Daniel Doherty

More kids than ever are supposedly failing the College Board’s end-of-year Advanced Placement exams. But should we be worried?

Politico has the exclusive:

Taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years to nudge more students into Advanced Placement classes — but a close look at test scores suggests much of the investment has been wasted.

Expanding participation in AP classes has been a bipartisan goal, promoted by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and by Republican governors including Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and John Kasich of Ohio. In the last five years, the federal government has spent $275 million to promote the classes and subsidize exam fees for low-income students; states have spent many millions more.

Enrollment in AP classes has soared. But data analyzed by POLITICO shows that the number of kids who bomb the AP exams is growing even more rapidly. The class of 2012, for instance, failed nearly 1.3 million AP exams during their high school careers. That’s a lot of time and money down the drain; research shows that students don’t reap any measurable benefit from AP classes unless they do well enough to pass the $89 end-of-course exam.

In its annual reports, the nonprofit College Board, which runs the Advanced Placement program, emphasizes the positive: The percentage of students who pass at least one AP exam during high school has been rising steadily. Because so many students now take more than one AP class, however, the overall pass rate dropped from 61 percent for the class of 2002 to 57 percent for the class of 2012.

The exam is graded on a 1 to 5 scale and covers 34 different subjects. Generally speaking, a score of 3 or higher is considered “passing,” but in my own experience, one needs either a score of 4 or 5 to receive college credit (although some schools will grant college credit with a score of 3). But the big debate today, it seems, is whether or not forcing students to take as many AP classes as possible is beneficial to them in the long run, even if they can’t pass every one of them at the end of the year. Either way, the rapid increase in students taking these tests has been a huge financial boon for the AP division of the College Board. Back to the article:

Those exam fees, however, continue to roll in. The nonprofit College Board, which also runs the SAT, reported net assets of $609 million at the end of fiscal year 2012, up from $491 million two years earlier.

For decades, the AP division had been a drain on the organization, losing money because the tests are so pricey to grade. But surging volume has changed that; revenues from AP tests now exceed expenses by $20 million to $30 million a year, Packer said. The College Board spends the excess on teacher training, scholarships and test redesigns, he said.

It’s also worth pointing out, perhaps, that taking (and passing) these exams has no impact whatsoever on one’s high school transcript or the college admissions process generally. For example, when I was in secondary school, some of my friends “failed” their AP exams because...there was no penalty for doing so. They were tired of school or looking forward to summer -- and just didn’t care how they fared. So they either (a) left the test blank or (b) put in a minimal effort. Does this mean they weren’t able to pass the test? Absolutely not. I wonder: How many other kids are doing this?

Certainly, there are some incentives to do well -- earning college credit, demonstrating competence in a given subject, personal satisfaction, among other reasons. And I’m not suggesting that many (or even most) high school students purposefully fail their exams. But isn’t it fair to say that this does happen, and could be a factor in why failure rates are rising? I mean, if schools are forcing kids to take AP exams (as I was) and there are no consequences for doing poorly, is it any wonder that not every student is going to try?

The good news, though, is that the number of kids passing at least one AP exam every year is seemingly on the rise. This is encouraging. And this is why I believe pushing kids to master and internalize harder concepts and course material is not necessarily counter-productive. After all, I was encouraged to take classes I wasn’t prepared for. And in retrospect, I’m glad I was.


Daniel Doherty

Daniel Doherty is Townhall's Deputy News Editor. Follow him on Twitter @danpdoherty.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography