Foundations of Education and Instructional Assessment/Standardized Testing/Advanced Placement

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Advanced Placement Tests

by Shannon Green

What is Advanced Placement?[edit | edit source]

According the website that sponsors the Advanced Placement Test,, "The AP Program is a collaboration between motivated students, dedicated teachers, and committed high schools, colleges, and universities. Since 1955, the AP Program has enabled millions of students to take college-level courses and exams, and to earn college credit or placement while still in high school" (K-12 Services, AP Program Section, 2008, ¶ 4). These classes allow high school students a glimpse at what a college level course would be like.

As we approach the end of 2008, it has become more apparent that a college degree is necessary in order to remain competitive in the job market. One way that high school students can have a head start is by participating in the Advanced Placement classes offered by their high school and by taking the Advanced Placement (AP) test offered by College Board. Depending on the score that is received on the AP test (most often a score of 3 or higher is required) and the selected College, it is possible for a first semester College Freshman student to begin school with college credits already on his transcript.

This article will discuss the basics of the AP Test and explain the benefits that are associated with taking the test. It will also explore the current problems and criticism of the AP Test program.

What are AP Tests?[edit | edit source]

Advanced Placement (AP) Tests are taken by students who wish to receive college credit before starting college. These tests are given by College Board, the same company that issues the SAT. The AP program offers 37 courses and exams across 22 subject areas. It is even possible to take an AP test without taking an AP class! The tests are graded on a scale of 1-5, and students who received a 3 or higher may be able to receive college credits. The tests are often 60% multiple-choice and 40% free-response. The multiple-choice section is graded by computer and the free-response section is graded by a group of college professors and AP class teachers (AP, 2008, The Grade-Setting Process Section). Once a student has decided to take an AP test, he needs to register at and pay the $86 testing fee per exam he registers to take.

The following is a list of AP Classes and Exams

"Art History, Biology, Calculus AB, Calculus BC, Chemistry, Chinese Language and Culture, Computer Science A, Computer Science AB

Macroeconomics, Microeconomics, English Language, English Literature, Environmental Science, European History, French Language, French

Literature, German Language, Comp Government & Politics, U.S. Government & Politics, Human Geography, Italian Language and Culture

Japanese, Language and Culture, Latin Literature, Latin: Virgil, Music Theory, Physics B, Physics C, Psychology, Spanish Language

Spanish Literature, Statistics, Studio Art, U.S. History, World History" (AP, 2008, AP Courses and Exams Section).

Visit this website for more information and to download course desciptions and learn more about the AP Subjects [1]

AP Tests sound great, how does a student get started?[edit | edit source]

The following is an example of what a typical high school student who wishes to take an AP Test might encounter:

Jimmy wants to take the AP Biology exam because he is hoping to receive college credit before entering into his freshman year at Old Dominion University. Jimmy first visits the AP Test website at He signs up to take the AP Biology test and pays $86 for the testing fee. He is a good student in his AP Biology class and is hoping that he can receive a grade of 3 so that he can receive college credits before entering college. He has checked the ODU Admissions website at and knows that if he gets a 3 on the AP Biology Exam he can get 4 credits that would be equivalent to him taking the following classes: BIOL 108N, 115N, 109N or 116N. If he is able to score a 4 or a 5 on the exam he can get 8 credits for BIOL 115N and 116N! On test day, Jimmy reports to his test center with a couple of No.2 pencils, a pen, and his ID. He opens his exam booklet and answers the questions in the multiple-choice section. Next he moves onto the free-response section and the first question reads as follows:

"Flowering plants have evolved various strategies for fertilization.

a. Describe the process of fertilization in flowering plants.

b. Discuss TWO mechanism of pollen transfer and the adaptations that facilitate each mechanism.

Some species of flowering plants have evolved mechanism to prevent self-fertilization.

c. Discuss and evolutionary advantage of preventing self-fertilization.

d. Discuss TWO mechanisms that prevent self-fertilization." ( AP, Biology, 2008, Sample Questions & Guidelines, Free Response section, p. 4).

