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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

District view of AP at odds with universities

Updated February 5, 2009:

In October, a parent of a student in Spokane Public Schools sent me copies of his email to the district and the district’s response. The parent was concerned that “the math District 81 is teaching will not prepare our students for entry into colleges both in WA and around our nation… Students are graduating from local high schools with A's in honors math and are having to take remedial math to get into college.”

The district response to this parent came from Rick Biggerstaff, secondary mathematics coordinator and AP calculus teacher at Lewis & Clark High School. Biggerstaff reassured the worried parent, noting (in part) that Advanced Placement enrollments and “passing scores” are increasing. (Advanced Placement classes are college-level classes that are taken in high school. School districts often point to increasing AP enrollments and pass rates as indicators that mathematics achievement is improving.) Biggerstaff wrote:

“… I can say that our district continues to increase enrollment in AP classes and statistically performs very well on the AP exam. In the 12 years that I have personally been involved with the AP calculus program I have watched the number of students in AP mathematics throughout our district double in volume, seen the program go from no high school statistics programs, to each high school having at least one AP statistics class, and watched the number of passing scores on these tests grow significantly. … What matters is the level of cognitive engagement in our classrooms. Whether you arrive at that through a traditional approach or non-traditional approach is not nearly as significant as focusing on student engagement. We believe our increased numbers in ‘honors’ level math along with a growth in passing AP scores reflects our work in this area.”Naturally, this response piqued my interest. The entire point of school is to gain useful information and skills for the next grades and for postsecondary life. If AP enrollment and pass rates are increasing, these could be indicators that student knowledge is increasing. Recognizing, however, that there has been much speculation in the nation about what education statistics actually represent, I called the district to determine Spokane’s AP enrollments and pass rates. Staff members were unable to give me AP enrollments specifically (that data is lumped in with honors enrollment), but they sent me a table of AP exam results from 1992 to 2008. Here is part of that table:

Summary of AP Exam Results

1992 2000 2008
Number of students 193 368 1093
Number of exams 271 636 2028
Number of course areas 13 15 27
Number of exams passed 198 515 1099
Percent passing 73% 81% 54%
Average grade 3.18 3.45 2.72

Average Passing Grade

1992 2000 2008
Spokane 3.18 3.45 2.72
Washington 3.02 3.10 2.87
Western Region 3.08 3.03 2.86
Global 3.05 3.02 2.85

According to the full table, numbers of exam-takers steadily increased from 2000 to 2008, while the percent passing and the average grades steadily decreased. In 2000, 368 students took AP exams; 81% achieved a score of 3 or greater ("3" has traditionally been considered a passing grade.) Their average grade was 3.45. In 2008, however, 1,093 students took exams; 54.2% achieved a 3 or greater. Their average grade was 2.72. This decline occurred despite the near doubling of course areas in which students took their exams – from 15 course areas in 2000 to 27 course areas in 2008. Meanwhile, since 2001, the full-time enrollment in District 81 dropped by about 2,000 students. Therefore, AP enrollment and AP exam-taking increased despite a decrease in overall student population.

In 2000, Spokane students scored better on their AP exams than students in certain other areas. In 2008, however, Spokane students did less well than students in those other areas.

Technically, Spokane administrators can say that the number of students passing AP exams has increased. In 2000, 81% of 636 student exams were passed, for a total of 515 exams passed. In 2008, 54.2% of 2,028 student exams were passed, for a total of 1,099 exams passed. In effect, 584 more exams were passed in 2008 than in 2000.

Technically, however, it can also be said that the number of students failing AP exams has increased. In 2000, 19% of student exams (121 total) were not passed, while in 2008, 45.8% of student exams (929 total) were not passed. In effect, 808 more exams were failed in 2008 than in 2000.

In 2008 in AP mathematics, 66% of the students achieved a 3 or better on their exams. At Lewis & Clark High School, just 24% achieved a 3 or better on the Calculus AB exam; in Calculus BC, 59% did. In 2007, just 36% of the Lewis & Clark students achieved a 3 or better on the Calculus AB exam; in Calculus BC, 53% did.

Do these numbers indicate district improvement in mathematics? Much depends on how important you think it is to achieve a score of at least 3. Last year, a school board member commented that students who failed to achieve a 3 or better on their AP exams "must have learned something while they were there.” A district administrator told me today the College Board (which runs the AP program) says schools shouldn’t “talk about pass rates” because colleges vary in what they’ll accept. I asked her if schools should at least have a target in mind, and she said, “Not necessarily.” AP courses are rigorous and accredited, she said, so “it’s hard” to make pass rates “a concern.”

