State spending more on AP testing for high-schoolers, but failure rate is rising

September 28, 2013

The state plans to nearly triple its spending on Advanced Placement tests in high schools this academic year—despite the fact most students are failing them.

The number of Indiana students taking the subject-based AP exams has risen dramatically, from 18.4 percent of graduates in 2007 to 34.4 percent in 2012. AP’s prestige and potential to cut college costs—students can earn college credit for a passing grade—has spurred similar growth across the country. Many states, including Indiana and its embattled A-to-F grading system, factor AP scores into the ratings of high schools.

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But while national performance on AP exams has stayed consistent during this growth, Indiana scores have worsened and remained far below average.

Of the students who took an AP exam in May 2012, only about 45 percent received a passing grade, significantly lower than the national ratio of 60 percent passing.

“More kids are going up to bat, but more kids are swinging and missing,” said Derek Redelman, vice president for education and work-force development policy at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. “Ultimately, what matters most is how we can get them to hit the ball.”

Indiana’s 2012 scores did show a slight improvement from 2011’s roughly 44-percent pass rate. But long term, the pass rate has decreased from about 51 percent in 2007 and 55 percent in 2002.

The state’s allotted budget for AP testing this year is increasing from $958,000 to $2.8 million. In 2014, the budget will increase again, to $3.3 million.

As before, the money will be used to cover the $81 per exam fee charged by the College Board, the educational association that runs the AP program. The state will pay for every exam in the math and science subjects, such as chemistry, biology and calculus. It also will pay for tests in any of the 34 subjects taken by students on the free or reduced lunch program.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said the goal of the increased funding is to encourage further participation in the AP program and therefore, better preparation for AP testing. He hopes that if schools feel motivated to better prepare their students, that will lead to higher scores.

Kenley recognized that scores in math and science are particularly in need of improvement.

Only 38 percent of math and science exams taken in 2012 and paid for by the state resulted in passing grades. The most difficult of these tests was biology, which more than two-thirds of students failed.

Why so low?

Janet Boyle at the University of Indianapolis’ Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning said funding for test fees isn’t the reason for Indiana’s poor scores.

As schools increased the size and variety of their prestigious AP offerings, that created more class space to be filled—and often, that meant placing students who aren’t academically qualified for college-level curriculum in AP courses.

Boyle, who formerly worked in curriculum director positions at Center Grove and Wayne Township schools, said in many districts, underqualified students are still required to take the AP test at the end of the year even if they don’t expect to succeed, just so they have the experience of taking a college-level exam.

And with tests being administered during May, these students’ lives are already filled with additional distractions like “senioritis,” prom and graduation.

“There are many teachers who say they can look at their classrooms and tell you right away who is going to get a 1 or 2,” Boyle said. (You need a score above 3 to pass.)

Accountability models

There is incentive for schools to strive for passing grades. They are awarded one point on the “college and career readiness” section of the A-to-F grading program for every student who receives a 3, 4, or 5 on an Advanced Placement test.

APThat method might change, however, since controversy over the A-to-F accountability model likely will lead to its reconstruction. Responding to a request from the Indiana General Assembly, education policy experts John Grew and Bill Sheldrake recommended a new accountability system “incorporate less reliance on proficiency (standardized tests passage rates) and more reliance on individual student growth.”

If their recommendation is incorporated, it isn’t clear whether high schools will continue to receive points for the number of students who pass the test or if the points will be based only on number of students who take the test.

The Indiana State Teachers Association supports the latter.

“There is a reason they call it advanced placement,” said ISTA President Teresa Meredith. “It’s college-level material. That’s a lot of pressure on a student and on a school, and it really can go either way, so that’s not a fair judgment of how a school is doing on a whole.”

But Redelman of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce thinks such a change would defeat the purpose of encouraging schools to improve student scores. He said the problems with A-to-F grading exist primarily in lower grade levels.

“What we have seen in high schools is a model that educators are all pretty happy with,” Redelman said.

Score improvement

Boyle said for real progress to occur, superintendents and school boards can do more to prepare teachers and students for the difficulty of AP testing.

“Districts vary in how much [AP] support they give,” Boyle said “But kids who have the chance to take advantage of test prep sessions or extra tutoring hours are going to do better.”

The position of the Department of Education is similar. “If AP is done properly—with appropriate professional development of the teachers—it provides all students with the opportunity to access a rigorous, high-quality education,” said spokesman Daniel Altman.

Yet many educators ultimately believe AP classes are far more important than scores on AP tests. Speedway High School Principal Tim McRoberts is one of them. He said there is great value in spending a year of high school learning at a college level, regardless of whether a student is likely to fail the end-of-year exam.

“There’s benefit just in that it’s a more rigorous environment,” McRoberts said. “It’s about as close to a college-type setting that we can put kids in.

“Passing the exam, well, that’s just icing on the cake.”•


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