After three hours, Jimmy completes his test and a few months later his scores are sent to him, his high school and to ODU. Jimmy was thrilled because he received a 5 on his exam and is going to start his freshman year of college with 8 credits!

Jimmy's exam was a summative assessment of what he learned in his AP course. The above example is good illustration of what an AP exam would test. The exam would require the student to draw on the basic knowledge that he or she would have learned throughout class.

Benefits of the AP Courses and Tests[edit | edit source]

The example above illustrates one of the major benefits of taking the AP Test, college credit. By receiving college credit, the incoming freshman student may be able to skip the introductory classes and move on to more advanced study. This would allow the student to take more interesting classes as well as classes more focused on his major. If a student received credit for an AP English exam, he may be able to satisfy all of his English requirements with that exam. By not having to take English during his freshman year he can concentrate on classes that are part of his major curriculum. This would be a great benefit to the student, not to mention the financial benefit. On a cost basis, it may be more economical for the student to spend $86 on the test fee and receive 3 college credits than it would be to pay for the 3 credits taking the class at the University.

Another benefit of taking the AP test is the reflection it may have on the student. The Admissions department at ODU may look at Jimmy's AP Test score and the fact that he took AP classes and view him as a student committed to education and academics. This may improve his chances of being accepted into the program. "In applying to colleges and universities with highly competitive applicant pools, students can use AP scores as a way to signal their challenging curriculum. For applicants from schools that grant a grade premium for an AP course, the scores also allow students to boost their grade-point averages" (Oxtoby, 2007, p. 45).

Students who take AP classes and AP tests may also receive additional benefits when they are college students. "Students who take Advanced Placement courses in high school appear more likely to graduate from college within four years and have higher grade point averages in college than similar students who aren't exposed to such classes, according to an unpublished study by researchers in Texas" (Klein, 2007, p. 7).

Does race make a difference?[edit | edit source]

While it may not seem like a problem, more and more high school students are taking the AP Exam. As a result those receiving a score of 3 or above have slipped and the average score has been down over the past four years (Cech & Holovach, 2008). While not every racial and ethnic group is being negatively affected, such as Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Cech and Holovach report "the percentage of passing exams taken by Hispanic students slipped by 5.5 percentage points over the past fours years, to 43 percent in 2007. This gap would further widen if there was no AP Spanish-language exam. Cech and Holovach quote Mr. Packer from the College Board on this fact. He states that without the AP Spanish-language exam "the percentage of Hispanic students sitting in an AP class and earning a 3 or better drops to 7.5 percentage" (2008, Gaps in Scores Section, ¶ 11). The percentages of passing scores among the group the College Board refers to as black or African-American slipped by nearly 4 points, to just 25 percent" (2008, Gaps in Scores section, ¶ 8).

To learn more about a program that provides grants to increase the participation of low-income students in AP classes and tests click here [2]

While test scores still seemed to indicate a disparity among the races, there are some advancements being made. "Through encouragement from federal, state, and local governments, more and more schools are incorporating advanced material into their curricula, so students from all walks of life- not just from elite prep schools- have access to more challenging courses (Oxtoby, 2008, p.45).

The Downside to AP Classes and Tests[edit | edit source]

Are we providing a benefit to our students by offering more and more AP classes and exams? Are these classes and tests really preparing them for college? When I was in high school I took an AP Chemistry class because I was planning on entering college as a Chemistry major, my major has since changed by my experience with this AP class did provide me with insight that may affect other students of AP courses. After completing the year of AP Chemistry I decided not to take the AP Exam because I did not feel like I had been able to comprehend the basic skills necessary to achieve a passing score. As a result, I took an introductory Chemistry class my first semester of college. While taking the college level class I realized that my knowledge of the foundations of Chemistry were not strong enough and it would not have been beneficial to me to have taken the AP Exam and received a passing score because I would have struggled in the future Chemistry classes I had to take as a Chemistry major. I realized that I really had not learned enough in my AP class to provide me with the knowledge to be a successful student. My personal incident occurred over 10 years ago, but it may still be happening to students today.

