Thoughts On Advanced Placement Testing…And Sotomayor

Last week, all across America, high school students who took Advanced Placement (AP) tests in May began receiving their scores in the mail.

So now is a good time to take an in-depth look at this rite of passage. It's grown remarkably popular. The number of AP tests taken rose from one million in 1998 to approaching 2.7 million in 2008.

This article serves both parents wondering what their kids' AP test strategy should look like, and citizens wanting to learn more about testing so they can evaluate Judge Sonia Sotomayor's anti-objective examination decision in the Ricci case. (Her Senate hearings begin Monday).

Although the College Board is responsible for both the SAT and the Advanced Placement tests, the APs have, so far, largely escaped criticism for "disparate impact" i.e. minorities doing badly. That's largely because few have bothered to look as rigorously at the numbers as we'll do here.

In recent decades, the AP tests have grown extensive (three dozen different subjects are now offered, ranging from U.S. History to Statistics to Studio Art: 3-D Design). It's becoming quite feasible for smart, diligent students to accumulate so many college credit hours in high school that they can graduate from college in seven semesters, or even just three years. This could potentially save tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. At a minimum, AP credit can provide the cushion needed to keep a college student from having to come back for a fifth year.

Also, the pressure of the AP test can make a student bear down and really learn the content, just as the New Haven fire department promotional tests drove the more dedicated firemen to master the material they ought to know.

Finally, in upper middle class high schools, "AP classes" have become wildly fashionable with parents looking for a politically correct euphemism for old-fashioned tracking by ability.

Still, it's important to remember that your child doesn't have to take an AP class to take the AP test. Many students can pass AP exams without being enrolled in AP courses. (Or without even taking the class at all, if they are willing to study a guidebook—which is the way my son passed World History and Comparative Government).

You shouldn't be intimidated by the AP tests even if your child's school doesn't offer AP classes in a subject. For example, when taking a U.S. Government class in high school, it's not that hard to also pass the Comparative Government AP test, which asks about how the government is structured in Britain, Mexico, China, Russia, Nigeria, and Iran. If you spend a year in class working on American politics, you'll obtain enough of a conceptual framework about how governments can be organized that it's not hard to learn about six other countries in your spare time from a test guidebook.

Moreover, if your school doesn't offer a particular AP exam, you can always drive your kid to another school that does.

But is the expansion of AP testing truly a good idea? Are we instead already scraping the bottom of the barrel, getting kids to pony up $86 per exam to take tests they have no hope of passing?

The good news, as shown by the figures in the College Board's National Summary Report for 2008, is that despite the huge increase in the number of AP tests taken between 1998 and 2008, whites and Asians haven't yet run into severe diminishing returns. Although the quantity of AP tests taken by whites grew 155 percent over the last decade, their mean score dropped merely from 3.04 to 2.96. The fall-off for Asians was even less, from 3.10 to 3.08.

(AP exams are graded on a 1 to 5 scale, with a 5 said to be the equivalent of an A in a typical college freshman introductory course, a 3 being a C, and a 1 an F. It's usually assumed that a 3 is a "passing score," although tougher colleges now often require a 4. At the stratospheric level, MIT accepts only 5s, and Caltech doesn't give advanced placement at all, because its intro courses are so advanced.)

The "pass rate" (the percent of test takers scoring 3 or higher) is almost the same for whites (62 percent) and Asians (64 percent). But Asians are much more aggressive about signing up for AP tests, taking almost three times as many per year (1.79 per capita per year versus 0.63 among whites).

Asians have been taking formal tests since Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty instituted the imperial civil service exam for would-be mandarins in 605 A.D. They've grown accustomed to them.

This suggests that white kids could profit from emulating Asians. Don't be so afraid to take an AP test. And if you're already planning to take a few, think about how many more you can take. (You can review all the tests here.)

If you are wondering how your kid's scores from last May compare to whole population, rest assured that a 3 will put him or her in the top 5 percent of the country on any AP test, and the top one percent on many tests.

Here's my graph "2008 AP Scores by Percentile." For example, U.S. History (the third bar down) is the most widely attempted AP test. Yet, it's not even tried by 92 percent of the 4.3 million kids in each year's age cohort. And less than half of those eight percent who try it succeeds in passing it. (By the way, you only get to take each AP test once in a lifetime.)

The most widely passed test in 2008 was English Literature, with 189,000 young people scoring 3s or higher. That sounds good; however, 189,000 is merely 4.4 percent of the relevant population.

As you may have noticed by now, I'm not the most happy-clappy commentator when it comes to evaluating the intellectual capabilities of today's youth. Yet, even I have to concede that it wouldn't be impossible to, say, double that 4.4 passing rate on English Lit. The key step would be for whites in the middle of the country to imitate Asians on the coasts: become more confident about signing up for AP tests and more industrious in studying for them. Asians aren't exceptionally great at English Lit—but, currently, 9.7 percent of Asians pass that AP versus only 5.4 percent of whites.

