Advanced Placement Exams: The Test Itself (Part I of III)

Students across the country – including students at Match High School – took this year’s Advanced Placement (AP) examinations in May. We value AP courses at Match and work hard, from kindergarten through high school, to prepare our students to do well. 

I sat down to capture our thoughts on the test and the debate that surrounds it. This is Part I of a three-part blog series about AP exams. This first blog provides an overview of AP exams and explains why we like them. My aim is to give you a concrete view of the test and of the content and skill mastery that it demands of students.

Part II covers the large differences – by income and by race – in the rate at which students take and pass the test. Regrettably, millions of high school students – often low-income, students of color – attend schools that fail to prepare them for AP exams. 

Part III covers the race- and income-based gaps in AP exam participation and performance in Boston. In this blog, I will also comment on where we stand at Match in trying to close the AP participation and performance gap.

The AP 101: A Tour of the Exam

AP exams are three-hour, subject-specific exams administered by the College Board each May. In 2015, the College Board administered approximately four million AP exams in 36 different subjects. 

AP exams cover widely the humanities (history, literature, economics, psychology, art, and foreign languages, etc.) and the sciences and math (calculus, chemistry, biology, physics, statistics, etc.)

In 2015, the five most frequently administered AP exams were English language and composition, United States history, English literature and composition, calculus AB, and government and United States politics.

High school students typically take an AP exam after enrolling in a year-long AP course in 11th or 12th grade. Some schools offer AP courses to 9th and 10th grade students. The full cost to take an AP exam is $92. But through a combination of federal, state, and school subsidies, students from low-income backgrounds can take AP exams at no cost or significantly reduced cost. 

All AP exams are scored on a scale of 1-5. According to the College Board, a student who earns a 5 on an AP exam is “extremely well qualified” in that discipline, while a student who earns a 1 on an AP exam earns “no recommendation.” 

Students can earn college credit and enroll in more advanced classes once in college, based on their AP exam performance in high school. Individual colleges and universities establish their own policies for AP-based early college credit. 

The College Board considers a score of 3 or higher as passing, and 50%-60% of AP exams in any given year earn a passing grade of 3 or higher. In 2015, 57% of the more than four million AP exams administered received a passing score.

AP exams consist of multiple choice and free response questions. 

Below, I lay out a few questions from different tests. The first two questions are multiple choice questions.  The last two questions are free response.

Please read these questions carefully since they will give you a foundational sense of the rigor of the AP exams.

Note: We are including these sample questions in isolation from the remainder of the exam in which they originally appeared. Students would be answering these questions based either on the coursework they completed in the related AP course or based on passages provided in the exam. 

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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.