Preparation is Key for High Stakes AP Exams

Students have a lot riding on the AP exams.  Most students see the Advanced Placement exams as a way to impress colleges, when in reality they can end up saving the student/family  thousands in tuition.  If a student scores well on their exam they may qualify for credit in college.  With the rising cost of tuition, this credit translates in to large financial savings.  With all of this hinging on the score on the exam, the pressure can be intense.  The best way for a student to reduce this stress is to prepare for the exams.  There are plenty of quality resources that will help students prepare for the exam so that they may arrive confident on test day.

Purchase an AP Review Book

In order to help students find the review books that are best suited for them and their exams, Total Registration, LLC has a collection of the best AP review books for each exam at  www.APReviewBooks.com.  Since the study guides are organized by exam, students can easily find the prep materials for the exams they will be taking.  Each review book has a description and reviews from past users.  In addition to the review books, each exam has information about the format of the exams and links to released questions from past exams. 

Practice Makes Perfect

Most of the study guides at www.APRevieBooks.com contain review of the material, sample exams with answers and exam taking techniques.  The best way for a student to prepare for the exams is to work all the way through one of these review books, taking special care to do every sample exam with the same time constraints that the exam will have.  It is crucial that students then score their sample exam and take the time to figure out what the right answer is for any question they get incorrect.  Understanding the correct answer to each question will help students learn the nuances of test taking and increase confidence on exam day.

Start Reviewing Early

Most students, unfortunately, put off reviewing for the exams until a couple of weeks before the exams.  Doing well on the exam delivers such high rewards that it is in every student’s best interest to begin reviewing for the exams earlier.  Beginning early, allows students time to figure out what content they struggle with and need to polish up on.  It is very important to have the time necessary to learn any information that the student is struggling with.  Students who wait to review until the last minute are short changing themselves as all they do is learn what they don’t know for the exam, not having time to learn it.  This typically translates into a loss of confidence and thus a lower score.

For most exams there are several good review books by various publishers.  Purchase your AP study guides today and start the review process.

Paying for the AP Exams, Who Should Carry the Burden?

At approximately $86.00 per exam (fees vary by state, district and school),  the AP exams are not cheap and with some students taking several exams the bill for the exams quickly adds up.  States and school’s handle these fees in various ways, with most requiring the student to pay a large portion if not all of this exam fee.  I was reminded of this, as Total Registration, LLC is in the middle of helping ~200 schools register students for the AP exams.  I also just read an article at SDDN.com, San Diego Unified spends $800,000 annually to satisfy an Advanced Placement equity issue,  questioning San Diego Unified School District’s policy to pay for all of their student’s AP exams.  People are questioning the logic in spending approx $800,000 to pay for exams that directly benefit individuals, especially during a time when California’s economy is in dire straits and all services are being back, including schools.

I guess the main question is: Who should carry the burden of  the Advanced Placement exam fees?

Schools encourage students to pursue these challenging courses and take the year end exam.  Students’ AP participation is a feather in their cap, something that brings the school great recognition.  With Newsweek and US News and Reports using AP participation in their calculation of the Nation’s “Best High Schools”, schools covet their students’ participation.  Some schools even go so far as to require all students enrolled in AP courses to sit for the national exam in May.  Policies such as this often lead to the necessity of the district or school covering the cost of the exams.

Different Fee Structures

During my three years of helping schools simplify the AP exam reigstration process I have come across a myriad of systems to cover the cost of the exams.  Here are some of the various fee structures:

  • The student pays the entire $86.00/exam
  • The student pays more than the $86.00/exam helping to cover some the school’s costs of proctoring the exams
  • In Minnesota, the state pays for $56.00, leaving $30.00 for the students to pay
  • In Georgia,  the state covers the first exam and  the other exams cost the full $86.00
  • In Texas, the state covers $30.00 of each exam
  • In Indiana, the state covers the cost of all math and science exams
  • In Oklahoma, the state covers $25.00 an exam if the student takes two or more
  • In Florida, the state covers the entire exam fee
  • In some schools, AVID students’ exam fees are covered.
  • And many more

Then there is the variation in how much students who participate in the Federal Free or Reduced Lunch Program pay.  This varies from the College Board’s standard reduction of $30.00 (the College Board reduces their fee $22.00 and the school does not receive their $8.00 of the exam fee) to the state/district/school covering the entire exam fee.  Add to this, that many schools have scholarship programs for students with financial needs and the fee structure for the AP exams is anything but standardized.

So, who should pay?

Obviously there is a wide range of opinions,  but my view is that the students/parents should carry the bulk of cost of the AP exams, with students having financial hardship being able to receive a reduction.  Here’s my reasoning for this:

  • Doing well on an exam greatly benefits the student and parent.  Receiving college credit for a good exam score can save the family thousands in tuition for each AP exam.  This makes $86.00.exam a great value.
  • Student’s who pay a portion of the exam fee are more invested in the outcome and therefore work harder at doing well on the exam.  Florida, who covers the cost of the exam fee, has one of the worst pass rates.
  • Money used to pay for exam fees could be better used on improving instruction and curriculum, increasing students abilities and knowledge.  If students knew they were receiving great instruction and would do well on the exam, they would have no problem paying for the exams.  It is a simple risk vs reward issue.

Clearly there is no consensus on who should cover the costs of the AP exams.  I have a feeling that the poor economy facing most states is going to bring the various policies into the spotlight.  States and districts are tightening there belts and reducing the exam subsidy will be one of the first places they look.  The schools that require students to take the exams and students have not needed to pay have had an easy time managing the registration process and ordering exams as they just order exams for every student in a course.  Schools who have allow students to choose whether they take the exam or not  and/or need to collect fees from students have a much more difficult job of managing all the data necessary to place an accurate exam order with the college with the College Board. Errors in these orders quickly turn into financial penalties for the school.  Schools who need to collect fees and keep track of who is taking the exam and who is not have found Total Registration’s AP Exam Registration Service to be a great time saver.

