Stochastic Nature of AP Scores

This is the time of year when teachers and students access the AP exam results from the previous school year and see the result in a score measured on a 1-5 scale. For some teachers it is a quick glance for verification or reflection, for others it is a meticulous study, and yet for others it is a nerve wracking experience that may decide their teaching fate for the upcoming year.

Each teacher’s school or school system uses AP scores in different ways. One end of the spectrum they are used as a celebration of how the “school” did and on the other end of the spectrum, teacher’s and possibly an entire school’s merits and effectiveness are negatively judged by the 1-5 score. Of course, none of this is what the AP exam and score was designed for. Simply, the score is one example of how a student did on a specific test on one day, at the end of less than one year of instruction. Anyone else who tells you otherwise is selling something.

I teach AP biology so what I have been wrongly led to believe by other educators is that:

  • Poor exam scores “hurt” children.
  • Poor exam scores or great exam scores are a way to judge both teacher effectiveness and student intelligence.
  • Schools can be measured by their AP scores from year to year.
  • Teachers can be measured by their AP scores from year to year.
  • I can compare a teacher in New York teaching AP biology to one in Georgia teaching AP biology.
  • That the exam is meaningful in some way other that a measurement tool.
  • That the exam tells how much biology the students learned in that year.
  •  That AP exam scores from one year can be connected to other years in a line graph.
  • That if a student does not make a 5 on the exam, then nothing has been gained.
  • That AP exam scores are currency.

All of the above (to me) is ideally wrong. If you work in a school system that judges you as a teacher based on your AP scores, I would suggest convincing them that this is poor practice, or I would change schools. If you judge the learning of your students based on their AP score, then I suggest you stop teaching AP or learn to appreciate all of the other ways they demonstrate learning.

If your school appears on a ranking list, and it is used to boost your recruitment or prop you up compared to other schools, then that is disingenuous.

If you focus on 5’s, then stop doing that.

Look, this is a blog and is totally my opinion but AP exam results from year to year are almost stochastic. Maybe not totally random, but variable enough for me to understand how little the exam measures, how I cannot connect years together, and how much is NOT in my control.

Here is a table and graph showing my AP biology results over an 11 year period.

Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 11.35.55 AM apbio   Graphically you can see that I have had years with high scores and year with low scores. This is what most teachers see over time.

  • In 2007, would you have fired me or replaced me because my passing % was in the 70’s?
  • Am I considered a “success” or a “good teacher” since my overall 11 year pass % is almost 86%?
  • How do I account for years I don’t teach well, but kids do well on the exam?
  • How does one account for 18 5’s in 2012 and 17 3’s in 2013? Was I a kick ass teacher in 2012 and and average one in 2013?
  • I have never had 100% of my students pass the exam. Am I a failure?
  • Did I know everything I needed to know in 2004 or have I grown, learned and taught differently since then?
  • If I took all 258 students and gave them all 11 exams, what would my stats look like?
  • Because different students take different tests on different years, why does everyone insist on connecting those dots in the graph above?
  • About 29% of the kids I have ever taught in AP biology have gotten 5’s. Have I hurt or failed the other 71%?
  • Some years the exam has been hard, some years it has been easy. Some years I did not teach something on the exam (plasmid mapping). In 2012 they re-did the course. If my students don’t perform like I expect, am I to blame the unfair test for hurting the kids and in other years for helping them too much?
  • Since they can’t ride the curve any more and have to meet specific targets, is that unfair?

Bottom line: hardly anything is in your control. You teach the best you can for the time given, go out of your way as much as you can manage to add additional learning experiences and still:

  • Your students take the test, not you.
  • They get one shot at the test, no matter their circumstances at home, how much they studied, etc.
  • You did not design the test. The test by its nature puts everyone at a disadvantage.
  • The test does not evaluate all learning.
  • You still only have a finite amount of time to teach and kids to learn, no matter the snow days, sick days, pep rallys, school schedule differences, and budget woes you have.
  • You should go into the exam without expectation.
  • You should teach AP biology because you want your students to learn advanced biology.

The effect you have on your student’s and your own psyche IS in your control. The more you emphasize scores, grades, college entrance, GPA, class rank,  and college class exemption instead of learning biology, the less a service you do yourself and your students.

Lastly, the biggest cop out is the “cash for scores” cop out. AP classes are viewed as currency.

I did not make the rule that colleges and universities only accept 5’s. According to the College Board, a 3 on the exam is passing. I get told by a few students, parents, and educators each year that focusing on learning biology is great and all, but “wink, wink” we all know that it is all about getting the right number to boost GPA to get into college and possibly an exemption. I mean, kids will save money by exempting so more 5’s should be given and by not focusing on the exam and grades a disservice is being done to kids.

Also the idea that kids have to pay for the exam, so the expectation is that they get something for the money spent, is not a reason to take the class. They do get something, they learn biology. Probably at a lower cost than college credit hours. If they want to take another AP class because they are afraid of losing GPA ground, not getting a 5, or losing class rank, then I encourage them not to take the course. I want kids who are interested in science and biology. The love of the subject comes first. That is surely how I teach the course.

All I can say is that if you re-read the last two paragraphs, and don’t feel a little sick inside about how AP gets manipulated and misunderstood, then there is something wrong.

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