The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A test of critical thinking: Why don’t all AP students take AP tests?

(Charlotte Kesl/For The Washington Post)
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Ten years ago, leaders of the Houston Independent School District knew that college-level Advanced Placement tests had become prime motivators of deep learning. Yet fewer than half of the Hispanic and African American students who were the majority in that system were getting a chance to experience those exams.

So Houston leaders did something daring. They announced that every student who took an AP course would also take the AP test, more than three hours long and graded by independent experts. The district would pay the fees.

This had an electric effect on both AP participation and success. The number of AP tests taken increased 143.5 percent from 2009 to 2017. The number of tests with passing scores went up 94 percent.

Yet except for a few states — including Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina, and the region of Northern Virginia — this strategy has not taken hold. Most school leaders remain reluctant to make sure every AP student experiences the useful trauma of a long exam that demands thought and analysis. In 2018, only 38 percent of U.S. schools with AP courses required that all AP students sit for the tests.

Research shows that students who take the AP course but not the AP test do no better in those subjects in college than students who do not take the AP course at all.

Many AP teachers and students have shown me that the stress of the exam usually does not ruin the learning process. It deepens and improves it. The teacher and students see the exam as a dragon they are going to slay together.

“Have you ever heard a teacher say there will be a test at the end of the lesson?” said Gregg Robertson, principal of Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va. “This knowledge will encourage more commitment to learning and mastery of content.”

Robertson is the rare principal who has managed to get 100 percent participation in AP courses, or in the similarly demanding International Baccalaureate courses, at an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood school.

Chatting with seniors taking their first AP course, Robertson found the exam intimidated them. But that encouraged them “to apply themselves like they never had before,” he said.

When College Board researchers moved the AP exam registration deadline at 100 high schools from near the end of the course to the start in the fall, students knew from the beginning the exam was coming. They were motivated. Exam orders increased 40 percent for underrepresented minority students and 45 percent for low-income students. “All 18,000 AP schools worldwide will shift to this model in fall 2019,” said Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president directing AP.

Twenty years ago, few people cared that teenagers who might benefit from a college-level course and test weren’t getting the opportunity to take them. Many average students were warned away from the AP test, even though they were going to college. When I pointed out to a principal in affluent Shawnee Mission, Kan., that fewer than half of his AP U.S. History students took the test, he said that wasn’t important. They still scored high on standardized tests such as the ACT, he said. He preferred that test-score measure in which success is closely related to family income.

The Signature charter school in Evansville, Ind., has made the AP exams a natural part of learning for all, without actually requiring them. The school promises taxpayers who fund the school that “we will surpass local, state and national averages in participation in AP and IB testing,” curriculum coordinator Shannon Hughes said. In 2017, 99.1 percent of AP and IB students at Signature took the exams.

Requiring all students to take AP exams usually means the school must pay the $94-per-test fees the College Board uses to hire the experts who write and grade the exams.

Houston spends more than $1 million a year on exam fees. But its leaders estimate potential savings each year of $9.3 million for students who receive college credit for good test results.

What happened in Houston should be a lesson for all educators: When you have a learning tool this effective, pay for it gladly and reject toothless substitutes — like test-free AP course — that don’t do the job.