IMAM: The uselessness of AP scores

The University should move toward administering its own placement tests

Signing up for courses often makes students, especially those just about to enter the University, consider how heavy their course load will be and whether or not they will be able to handle it. Some are able to explore more subjects at the University thanks to their many AP credits from high school. Others, however, find themselves overwhelmed upon enrolling in too hard a course. One way to address this issue is to implement a placement system based on performance on a University-administered test rather than AP scores.

In my first semester here at the University, I enrolled in Applied Calculus I. During the first class, the professor gave out a form to complete so the Department of Mathematics could collect information regarding what level of math students reached in high school. Having only completed a course called Calculus Honors my senior year, I was intrigued to see those around me had all completed either AP BC Calculus, multivariable calculus or differential equations. While in that moment I became concerned I wouldn’t do well, I went on to find the class unchallenging — I found myself helping those same people who I had seen put down more impressive coursework in that questionnaire.

While this example is only anecdotal, it does point to the varying degrees by which students completing different coursework may feel prepared for a certain course. At both the secondary school and the university levels, different schools offer differing levels of academic rigor. Some students may come from a high school that teaches more difficult coursework with a label that suggests it is less advanced. Either way, many students at the University took some sort of rigorous coursework in high school and find classes at the University to be much more difficult. Additionally, performing well on an AP test hardly means understanding the material taught in that class’s equivalent. A Dartmouth study found that after administering the final exam of its introductory psychology course to over 100 of its admitted students — who all earned the highest score of a five on the AP Psychology test — a mere 10 percent passed the exam.

This finding may bring some to believe AP credit should not be granted at all. However, I believe it would not be fair not to grant credit where it is due. Surely, there are just as many instances in which students have performed well on an AP test and been placed in classes accordingly as there are in which students who scored highly on standardized tests found themselves very well prepared for those higher courses.

Placing students by means of a required test, possibly that class’s final exam, meets a fair middle ground and addresses both these concerns. While it would keep many students who succeeded in their AP exams from struggling in higher-level courses, it would still allow those who truly have a firm grasp on the material to continue in their studies without wasting their time proving understanding of content they have already learned. This would also be more fair to students who truly do need to placed in a lower-level class, as they would no longer need to unfairly compete against those students who do already know the subject matter.

Of course this suggestion is not without flaws. The biggest problem I foresee is that students who wish to take a course for which they already know the material to lighten their course load may purposefully do poorly on the placement test. However, I also feel this problem is practically inevitable with any placement system. At the very least, this solution at least addresses the issue that different students are coming from different backgrounds and learning environments. And in doing so, it allows students who may have performed poorly on the AP exam, did not take an AP course or were unable to sit the exam to prove whether or not and to what extent they know the material.

Similarly, whether this idea should be implemented may vary by department as well. For example, a standardized test in math may better show competence than one in history due to the subject’s more objective nature. For some courses, it may make more sense to only grant credit to those who receive the highest score possible. Still, with so many differing factors such as subject area and learning environment, the University should consider implementing a system that would, at least for certain subjects, place students into their class level by means of a required placement test.

Alyssa Imam is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.imam@cavalierdaily.com.

related stories