Revision of the AP Program, Good or Bad?

I recently read an article in the Washington Post by Jay Matthews, New, deeper AP Program, that discusses the College Board’s plan to revise several AP curriculum.  Here’s a quote from the article.

The revised AP courses, beginning with biology, will put more emphasis on conceptual understanding and cut back on memorizing content, the designers say. AP will become more like the International Baccalaureate program, which is also popular in this area. Teachers may go deep into some topics and rush quickly past others. Essay questions will focus on concepts, so students will be able to use facts from the topics their teachers choose without having to master every detail in every subject category. Multiple-choice questions will test analytical skill, not memory.

In my mind, this is a move in the right direction.  It is certainly going to make waves as change always does, but has the potential to create courses that are more relevant to today’s learner.  Unfortunately,  the fact based approach of the past is not as relevant in the information age.  When you need facts what do you do?  I use Google or other tools to quickly find the info I need.  Information is much easier to acquire than it was in the past, making the need to memorize facts less important.  Skills and critical thinking are more important than ever, as consumers of knowledge need to separate the wheat from the chaff.

When I was teaching physical science there was a constant struggle to balance the need to teach facts and my desire to teach critical thinking and problem solving.  My gut feeling is that the problem solving and critical thinking will carry a student farther then the facts.  The trick was that our state standards focused so much on facts that we some times did not have the time to fully explore some concepts.  If you wanted, or needed, to teach to all of the standards there was less time to do some experiential learning that created a much better understanding of the concepts.  Don’t get me wrong, I still think that there needs to be a framework of facts in order to learn critical thinking and explore topics in depth.  In fact, most of my students were very knowledgeable about the facts in the topics that we explored in depth.  The only problem is that the time it takes to go in depth and allow kids to problem solve needs to come from somewhere, meaning some of the standards were perhaps neglected a little.  This was a price I was willing to pay as I knew that in a couple of years the students wouldn’t remember the facts anymore anyways.  But there problem solving and analytical skills would still be there and could be used on a daily basis.  Heck, since I stopped teaching a few year’s ago I don’t remember the latent heat of fusion of water but I do know how to look it up in Bing or better yet I know how to design an experiment to find it out.

I have read several articles of schools deciding not to offer AP classes in a move to go back to “Honors” classes.  Their reasoning, to have more control over the curriculum so that they can move slower through some material  and go deeper into some concepts.  They felt they were not able to do this within AP as students need to be filled with facts in order to score well on the influential exams.  Perhaps, the College Board hopes to address some of these concerns with these revisions

I hope the College Board’s revision is successful. Our students need to be taught to think and be problem solvers, not repositories of knowledge.  In this day an age, critical thinking  skills trump memorization.  My BlackBerry has the facts, but is not so good at the thinking part.

It Pays to Be an AP Teacher in Texas

Apparently teaching Advanced Placement classes in Texas can pay, and I don’t mean that “warm your heart, feel good” kind of reward, but cold, hard cash.

AP teachers in the state of Texas are eligible for the O’Donnell Texas AP Teacher Award.  “The O’Donnell Texas AP® Teacher Award will be presented annually to one Advanced Placement teacher in a Texas public high school for remarkable contributions to his or her students and school, as well as to the teaching profession”. 

Christopher Jon Bruhn, a lead science teacher in Dallas Independent School District, was awarded the $30,000.00 prize while Cheryl Fuentes-Wagner, a Spanish teacher at Bush High School in Fort Bend ISD (a Total Registration client), and Dr. Terry Eder, a Music Theory Teacher at Plano High School,  were each awarded $5,000.00 as runner-ups.  Congratulations to these AP teachers.

If you would like to nominate a Texas AP educator, you can download a nomination form here.

Perhaps Florida Expanded Their AP Program Too Quickly

I recently read an article on TampaBay.com that indicated the Florida State Education Commissioner, Eric J. Smith, acknowledges that Florida may be over enrolling students in Advanced Placement classes.  For a little while now, Florida has been criticized for having a much lower pass rate than the national average on the year end exams (43% compared to 57% this past year) .  Many believe this is attributed to Florida’s desire to grow the AP program by opening the courses up to more students.  In the past decade the number of exams administered in Florida rose from 70,346 exams 1999 to 260,162 exams  in 2009 compared national increase from 1,122,414 exams in 1999 to 2,860,912 exams in 2009.  This means that the number of exams in FL has grown a factor 3.70 of while the nation has grown a factor of 2.54.  The number of exams administered in Florida have grown about 45% faster than they have across the nation.

Why have Florida’s number of exams grown so much faster than most of the other states? (AR and WA grew at a higher rate) Florida has made a concerted effort to encourage students to take exams.  They have gone so far as to pay the exam fee for all students and require that all students who are enrolled in an AP course take the exam, a policy that Arkansas also has.

Has the cost been worth it?  At a cost of $56.00 per exam, assuming every student were on free/reduced lunch, the cost to provide exams for all students was over $14.5 million.  Many would argue that this money might be better spent. With the pass rate being so much lower than the national average the argument only gets louder.  In challenging economic times this money might be better spent on training teachers who teach these AP courses.

If Florida is going to continue this program, they are going to need to increase the rigor in courses leading up to the Advanced Placement courses.  The only way that students will perform better is to be better prepared.  If AP is going to be pushed to all students, the expectations in all classes leading up to th AP courses will need to be raised.  My belief is this policy of requiring students in AP courses to take the exam and to pay for the exams will not last, not with the current state of the economy and the poor pass rate.