra I and before. Because you are a nice person, and because you will get grief if you don’t, you will then pass most of them. The official course description will describe all the things that they supposedly learned but little of it will be true.

    • Jim: When you took those classes, kids could fail, could not graduate, could not go to college. We don’t live in that time any more. I’ve had Algebra II students who couldn’t plot ordered pairs on graph paper (straight Cartesian, not polar or log, or any weirdness). Not just a few, maybe 20% would plot (2,3) as a dot at 2 on the x and a dot at 3 on the y. Or reverse them.

      Neighbors kid needed help with her pre-calc work. Neat problem involving a Ferris wheel. I had a tough time with it, until I realized the variables weren’t seperable and there was no analytic solution to that problem type presented in their course (with Calc it would be an easy implicit differentiation and related rates, blah blah). I set it up in Excel and used it to model the solution. Gave the kiddo the explaination and all the notes to take in. Assignment was “open book” and help allowed; so no problem. Kid takes it in, gets an A. Still scores 18 on the ACT math, but has an A for the class. *boggle

      Kid gets a high B in pre-Calc for the year, but can’t graph a sin function without a TI-84, I kid you not.

      Education Realist has a point – there’s lots of dishonesty in our kids lives.

      • Sean,

        I graduated from high school in 1981, and graphing a sine function is nothing more than looking at a(n)
        o-scope and watching alternating current go thru the
        scope, assuming you had reasonably clean power, you
        get a sine wave 🙂

        Unfortunately, many people in the last generation and a
        half have absolutely NO higher math skills at all, and
        a student who couldn’t master fractions (at least in my
        day) wouldn’t have qualified to take Algebra I in 9th grade, they would have been placed into general or
        consumer math.

        If the only way the student can graph y = sin(foo) is with
        a TI-8x calculator, i’d say flunk the student, and give the
        ‘A’ to the calculator 🙂


        • Bill: Class of 81? I was a wee 8th grader. I checked my house power; it came up cosine. For fun I made a Lissajou pattern after I was done.

          I was just reporting the facts. I casually knew the middle school math teachers at the middle school feeding this HS. They were then putting about 1/3 of the class through geometry by 8th grade. Even though 45% of the kids earned D’s and F’s on the state high stakes exams. Nearly 60% of the middle school population was on the “honor roll”. The math ACT was 20ish and very stable over time; participation about 99%. So how are 1/3 of the kids getting through Geometry that early? Lots of AP’s too, not so many 4’s or 5’s. Typically 10 to 15 valedictorians too. In a class of maybe 250.

          They’ve got a course on the transcript called Geometry, but I do not that that word means what you think it means.

  7. This article should be placed next to an early-summer article in the WaPo about the dismal performance on the MD end-of-course exams (alg I, geom, alg II, writing, govt, US history etc). It’s the exact same issue; the course title doesn’t match the what’s done in class because so many kids don’t have the knowledge/skills/ability/motivation to do the actual coursework. Like the AP situation, some schools have all kids doing the actual coursework – and scoring highly on the test – and some have almost none.

  8. K-12 grades and accolades are so ridiculously inflated that most big Universities (i.e. the ones that have actual standards) only bother to look at the SAT and ACT scores more and more these days. They regard the high school transcript more and more as useless garbage. SAT score + ACT score + essay + list of extracurriculars / volunteer work… The rest is just window dressing.