David Oxtoby expands on this point in his article The Rush to Take More AP Courses Hurts Students, High Schools, and Colleges, he states, "Although I applaud the effort to make challenging courses available to growing numbers of high school students, I worry that advanced-placement programs are rapidly becoming the latest way in which schools are "teaching to the test", rather than using creativity to excite and challenge students. Too much of the high school curriculum is turning into a pale imitation of college courses instead of providing the solid foundation students need to build on in the future, and the new pressures associated with these courses are distorting both the high school experience and the nature of the courses being taught" (2007, p. 44). Perhaps the competitiveness of the current student has increased the drive to add more and more AP courses, but what benefit are we providing to our students if we are not providing them with the basic foundations that will prepare them to be successful college students?

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

There are benefits and draw backs to AP tests and classes. Students can benefit from the exposure to advanced level classes. They can benefit in college by being prepared for a typical college-level class. They can even benefit by receiving college credits before entering a university. This can help them by being able to skip over introductory courses that they are already proficient in and allowing them to start more advanced work in their freshman year. What teachers need to be observant of in teaching AP classes is making sure that we are not just "teaching to the test". We need to make sure that the students are receiving a strong foundation in these classes otherwise they will not be successful college students. Statistically, more and more students are taking the AP tests, but how should we view this statistic when the gap of passing scores is widening between the races? This seems to indicate that while schools are providing AP classes to a wider range of students there is still a disparity among minority students. We as teachers need to make sure that we are preparing our AP students in the foundations of the AP subjects and not pushing them to just "pass the test".

"Admissions offices also need to communicate with schools that an AP label is less important than a challenging and innovative course. Above all, there needs to be more opportunities for colleges and high school teachers to talk with each other about the kinds of high school curricula that best prepare students for college, taking into account the real differences between secondary and post secondary levels of education. The truth is that making our high schools more like colleges will not necessarily help them provide a superior education. Nor will it necessarily provide graduates with a better preparation for success when they encounter true college-level work" (Oxtoby, 2007, p. 46).

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1. What high school classes expose students to college-level curriculum?

   a. accelarated level
   b. advanced placement
   c. gifted and talented 
   d. honors level

2. How many subject areas can a students take an AP test in?

   a. 22
   b. 30
   c. 37
   d. 59

3. A student wants to increase her chances of standing out to college admissions. What could help emphasize her commitment to academics?

   a. participate in the school play 
   b. play on a varsity sports team
   c. take AP courses and exams
   d. volunteer at a charity

4. Joe wants to be a Math major when he enters college. He is already has a very good understand of the foundations of Calculus and is taking an AP Calculus course at his high school. What chould Joe do if he wants to receive college credit for Calculus before entering college?

   a. have his teacher write a letter to the Admissions department stating what a great student Joe is in Math
   b. receive a perfect score on the Math sections of the SATs
   c. sign up for and take the Calculus AP exam
   d. tell his ollege calculus professor  that he already took the class in high school
   Answers:  1.b,  2.a,  3.c,  4.c

References[edit | edit source]

AP (2008). About AP. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from

AP (2008). AP courses & exams. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from

AP (2008). Biology. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from

AP (2008). Sample questions and scoring guidelines. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from

Cech, S., & Holovach, R. (2008). AP Trends: Tests soar, scores slip. Education Week, 27(24), 1-13. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from Education Research Complete database.

Klein, A. (2007). Researchers see college benefits for students who took AP courses. Education Week, 26(22), 7-7. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from Education Research Complete database.

K-12 Services (2008). AP Program. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from

Oxtoby, D. (2007). The rush to take more AP courses hurts students, high schools, and colleges. Education Digest, 73(2), 43-46. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from Education Research Complete database.