As is common on AP tests, the English Lit exam consists of one hour of multiple-choice questions and two hours of essay questions. One of the three essay questions asks you to illustrate an assigned thesis using examples from one of 32 recommended literary works, a list that varies each year. If you haven't read any of this year's 32, you aren't completely out of luck because you are allowed to choose "another novel or play of comparable literary merit". Still, I have to imagine that the graders (high school teachers on their summer break) look askance upon those who must use a substitute because they haven't read widely.

To a young person, this question can be worrisome: who has time to, say, read enough of Dickens' novels to be sure that you have Dickens covered? And there are so many famous books that a Dickens novel only shows up on the list every few years!

Having glanced through the last ten lists of 32 recommended works, my first tip for students would be to read plays rather than novels. Plays are shorter than novels and there are fewer famous ones. If you polish off Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, Long Day's Journey into Night, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Three Sisters, and a few other high school classics, you'll almost certainly find one of them on the list of 32.

Second, make sure to read several famous African-American books, such as Invisible Man, Native Son, Beloved, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. It appears that the College Board has set itself a quota that about 10-15 percent of its lists be books by blacks. Since there aren't very many black classics, each one individually is more likely to appear on the list than a book by a white author.

The College Board also seems to maintain quotas for other minority groups, but most of the non-black diversity books are too obscure to bother with. For instance, what is Obasan from the 2005 test about: the President's secret Japanese grandfather?

I suppose the cleverest ploy would be to read famous African-American plays such as A Raisin in the Sun or the best known works of August Wilson.

To my mind, the most impressive scores are found on the two Calculus tests. Three percent of America's youth passes Calculus AB, and two kids out of every 300 get a 5 on the fearsome Calculus BC exam. Maybe that doesn't sound like much, but it's better than young people do on, say, U.S. Government or European History, which don't require math skills.

Americans have invested much money in teaching math since the 1980s, and these are some positive signs of progress.

On the other hand, these overall performances are pretty awful.

Which AP tests are easiest? Here are the 2008 subjects sorted by mean grade, with the number of test takers in parentheses. For example, 3,290 students took the Chinese AP exam, with over 80 percent scoring a 5 (the great majority of them immigrants -- it's extremely hard to learn an East Asian language well just in high school). As you can see, the exams with the highest scores are reserved for either people who grew up speaking a foreign language or who are very good at something very difficult like calculus, programming, physics, or music theory, subjects that take years to prepare for. In other words, there aren't any pushover AP exams.

Still, it's worth looking for tests that could be passed after just one year of study. The first exam down from the top that looks plausible for somebody motivated less by a deep desire to learn than by a shallow desire to pick up some college course credits is Psychology.

Then, there's good old Comparative Government. Environmental Science is rumored to be relatively easy.

Oddly enough, the tests with the lowest average scores seem more promising. Quite a few of these tests are taken by 9th and 10th graders, such as World History, which has the lowest average score, and Human Geography, which has the fourth worst grades. It might not be that difficult for a more mature, worldlier senior to brush up in his free time on both Geography and World History during the spring of his final year.

There has been a big push to get Non-Asian Minorities (NAMs) to take more AP tests. This goes all the way back to the fine 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, with Edward James Olmos playing Jaime Escalante, the famous math teacher at Garfield H.S. in East LA who had considerable success getting the smartest students at that huge school to pass the AP Calculus test.

Over the last decade, the number of AP tests taken by minorities has skyrocketed (up 340 percent for Hispanics and up 322 percent for blacks).

Unfortunately, the usual racial gaps in achievement are found on the AP as well.

Now we get to my Sotomayor segment!

If you are wondering why Judge Sotomayor is such an avid backer of ethnic preferences for Puerto Ricans (such as, to pick a random example, herself) consider the results for the AP U.S. Government test. This might be thought of as a first cut on the question of who might someday be qualified to be a federal judge. In 2008, 15,762 whites earned a 5—versus only 79 Puerto Ricans.

The tremendous growth from 1998 to 2008 in Hispanics taking AP tests drove down their average score on the 1 to 5 scale from 2.99 to 2.42. Their passing rate dipped from 60 percent 42 percent.

(And keep in mind that Hispanic mean scores are exaggerated because so many native Spanish-speakers take the Spanish Language test, which ought to be, but isn't always, a free throw for them. Indeed, 56 percent of all 5s earned by Hispanics in 2008 came on the Spanish Language exam. Excluding it, Latinos in 2008 averaged a 2.17 score with a 35 percent passing rate. Asians likewise enjoy an edge on the Chinese and Japanese language tests, but those make up a tiny percentage of total Asian test-taking.)

Black scores fell a comparable amount over the last decade, from a mean of 2.21 to 1.91 (with the passing rate dropping from 35 percent to 26 percent). Still, despite depressingly diminishing returns, more than quadrupling the number of AP tests taken by blacks from 1998 to 2008 helped the absolute number of tests passed by blacks to triple.

There just aren't enough minorities passing these tests to yield the sort of proportional representation that Sotomayor et al want. That's why, further down the career chain, they are adamant about imposing quotas, in whatever guise.

My overall conclusion: the news about Advanced Placement tests is fairly good. The glass is still mostly empty, but it is getting fuller.

The beneficial effects of AP testing stems in large part because people like Judge Sotomayor haven't gotten a chance to apply their disparate impact dogma to it … yet.

[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA'S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA'S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]