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The Folly of AP Testing

August 28, 2013

The Baltimore Sun recently published an article reporting that AP course grades in Baltimore City far exceeded AP test results:

Too often, students who haven’t been prepared in earlier grades flounder in AP classes, or are awarded A’s and B’s in the courses and then fail the AP exams.

The high grades for course work can lull students into a false sense of security, said Steve Syverson, a board member of the National Association of College Admission Counseling and a former dean of admissions at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Many students arrive at college with AP courses on their transcripts, but with skills so low they must take remedial classes.

As Superintendent in a Western MD public school system in the 1990s I had lengthy discussions with Principals on the issue of AP tests. At that time, the notion of using AP enrollments as a proxy for “quality” was emerging and we offered a minimal number of AP courses in our seven HSs in the district. We wanted more kids to go to college (the rate was under 30%) and wanted to make sure that kids we were sending to college were prepared. Our initial plan was to administer the local community college screening examination to all 10th grade students so they could see for themselves whether they were ready for college and, if not, have two years to prepare themselves. This idea was impossible because the local college felt their examination was “proprietary”. Our back up plan was to offer the PSAT to any sophomore who aspired to college on the notion that the PSAT would serve as a proxy for college readiness. This was ultimately deemed too costly and arguably would not provide the specific skills students would need to succeed in college. Finally, we determined that offering more AP courses would accomplish our intended goal. After 2 or 3 years, however, we found that too many students were enrolling in AP courses but not taking the tests because they wanted to have “AP” on their transcript or, in some cases, they could not afford the test. Our solution was to budget for AP tests and tell students they had to take the test if they wanted to have “AP” appear on their transcript.

Fast forward ten years to Hanover NH where I served as 7 years as Superintendent and entered into the other end of the AP debate. Hanover HS is more comparable to a private school than any pubic school, routinely graduating several National Merit scholars and sending over 90% of the seniors to college. Hanover was not rated among the best HSs in NH, however, because it determined that AP courses were not worthwhile for students and far too prescriptive for teachers who wanted to offer a wider range of instruction than the AP syllabus allowed. The best and brightest students in Hanover did not need “AP” on their transcript and were applying to schools that would not waive freshman courses even if students earned a 5 on the tests. Yet the Washington Post’s rating scheme and the US News and World Report values AP enrollments and, consequently, Hanover High does not rank as highly as other HSs where AP courses are valued.

I remain convinced that the best measure of college readiness is how students fare on the community college screening examinations and that those tests should be administered to ALL HS sophomores and used diagnostically to place students in course their final two years of school. Will this ever happen? Not until tests are seen as a tool for individualizing instruction and not as a tool for measuring and punishing schools and teachers.


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