AP test scores are out… So what?


I am one of those nerdy teachers who cannot wait to check her students’ AP scores in July. Pass rates, distributions, average scores — it’s all interesting data to me.

I always want to know how my latest cohort of students compares to previous groups, whether I’m reaching my goal (93% with a 3 or better) and whether there are topics I need to teach better (usually, yes).

When they do well, it’s a great feeling. When they don’t, it gives me a clear purpose for the next year, like “teach bank balance sheets better.”

But recently, I’ve begun studying my scores with a different perspective. I realize that some of my students are high achievers and will do fine (get 4s or 5s) without a lot of effort on my part. Instead of patting myself on the back for their scores, I’m trying to focus more on the “high impact” students, the ones who needed a lot of help.

This year, using this lens, I learned two important things from my AP test scores. Working intensively with a few kids to develop higher-order thinking skills was successful — that’s the good news. The bad news: Some students slipped under the radar, possibly cheating in my class to get a decent grade.

This year, I had 18 students (out of 70) who were seriously struggling in AP Macroeconomics. Six weeks into the semester, some of them were barely maintaining a D. They seemed to understand what we were doing in class (although some had a short attention span); they were able to answer formative questions correctly; and they seemed to be doing the work outside of class. Also, most of them were doing better in their other classes. But the tests were rough, and at our school tests and other summative projects are 80% of your grade.

I wondered if the problem was their reasoning skills, mainly their ability to apply economic models to new situations. I met with five of the most frustrated students — with their parents — for an intensive review of the kinds of questions on my tests, and we worked through the process of answering them.

In these conversations, the students finally realized that the key wasn’t memorizing or looking for questions they’d seen before, but really working through the logic of each scenario. And they realized the tests weren’t “unfair” — just challenging.

Progress was slow, but eventually these five students started to turn it around. They did a little better on tests, grew a little in confidence, engaged more in class. I wondered whether they would be able to apply their new understanding to the high-stress AP test, and they were. Two of them got 3s, two got 4s and one got a 5.

That’s the good news. Now, the next challenge: I need to figure out how to get more of my struggling students to commit that same effort and energy. The ones who didn’t this year did not fare as well as these five.

One struggling student who had come in for a little help and claimed to be working hard at home was getting Bs on tests by the end of class — but she got a 1 on the AP test. To me, that means she basically understood none of the course content.

How did she have me fooled? What was she doing? Did she find a way to cheat?

I don’t know, but it bothers me that I thought she was getting it when she clearly wasn’t. We can’t help students if we don’t have accurate ways of measuring what they know, so I’ll need to devote some time next year to improving my assessments.

A little good news, a little bad news. That’s how AP test results usually go.