Consistently low AP pass rates lead some students to question instruction


Jessica Lee, Editor-in-Chief

When teachers have consistently low AP pass rates, a question comes to mind: should they continue to teach the class?  Well, just as test scores don’t necessarily define a student, AP pass rates don’t necessarily define a teacher.

A student’s AP score depends on both the teacher and the student: the teacher needs to be able to teach the curriculum well, and the student needs to put in the effort to learn the curriculum.

“Students [who don’t pass] may not be prepared enough for the AP exam, whether it’s because they don’t study hard enough or there isn’t enough encouragement to study or it could be the teachers,” junior Justin Layman said.

One important fact to keep in mind is that AP classes are essentially college classes, with college-level curriculum.  The AP test is undoubtedly rigorous and the class itself should be rigorous.

Unfortunately, some teachers forget that an AP class should be a college-level class and, therefore, the number of high grades in the class may greatly surpass the number of students who pass the AP exam.

A teacher may give a lot of “cushion” points.  Assignments, tests, and class work may all have the same weight.  There might be several extra credit opportunities that might make up the points from a failed test.

“If there’s so much extra credit, students don’t feel the need to try,” junior Minhsang Dinh said.

Additionally, some teachers don’t always make teaching their class their number one priority and may assign a lot of busy work.  Some teachers also don’t really grade assignments, simply glancing through assignments before essentially giving it a pass or fail grade.

“When the teacher has so much other stuff to do, like if they’re a coach or a club advisor, sometimes they just [assign] busy work,” Dinh said.  “Busy work is really bad because no one really cares. Some classes you just do straight book work and don’t really talk as a unit and a week goes by after testing and you forget it all.”

“The lectures were good but the assignments didn’t really reinforce the [concepts],” senior Jacque DeLeon said, commenting on her AP European History class in which she had an A+ but got a two on the AP test.  “The assignments would be to take a certain number of pages of notes on the chapter and an extra page would be extra credit.  Many of my classmates would reuse old pages because [the teacher] wasn’t the one who was checking [the homework].  The way he graded really made it easy for us to lie about doing our assignments and, if we did our own work, we could simply copy text from the textbook without understanding the concepts.”

Of course, students can always take the time to learn outside of class and understand the concepts better but this isn’t always very efficient.  Reading information and watching videos can only get someone so far in understanding the information.

However, even when teachers teach well, students still may not learn the concepts due to the size of the class.  Class sizes have a substantial influence on how students learn.  With smaller classes, students get more one-on-one time with teachers and essentially learn better.

“[The AP European History test] is an exceptionally difficult exam, covering over 500 years and spanning 25 countries,” AP European History teacher Jason Johnson said, commenting on his students’ average score of 1.34 in his three years of teaching.  “The first challenge is the sheer number of students in my classes.  While this does not have a huge impact on the teaching of the material, per se — it does have a very negative coloration to giving the students effective feedback on writing and working one on one with them in areas they may be deficient in.  In manageable class sizes of mid-20’s, I could be a much more effective teacher.”

How long an AP teacher has been teaching a class is also important to keep in mind when looking at his or her students’ pass rate.

“My mentor teacher, Beth Oesterman, encouraged me and reminded me that it takes five years for AP teachers to ‘get it all down’,” Johnson said.  “This is my fourth year, and I feel that I am learning from the past, things that were effective and things that did not help move us forward as a class.  My in-class test scores have been higher this year than ever before.  In light of what Mrs. Oesterman shared with me, I will re-evaluate the class AP Euro scores after my fourth and fifth years and decide if I will continue to teach the course.”

Also, when a student takes an AP class, he or she is more often than not in another AP class, and time management becomes an issue.  Students may focus on a certain subject and neglect another.

“You have to look at how many AP classes a student is taking,” AP Calculus teacher Eric Vallecillo said.  “Last year, I know one student who told me he didn’t care about his AP Chemistry test and, therefore, that AP teacher’s score was tainted.”

“I think it has a lot to do with how rigorous the tests are but I also kind of feel that by the time [students are] seniors they’re many times taking six classes and doing really really well in Stats or doing really well in Calc and that’s their love,” AP Macroeconomics teacher Kathy Scott said, commenting on her students’ average score of 1.17 over a five-year period.  “They really really study hard for those classes and maybe don’t put in the time needed for the AP [Macroeconomics] exam.”

For AP Macroeconomics, timing also affects students’ test scores.

“The timing of the test is very difficult because I teach it first semester, and they take the test second semester,” Scott said.  “By the time second semester comes around, they’re pretty burned out. They really don’t want to come in for extra help after school, and it reflects on their tests.”

Students who take AP classes additionally don’t always take the AP class for the right reasons.  Instead of taking the class to be challenged, these students take the class because of the people in it or because the class is an easy grade boost, given the teacher’s reputation.

“There’s a lot of students who come in who aren’t ready for the course but want to do it because they’re with their friends,” Vallecillo said.

“There are some students I know in some AP courses at another high school that just took [the class] because it wasn’t that hard, and they weren’t required to take the AP test,” Principal Bill Atterberry said.  “We can’t control who takes [an AP class] or the effort [students] put into taking it. I’ve seen some AP books with drawings in it. [Students] took the class, and they just drew a bunch of pictures in the book.”

While consistently low AP pass rates is an alarming problem that should be appropriately addressed, they shouldn’t be the only criteria in evaluating an AP teacher as it isn’t entirely comprehensive of the teacher’s teaching ability.  Unfortunately, there currently isn’t any system in place to evaluate AP pass rates and their implications nor any system to help AP teachers improve their scores.

“With the limited support AP teachers are given — no additional prep time, no update to training and methods, no peer collaboration time, etc. — it is very difficult to stay ahead of the game,” Johnson said.  “We didn’t even have access to our scores this summer to see how students did or evaluate how we can improve our methods because of some error beyond the teachers.”

Hopefully, in due time, there will be some sort system to help AP teachers.

“I haven’t been here long enough to be able to determine what’s going on,” Atterberry said.  “It would suggest to me as an administrator that, if you have consistently low pass rates, we may need to look at training.  It’s just something that we need to look at as a staff and determine what support our teachers need.”