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AEI Looks at AP Tests and Misses the Point

January 8, 2016

Nat Malkus, a writer for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank, recently shared the findings of a longitudinal study he conducted on AP testing. I thought the study offered some heartening news in terms of AP test takers, but fell short of the kind of analysis needed to demonstrate that all children have an equal opportunity to take and pass AP tests.

One of Malkus’ opening paragraphs missed an important point. He wrote:

In the past two decades, AP certainly has expanded, with the College Board reporting more than 2 million students taking AP exams in 2013 — twice the number just ten years earlier. In fact, in an education system long focused on helping low-performing students, AP has filled a vacuum of attention to high performers, growing into the default program for advanced coursework in public high schools. 

As one who is an educational policy writer, Malkus should be aware that one of the primary drivers for the expansion of AP testing is the fact that educational policy makers have chosen to use AP test taking as a proxy for a “rigorous curriculum,” and the offering of AP courses and the percentage of graduates taking AP courses is often a primary metric in determining the “quality of education”. A case in point, the HS in the district I led before retiring had a graduating class that typically included over a dozen National Merit Scholars and had well over 80% of its graduating class of 170 +/- headed for college but we often fell short in the rankings of HS in our state because we did not offer AP courses. Why was this so? Most competitive colleges do not place any emphasis on AP test scores and the teachers in our school found the AP curriculum to formulaic and rigid.

Malkus’ analysis of ” whether the caliber of AP course-takers watered down as participation grew” was also weak. To do this he compared the NAEP scores of AP test takers over time and found no difference. This was completely unsurprising to me. ETS, unlike a state department of education, has no reason to modify it’s cut scores so it is not surprising to see that there is no evidence of erosion in the NAEP scores of AP test takers. What this DOES show is that there was a pool of students who were qualified to take and pass one AP test in the past who failed to do so.

Assuming Mr. Malkus’ intent is to demonstrate that we are on the road to equity, I believe he needs to seek answers to the following questions:

  • How many AP courses were available to each student by demographic group? Malkus reports on how many students from each demographic passed ONE AP test…. but I think it is safe to say that students who attended affluent suburban schools had a wider array of courses available than a student in a small rural school or a desperately underfunded urban school.
  • What was the pass rate on AP tests in schools broken down by demographic group? I believe low AP pass rates are a good proxy for rigorous preparation paths… and passing AP tests is difficult when the courses leading up to the AP level are weak.
  • What percentage of students in each school took AND PASSED an AP test? As noted above, since AP offerings have become a crucial metric, more and more schools are offering AP courses to more and more students… and the result is not always more and better learning.

And no demonstration of equitable opportunity could be complete without looking at drop out rates… which remain stubbornly high for students born in poverty and minorities. I hope that Mr. Malkus provides answers to these questions in future reports.

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