Why We Like AP Exams
At Match, we are devout fans of AP exams. We design the academic side of our schools, starting in early elementary school, with the AP standards in mind. We take this approach for three reasons:
1. AP Exams Require Content Mastery
AP exams require mastery of content. They require expertise of our students. Consider the sample AP biology question above. To answer this question correctly, a student needs flat-out mastery of biology content – pancreatic hormones, target cells, and cellular transduction.
Why is content mastery good? Why do we like the AP exam for unapologetically requiring content mastery in its subject matter?
First of all, content mastery matters because it actually matters to careers. Our high school students are, after all, future doctors, engineers, computer scientists, novelists, French teachers, and statisticians. They need to know their material.
Second – and this is counter-intuitive – students (in fact, all human beings) develop higher-order skills most easily when they know material deeply. Baseline knowledge sets that stage for the exercise of analysis, inference, argument, and synthesis. For example, for a student to be a great historian – one who can make claims with evidence, one who can think originally and critically – she needs first to develop an encyclopedic command of history; to immerse herself in history itself. The AP, by demanding content mastery, correctly understands that content knowledge precedes and enables the development and application of higher order skills.
2. AP Exams Require Higher Order Academic Skills
In addition to testing content mastery, the AP simultaneously challenges students to be skillful. The tests – across all subjects – require of students the higher order intellectual skills that matter in college and careers. At every turn, the AP asks students to read complex original texts, interpret seemingly ambiguous data, write precisely, argue with evidence, and so on.
Take the AP US History exam as an example.
This exam includes a Document Based Question (DBQ) in which students are asked to read a prompt, synthesize evidence from historical documents and their own content knowledge, and then write a coherent essay in response to that prompt.
A recent exam included the following prompt:
“Explain the reasons why a new conservatism rose to prominence in the United States between 1960 and 1989.”
To answer the prompt, students were given seven documents, including a quotation from Jerry Falwell, an excerpt from a Republican Party platform, and a statistical table tracking the unemployment rate from 1961 to 1988.
To perform well, students needed to function as serious historians. They needed to be able to read and interpret the written texts and charts, construct a convincing argument grounded in evidence, and write a coherent essay. All in 60 minutes.
In all, the AP test – in addition to testing baseline content mastery – also requires students to be skillful scholars.
3. AP Exams prepare kids for – and are likely predictive of – success in college.
Not surprisingly, given how they test both content mastery and academic skills, AP exams are closely correlated with students’ success in college. This is the third reason we admire the AP.
The rates at which high school graduates finish college are staggeringly low. Just 58% of high school graduates who enroll in a four-year college graduate within six years. Just 20% of high school graduates who enroll in a two-year college graduate within three years. College success rates among low-income high school graduates are even lower.
Enter the AP exam. When students take an AP exam – better yet, when they pass an AP exam – their trajectories in college improve. And though the evidence isn’t causal, the evidence is compelling enough to lead us to think that AP exams, when accompanied with the appropriate amount of student support, are predictive of college success. A 2013 study determined that even when controlling for prior academic achievement, demographic variables and school-level variables, students who took one or more AP exams were more likely to graduate from college in four years than students who hadn’t taken any AP exams by 9 percentage points. Students who scored higher on AP exams were even more likely to graduate in four years.
In short, we like AP exams because they make no bones about requiring content mastery, because they demand higher order intellectual and academic skills of students, and because they give students an edge in college.
In the next blog post, I will cover the alarming discrepancies by race and class in how frequently high school students participate in AP classes and pass AP exams.
A Note on Sources: With two exceptions, the data in this blog series comes from the College Board (particularly the 2015 National Summary of AP Performance and the 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation) and statewide reports from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, particularly the report on AP participation and AP performance. Statistics on the percentage of students attending schools with an AP program came from AP at Scale, published by the American Enterprise Institute. Statistics on the performance of Match students came from an internal Match report.