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.
This article serves both
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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
MIT accepts only 5s, and
Caltech doesn`t give advanced placement at all, because
its intro courses are so advanced.)
“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
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
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
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.
exceptionally great at English Lit—but, currently, 9.7
percent of Asians pass that AP versus only 5.4 percent of
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
Death of a Salesman,
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
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
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
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
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
all the way back to the fine 1988 movie
with Edward James Olmos playing
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).
usual racial gaps in achievement are found on the AP as
Now we get to my Sotomayor
If you are wondering why Judge
Sotomayor is such an
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
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.