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On taking AP tests

You just knew this is what would happen

I guess I’m not clear on what the issue is here.

Since 2009, the number of AP exams taken by Houston Independent School District students has almost doubled. And last year the district reached its highest number of passing scores, marking a 36 percent increase from two years ago.

Still, most students perform poorly on the tests.

Roughly 70 percent of the 21,637 AP exams given in HISD last spring yielded failing scores. At Kashmere High School, students took 127 exams and passed none.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier launched an aggressive effort two years ago to increase enrollment in AP courses, arguing that more students deserved exposure to college-level work, and to require that they take the related exams. As an incentive, Grier decided the district would pay the test fees. The district spent about $1 million on the fees over the last two years.

“I think it’s money very well spent,” Grier said. “Improving rigor is one of our goals.”

As it should be, and having more students take AP tests is a good way to measure and help achieve that. Going by the students’ comments in this story, the experience of taking the test was positive for them regardless of the result. I consider this a first step. If in a few years time the percentage of students passing AP tests hasn’t improved, then HISD will need to re-evaluate what it’s doing. For now, I say they’re going in the right direction.

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6 Comments

  1. drdread says:

    I’m a big fan of AP classes and exams. If nothing else, the curriculum is a huge step up from the diluted intellectual mess of the state-sanctioned curriculum (I’m looking at YOU, Texas biology curriculum!). It also starts exposing students to collegiate-level thought processes, which is a good thing.

    That said, merely teaching AP classes and taking the exams will not get it done. The failure rates are an indication of the problem. The problem? Too many Texas teachers have certifications but no real knowledge of these specialized fields.

    Example: a few years ago, a friend who was a Georgetown ISD (Austin area) high school biology teacher asked if I could come help some of her students who were taking AP physics and struggling. She felt that they weren’t ready for the exam and wanted to arrange a little troubleshooting. When I sat down with them and we worked a sample problem, I asked them “how do you think we should start attacking this problem?” They immediately started throwing out formulae and solutions for other similar problems they had encountered. Aaaaaaaaaaagh! After 6+ months in the class, they had not learned how to analyze a problem, understand the fundamental concepts, and proceed from principles and properties to a solution.

    So what DID they learn in that class? They learned that “physics is hard.” Kill. Me.

    We’ll know when the ISDs get serious about AP classes, because they’ll train up their teachers to deliver the class properly.

  2. Doris Murdock says:

    Nope, parents must be the first line of offense in demanding their children study. School is not like dropping your car off for an oil change and relying on the mechanic to get the job done. It’s amazing to me that we still have as many teachers in the classroom as we do, given the inordinate pressure and low pay. Look, if someone’s child pulls all the blooms off the roses in your yard, you have a come-to-Jesus with the parents. If the child is not learning the lessons, parents need to be there, take time off work if necessary, turn off the TV and sit down with the child to study.

  3. Well, Doris — I have two advanced degrees and I couldn’t begin to help my son with AP Physics. I guess he’s out of luck.

  4. Eileen says:

    [email protected], I think the point is that the biggest factor in a child’s success in school is whether the parents care. It’s not that you need to coach your kid in everything.

    Which leads into my main point.

    I went to a private (not crazy-expensive, just local Catholic) high school. Something like 90% of the kids passed the test (that would be earning a 4 or 5, if I remember correctly). I do not (at all) think the kids going to my school were smarter than those in the average HISD school. However, the teachers all had at least B.S.’s in the subjects and were very good. Most parents spending 4k/year to send their kids to high school care very much how they do there. I don’t know which of these two factors mattered more, but I think I disagree that 0/170 passing rate isn’t a damned embarrassment. And just highlight why I’ll be sending my kids to private school when the time comes, even though I absolutely support the concept of public schools…

  5. Eileen, I agree with your critique of my comment. I have a high school junior who is a self-starter and HISD has done great by him. Because he is self-motivated, he has been in flagship schools all the way. River Oaks Ely, Lanier, and now Carnegie Vanguard. For some achievers, HISD is a great option. Kudos to the HISD Board for keeping it that way.

  6. Dr. Richard J. Sjoquist says:

    Your support is uninformed and misguided. As one who has had to follow HISD’s self-serving policy of requiring all students enrolled in AP classes to take the AP exams, let me clue you in on some classroom realities. First, at early college high schools, most (and at some ALL) are enrolled in AP whether their Pre-AP course grades warrant it. It’s become an entitlement rather than an earned privilege. Second, students who fail or earn less than a “B” for three grading periods (out of four per academic year) are still expected to the take the exam. This is not only counterintuitive, it is an utter waste of taxpayer money. I realize we live in a permissive society now which awards kids just for participating, but this in unproductive use of class time already strained by constant state mandated testing. It’s also redundant as these students will already earn college credit for some of the very AP courses they’re taking as they are dual credit. Worst of all, Dr. Grier’s reasons are not as altruistic as he would have us believe. He is a trustee of The College Board, which administers the AP exams. No ethical conflict of interest there, eh? And of course he knows that the USNWR Best High Schools has the number of AP exams as one of its biggest factors in ranking. Let’s also not forget that the same self-selective handful of high schools earn the lion’s share of qualifying scores on the AP exams.