Researchers question college prep tests

Scoring a five on an AP exam may not be as useful as many high schoolers think.

A recent study conducted by Philip Sadler of Harvard University and Robert Tai of the University of Virginia established an overall trend that good scores on AP exams do not necessarily translate to success in the college courses.

Furthermore, Sadler and Tai believe that students are struggling in these introductory courses because colleges are too lenient in what they will accept for credit.

Eric Grotzinger, the associate dean of the Mellon College of Science, does not believe that Carnegie Mellon falls under this category.

“If anything,” Grotzinger said, “CMU is strict.”

According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the study involved surveying 18,000 college students about their science education.

Sadler and Tai specifically looked at students who took introductory courses in biology, physics, or chemistry, although they scored high enough on the respective AP exam to test out of the course.
The survey determined that half the students who received a five on the AP exam did not receive ‘A’s in the course.

“Presumably, if the AP score was really equivalent to a college grade, then [these students] should have been able to do well in the college course’s exam without even taking the course,” Sadler said.

At Carnegie Mellon, to receive credit for introductory physics and chemistry, students must score a five on the AP exam. These students have the option of forfeiting their AP credit in order to take the honors-level courses in these subjects.

Students who score a five in AP Biology are able to bypass introductory biology (03-110). However, if the student wants to take an additional biology course that has 03-110 as a pre-requisite, the student must first pass an assessment of 40 questions, covering information on which Carnegie Mellon biology courses tend to focus.

“We have these assessments in place to ensure that students are ready for the college courses at CMU,” Grotzinger said.

Even stricter policies apply to the mathematics department. First-year students in every college except for CFA are required to take a calculus assessment during the summer prior to college, regardless of their performance on the AP exam.

“We have an algorithm that, depending on both your scores on the AP exam and CMU assessment, determines what math course you will be placed in,” Grotzinger said.

After reading the study’s results, Grotzinger was particularly displeased with Sadler’s claim that students who scored fives on the AP exam — but did not receive an ‘A’ in the class — represented a flaw in the AP system.

“There are a lot of reasons why the students don’t perform well in a class that [has] nothing to do with how prepared they are,” he said. “There are transition issues, health issues, and some of them know the material, but just choose not to study.”

In last week’s article “American math and sciences slipping,” The Tartan reported the relevance of AP exams with regard to current policy in Washington, D.C.

“With the way we ration [AP] courses, you would think we don’t want students to take them,” said Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in an article by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
As The Tartan reported, Spellings spoke before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor,
and Pensions at a February 9 hearing to discuss President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative.
Under the proposed initiative, 70,000 new teachers would be trained to teach AP and International Baccalaureate courses in math and science — an effort to bridge the gap in American performance in math and science.

“I don’t have much faith in AP exams,” assistant department head of mathematics John Mackey told The Tartan last week. “We need people who know how to think, not people who have a set of skills.”

Meanwhile, Grotzinger firmly believes in the current AP system. He discussed what he felt to be a testimony of the system’s success — students who tested out of 15-100, the introductory Computer Science course, performed as well in 15-211 as students who had taken the introductory course.
“This tells us that the students who scored fives came in with all the knowledge that they needed to have,” Grotzinger said.

First-year Sudeep Yegnashankaran, a CIT student, received a five on his Computer Science (AB) AP exam and tested out of introductory computer science courses 15-100 and 15-200. Currently taking 15-211, he agreed with Grotzinger.

“I feel like my high school course prepared me — so much so that, in 15-211, I feel a sense of déjà vu at times,” he said.

Sophomore Allison Hannan, a chemistry and biology double major, felt this same sense of confidence in her science courses at Carnegie Mellon.

“AP Biology and AP Chemistry really helped a lot,” Hannan said. “I had so much background knowledge that it made both of those classes easier [for me].”

Hannan is pleased with the AP system because it has allowed her to have a more flexible college schedule.

“I get to take more classes that I’m interested in, as opposed to easy introductory ones that I’ve already taken in high school,” Hannan said.

Grotzinger stands behind current policy. “We’re confident in the AP exam.”