AP Loves Me, AP Loves Me Not

I lapsed in judgement, yet again. I accepted  an AP (Advanced Placement) student  for tutoring after February. Once again I fell for the line, “I just need a bit of help with test taking skills.”

I had to be the person to explain in May, ten days before the exam, how the student lacked the depth of familiarity with the content (Biology) and their writing did not meet the minimum a reader would seek for a college level survey class.  I had to do this so the student and parents could set realistic expectations: (1) Student will get credit for high school science. (2) Student could suddenly have a burst of understanding regarding photosynthesis (light/dark reactions), Krebs Cycle and other known subject areas of the test AND construct short essay answers which would demonstrate understanding, interpreting, prediction and application, if not synthesis of information – although this was highly unlikely.

Based on two tutoring sessions a week apart (after the first one I was pretty sure the student lacked the depth of knowledge), and wishing to give the student the benefit of the doubt, I met for the second session. The first session could have been nerve-wracking by expecting the student to get through at least two to three of the ‘six short free response questions’ pulled from a series of release questions on the College Board website…. At our first meeting, I had to provide the student with sticky tabs to label sections of the book. By the second session, the student could not locate the section of the book with the pancreas, insulin (hormone) and the feedback process. I knew I had to be honest.

Section 1 lasts 1 hour and 30 minutes and contains 63 multiple choice questions and 6 grid-in questions.

Section 2 lasts 1 hour and 20 minutes (plus a 10 minute reading period), and contains 8 questions consisting of 2 long free response questions and 6 short free response questions.

I am not sure who was more sad or relieved. The student and parents clearly had no clear understanding of what an AP class was about or they would have done things much differently during the school year. I was able to ask a few questions and prove this out easily.

The AP exam, for any subject, is not an easy class. AP classes allot a student college credit for the basic  level 101 English, U.S. History, Biology, Psychology, etc.  upon the student demonstrating by exam they have college freshman level skills in the subject. This means the high school course is a ‘survey’ course of content the student should have already had one exposure to and/or it is a subject area they are passionate about (example: student interested in med school will LOVE the content in Biology and/or Chemistry and eat, sleep, dream about these subject areas so the AP course will be pure joy).

AP does not mean intelligence or smarts. The most common misnomer by parents is the one which is something along the lines of, “College prep coursework in high school must be the lowest track. Honors is for smart students. My child is brilliant and going to college so they must take AP courses to demonstrate. beyond a doubt, they are brilliant”.

For whatever reason, no one bothers to ask and read about http://www.totalregistration.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=494&Itemid=118  or https://www.collegeboard.org/releases/2014/class-2013-advanced-placement-results-announced which has the numbers of students who register for the test and the percent of students who pass with a 3, 4 or 5 score (1 and 2 ratings are not applicable for college credit).  No high school counselor managed to have a meeting with families to explain the actual rigors and expectations of an AP course and what the actual outcomes look like, in numeric form.

The reality is, upon reading past the College Board marketing, approximately 50-80% of students PASS the AP exams each year in any given subject area (achieving a 3 or higher). This indicates not all students pass with college credit, even though all students are allowed to register for the class.  20 -50% of students who apply for the exam (Not all students in the class apply for the exam!), take the AP course for the year and show up for the exam(s) do not pass….This is truth in numbers. It depends as much on subject content as study habits as persistence. The numbers tell a story no one pays much attention to regarding what types of classes students should be taking in high school.

Sometimes the student has not had a previous in-depth exposure to the subject area and is surprised by the sheer volume of information involved in a college level course. Sometimes the AP course teacher is not an experienced teacher and neglects to get students WRITING (for the courses which require this portion of the exam) in October so students have time to practice and/or determine if they want to put in the effort necessary to pass the AP exam.  Sometimes peer and parental pressure make the student persist.  Sometimes students actually believe they can handle two or three AP courses and sports and some other activities and work themselves to a frenzy where the spring season is hell in the form of not feeling well, not being rested and definitely not successful at something as something has to ‘give’ in a manner of speaking.

The genuine issues students and parents should think about have more to do with outcome than the numbers demonstrating an ‘increase in students taking the AP exams’. Is your child best suited for the level of rigor required to be successful in an AP class AND can you accept not passing the exam while getting high school credit for the class.

Students who have the ability to pass the AP exams have four significant and important skill sets.

  1. In depth exposure to the content area at least once prior to the AP class. This can mean reading _________ for Dummies in August preceding the AP class and/or a general love of the content area.
  2. An understanding of study skills  including flashcards, Cornell notes, multiple sources of media, study groups and practice.
  3. Obtaining a tutor early on so they can adequately review content and practice writing over a long horizon line.
  4. Specifically deciding the one or two things they can commit to for eight months AND will not flip out if one of these items does not work out exactly as planned.

I have given up trying to think through why parents would expect something from their children so extreme as AP coursework. I believe in some ways it is parental narcissism, in the same way it is important to have a child who applies and is accepted to only Ivy League Universities or similar.  Based on the numbers, my experience with tutoring and talking with a wide variety of parents from all socioeconomic classes across America, AP exams are not for everyone AND they do not save anyone money if you have to hire a tutor/coach (doctor, psychologist, etc.) to help your student through the death march of May.  A good tutor can equal the cost of  a 100 level course at a community college. If saving money is your goal, think again. If proving your child is successful, think about what success means and how it is fulfilled. Personally, I would love to have a student who actually understands the pancreas and insulin as we live in the age of diabetes. The student who understands enough biology to be concerned about their own health, the health of their family and care about the environment is far more practical than passing an AP exam.

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