As I write this I’m sitting in my classroom, watching a group of six physics students work on sample problems from a past AP exam. It’s around this time of year that I remember how much I don’t like the AP system. I know it’s my job and I probably shouldn’t badmouth it, but whatever.
My biggest problem with the exam is that the scoring is scaled relative to students’ performance. The scores are assigned from 1 to 5, with a 5 carrying a recommendation that the student is “extremely well qualified” for a college course in the same subject; 4 is “well qualified,” 3 is “qualified,” 2 is “possibly qualified,” and 1 carries no recommendation. The scoring system is set up so that a specific percentage will earn each grade, so the top 15% of students will earn a 5. So if there are a lot of students who do poorly on the exam, it helps those who do slightly less poorly. To earn a decent grade you don’t have to answer lots of questions correctly, you just have to answer more correctly than most people.
The AP Physics exam is pretty difficult, which leads to a lot of low scores. Here’s an example: from the 1998 AP Physics C: Mechanics exam, the cutoff score to earn a 5 was 55 points out of a possible 90. That’s a 61%, which in a normal class at my school is failing (65% is passing). I’ll say that again: for a student to be designated as “extremely well qualified” for a college physics course, he or she would have only had to earn 61% of the possible points. Here’s the rest of the breakdown:
|Extremely well qualified||5||55||61.1|
So yes, to earn a designation of “qualified”a student must only earn 36% of the total possible points, just over one third. I wonder what that student is qualified for?