Folks, if we aren’t concerned with pass rates, if we don’t even have a target, how do parents and students know when they’ve achieved what they want to achieve? How do the universities know? How do employers know? How does the district know when it’s failed to do its job?

It turns out the universities do know. Whitworth University, Gonzaga University, Eastern Washington University, Washington State University and the University of Washington (Seattle) all indicate that - depending on the subject - they give credit for passing scores of 3, 4 or 5. For example, Gonzaga gives credit for AP calculus scores of 4 or 5. Spokane's community colleges also give credit for scores of 3, 4 or 5. The College Board probably knows, too. It says the 5-point scale represents the following:

5 – extremely well qualified
4 – well qualified
3 – qualified
2 – possibly qualified
1 – no recommendation

School administrators know, too. Students in Washington must obtain at least a "3" on AP math exams in order to use the classes as alternatives to the 10th-grade math WASL.

So I worry about those 929 failed AP exams in 2008 and the drop in the average grade. I worry about students who are ushered into AP classes, who fail to achieve at least a 3 on the exams, and about whom we’re supposed to say, “Well, they must have learned something while they were there.” Sadly for them, some will have learned that achievement doesn’t matter. It does, though. It always will. They’ll find that out on their own – the hard way.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (December, 2008). "District view of AP at odds with universities." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was also published December 18, 2008, in at


Anonymous said...

The information and response received from the district is all nice and fine, but what does it mean in terms of the concern the parent had to begin with?

"The parent was concerned that “the math District 81 is teaching will not prepare our students for entry into colleges both in WA and around our nation… Students are graduating from local high schools with ‘As’ in honors math and are having to take remedial math to get into college.” "

Even if 100% of the students (of course with the math taught in schools these days it could be something like 115%) enrolled in AP courses and passed AP exams that does not mean they are prepared for college. The district needs to look at how their students do when they go to college. Are they having to take remedial courses?

Through the smoke and mirrors, it does not appear the parent's concern was addressed at all.

concerned said...

Readers might wish to check out David Klein's "Advanced Placement Calculus AB Evaluation, 2007" available on his website.

Biggerstaff's statement, "What matters is the level of cognitive engagement in our classrooms. Whether you arrive at that through a traditional approach or non-traditional approach is not nearly as significant as focusing on student engagement" - this is exactly the issue!

The "level of cognitive engagement" is much less than stellar 10 minutes of a 50 minute class period must be spent reviewing fractions and rational functons before studying calculus, because very good students have been ill-prepared by mediocre instructional materials that lack content.

There is absolutely no reason for it.

Of course, AP teachers can avoid these situations by strictly focusing on AP tested material, as Klein explains, but I do not because I try to prepare students for further study in any college or university mathematics or science program.

It's difficult, and there is absolutely no reason for it because these students are bright. They would definitely know foundational material if it had been taught.

Parents and students deserve "truth in labeling" at every level and in every school throughout the country.

Sudhakar said...

Most high school kids have a bewildering array of choices to make when they select a college. It is true that what each college will accept for credit in AP will depend on how selective the college is. For example, here is a snippet from the College Board website on MIT

"Fall 2008 policy: Only one test in a given subject area will be recognized for Advanced Placement credit. MIT does not accept AP or transfer credit for all subjects. No credit is awarded for scores lower than 5 (or 4 in the case of the Calculus BC exam)."

Whereas WSU and UW will accept scores of 3,4 or 5 in AP Calculus. But their policies on how many freshman Calculus courses they will exempt varies depending on the score.

But I am yet to see a college that will grant credit for any AP score less than 3 in AP Calc AB (or 2 in AP Calc BC, with an AB subscore of 3 or higher).

Any high school preparing students to take AP Calculus AB or BC also needs to have a set of rigorous classes leading up to it. Typically, a traditional sequence of rigorous Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra II, and Pre Calculus with Trigonometry is sufficient. I have seen some schools that claim 3 years of "Integrated Math" is good enough preparation for AP Calculus. This, in my experience, is a very dubious claim at best.

College bound high school students, in my opinion, are well advised to do their research well ahead of their senior year. Sometimes, preparation is best done starting in the freshman year, leading up to a good AP score in their senior year. This is especially true for Mathematics.

James Stripes said...

The data reveals, in particular, that the percentage of students in AP classes has grown dramatically. This increase causes the lower pass rates. Lower pass rates are due to all college-bound students being shuffled into AP classes, while years ago only those advanced enough for early college credit took such classes. How much of this phenomenon is due to the perception that AP classes are the only classes where college bound students can expect reasonable preparation for future work?

