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A new factor in the AP 'arms race': are grades being tied to AP scores?

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Last September, students in two different Advanced Placement (AP) math classes in the same local high school received intriguing offers from their teachers. If they received 5’s—the highest score possible on a grading scale of 1 to 5—for the AP exam administered in May, they would receive A’s for the year, regardless of the grade actually earned.

A score of 4 would earn a B, and a score of 3 would earn a C.

In these classes, the offer would only work in one direction. In other words, grades would not be lowered should the relationship between test score and grade happen to come out the other way.

Because AP scores are not usually provided until the second week of July, the teachers promised to go back into their grade books and retroactively make appropriate adjustments—long after doors closed on the last day of school.

The final grade appearing on the transcript would be as promised. No one would know the difference between a student who worked hard to earn the A and a student who managed to win the AP lottery by pulling a 5 on the test.

“What happened to class participation, homework assignments, and the kids slugging it out every day taking notes, quizzes, and paying attention—how are they rewarded?,” commented a counselor in response to the practice of pegging grades to AP scores. “And what about the kids who can afford hiring tutors vs. the kids who can’t? Isn’t there already a large enough divide with the other standardized test scores and the discussion of ability to pay?”

At the local high school, students reacted to the challenge differently. Some worked hard to earn top grades. Others, feeling confident in their abilities to score well on the exam, neglected homework, performed poorly on quizzes, and otherwise dismissed the class.

“I knew I would get a 5 on the AP exam, so why bother?” shrugged one.

And at the end of the school year, the student earned a C for his troubles. Lucky for him, he did in fact receive a 5 on the AP test, and his final grade was adjusted upward.

Another student wasn’t so lucky. Although practice tests suggested a 5 was easily attainable, this student had a bad day and the 3 she received didn’t change the C+ she earned in math—a core academic class. The resulting bad grade forced a major overhaul in her college list.

“If I had it to do again, I would have worked harder,” she sighed.

So why are teachers being allowed to tamper with grades this way?

The incentives vary. In some school systems, bonuses are available for teachers whose students receive 4’s and 5’s on the AP. There are no grade-based financial rewards. So teachers offer rewards to students who score well and make them look good. They don’t really care how they achieve the score.

“In private schools here, many of the schools award cash bonuses/incentives to teachers for a set number of 4-5 AP scores,” commented an educational consultant in Texas. “This seems like a huge conflict of interest. Aren’t the teachers in essence ‘bribing’ students as motivation, either for their own personal gain or the school district’s financial gain?”

Another incentive is less obvious. While the College Board doesn’t say it out loud, there is the presumption that there should be a correlation between grades and scores. Students with strong grades should score well. Students with lower grades shouldn’t. Otherwise there is something wrong with the system.

If the score is all that counts for assessing the quality of a class, a teacher has every incentive to try to align grades with scores. And although it wasn’t the case in the local examples, teachers do in fact lower grades in some schools when the score appears out of alignment.

“With enough history from students, I try to appeal to students who are in classes with this policy to do their best with the class grade and not count on the test scores,” commented a California-based independent counselor. “That did backfire with a student last year who got A’s in the class and a 3 on the test scores. Her grade was lowered.”

Since Jay Mathews began using AP tests as measures of excellence for the high school ranking he publishes each year in the Washington POST, the AP 'arms race' has escalated. High schools and principals are under pressure to increase AP offerings, force students into Advanced Placement classes, and improve scores on AP exams.

For some, the ends justify the means and they simply look the other way from the use of AP scores as bribes to boost grades. They too go along with a system that rewards students displaying poor work habits and brazenly flaunting less-than-scholarly attitudes in class.

“It makes no sense for a score on a one-shot test to outweigh an entire year's worth of classroom performance (which usually includes a variety of teacher-designed assessments),” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.The practice of educators or administrators retroactively altering grades (generally after school is out for the summer) is bizarre if not outright unethical—would they take similar action if the student performed well in some other competition, say boosting a grade in Biology for a science fair blue ribbon winner?”

While the practice of retroactively changing grades for AP classes isn’t the norm, there is evidence that in some schools and school systems it’s standard operating procedure. In fact, the practice may be spreading as teachers at College Board-sponsored conferences learn that others are freely changing grades to reflect performance on AP tests.

In Orange County, Florida, the issue recently came up as a matter of consistency across school systems, and a committee was assembled to study inequities in grading in AP classes. Complaints were coming from parents whose children did not have grades changed to reflect outstanding performance on AP exams while children from neighboring school districts did.

Defending the practice, Doug Guthrie, principal at Apopka High School said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, “If students could show that mastery on the AP exam, they deserve a better grade. Mastery, that’s our goal.”

But not everyone agrees. When asked about a system that would provide for altering grades after the fact, counselors used terms like “appalling,” “dishonest,” “inappropriate,” and “unethical.” Others pointed out logistical problems retroactively changing grades that were already sent to colleges requiring year-end reports on seniors they admitted for the fall.

Laurie Weingarten, an independent college counselor in New Jersey reacted, “This sounds inappropriate to me. And it seems misleading and deceptive to the colleges.”

An admissions officer at a top-ranked public university agrees, “…I am not happy to know it’s happening."

At the center of the controversy, the College Board appears very much aware of how Advanced Placement scores are being used by some schools and school districts.

“The College Board believes that all students who are academically ready for the rigor of Advanced Placement (AP) have the right to fulfill their potential,” said Kate Levin, associate director for communications, in a statement from the Board. “To that end, we support efforts at the state, district, and school level to ensure that all students have access to the opportunities they have earned, and we respect the rights of individual schools and districts to consider how AP course participation and exam performance factor into high school course grades and GPA.”

In other words, schools and school districts should not be looking for guidance on the matter from the College Board any time in the near future.

And so, the AP 'arms race' will continue to escalate as scores increasingly become factors in determining GPA.

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