As a college teacher, I will not comment on the effects of the growth of high school level college instruction--Running Start, Advanced Placement, etc.--and how it has affected the definition of "remedial".

Anonymous said...

The state department of education in any state in which AP tests are given should be able to give you these statistics right off the bat. Our district and our state are showing much the same results that you describe, and it's too bad.

I think it would be well for activists to insist that major newspapers publish statistics on AP tests (including the %'s of students who got 5's, 4's, 3's and so forth, and the % of students who took the AP class but did NOT take the test, and took the test but did NOT get a 4 or 5).

Since this information is readily available from your state ed department, it would be easy to include it as a quality indicator, the way newspapers are good about publishing standardized test scores, and certainly sports scores!

I yearn for the day when there's as much good info available in our daily paper on high school academics as on high school sports!

Susan for

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem with college-bound math placement is that districts and community colleges have worked out an alternative method for placing students in math classrooms that doesn't rely on SAT scores - look no further than the Office of Educational Assessment at the UW (the Math Placement Test (MPT) is designed for students who have been using reform curriculum, so it will make these students appear more prepared for college than they really are.)

HiDefMathFan said...

I have to disagree with “anonymous” regarding the UW placement test. I’ve looked over both tests, and see no relation at all between the content that they test and the kind of pop-math fluff that is the hallmark of a curriculum such as Core-Plus. Perhaps we are not on the same page regarding what constitutes “reform math”.

The UW test bears a strong resemblance to the content being taught in community colleges as remedial math. This is straight-up Algebra I & II.

The Transition Math Project has been churning for some years now, addressing the chasm between k-12 and college math. There's an interesting PowerPoint on their page at:

It makes very clear that kids going on to college need to know their algebra to do well on these tests, since between 60-100% of the content of the placement tests in use is algebra (70% in the case of the UW test). NONE of the placement tests used in Washington have any probability/data content at all. The SAT has only 10%. Those pushing a heavy emphasis on probability and data are essentially ignoring this fact in favor of fashion, and irresponsibly wasting class time for students trying to prepare for college.

The key charts on this report are taken from the Achieve report available here:

The math part begins around page 28.

Both TMP and Achieve stress the importance of process over content, and bemoan the fact that the tests are tilted the other way. Their bias in favor of process reflects the ideology of the “reform” element within their ranks which would have our institutions of higher learning abandon Algebra altogether, and by extension, Calculus, in favor of “21st century skills”. And just what does assessment of these look like? Look no further than the WASL, the legacy of Carkhuff and Bergeson, and based on baloney.

I suppose that they believe that our future engineers and scientists could bring us back to global technical prominence if only they could spend their college years “discovering” math chatting in groups, playing, flipping coins and coloring in tessellations. These are among the activities that have become popular replacements for learning math by example and practice.

Anonymous said...

Cognitively engaged ...nicely put, not very helpful ... wonder what cognitive engagement actually means ... can be viewed many ways. Does it mean they are thinking, and if so, are those that are failing frustrated for not understanding the concepts ... that is a form of being cognitively engaged, albeit engagement in the realm of frustration and discouragement vice motivation that comes when understanding of concepts and the ability to apply them is evident. Seems I read a study that young students who don't learn the basics of reading are frustrated and essentially doomed to fall behind because their minds focus on what they can do vice what they can't do. I can see a similar process with math students who turn away from the sciences when the teaching does not reach the student. Guess cognitive engagement is a simple way to rationalize a failure to reach the student who is not progressing. Surely AP students are interested or why would they get into the class, and if cognitive engagement is the objective, then with motivated AP students they will decide math and science is not their cup of tea and turn toward softer, not easier, non-tech pursuits. So they get something out of the AP courses afterall via their cognitive engagement. Ok, now we can all be satisfied knowing cognitive engagement does in fact serve a purpose ... the AP course actually serves the purpose of filtering out students who are not fit for scientific pursuits. Not what I thought AP courses or teachers where in the "business" of doing.

Anonymous said...

HiDef - Let me be more specific then, since you believe the UW math placement test is rigorous. Here's a link to the OEM site with two alignment studies.

Achieve's own report is cited (I couldn't open it) so I read OEM's own study. The placement tests are not that rigorous, because students taught with reform math would do even worse. Look at what standards the professors who sit on the standards committee are using - the Achieve Standard, the standard adopted by the American Diploma Project (also a product of Achieve). The Achieve data is highly suspect.

Research the people selected for the committees and you will find a large number of them connected to math reform via msp grants.