In late October, I got a very thought-provoking email from a blog reader.  I responded to several of his questions in my last posting.  There was one question though that I waited to answer so that I could come up with a better answer than my initial reaction.  I have now decided that there is probably not a great answer to be found.  It’s one that most AP teachers struggle with at various times and we all come down at various points along a spectrum.  Here is a portion of the question and my attempt at a decent reply.

“That leads me to this question:  Where do you think AP students are first created?  At what level to students have to be in honors/pre-ap to have a realistic shot at 3+ on the exam?”

I think there are some AP teachers who believe that AP students are created in the womb and must be born to parents who have college educations and can provide the child with a middle to upper class upbringing.  I am clearly not in this camp.  There are others who believe you can take any student you find walking down the hall, regardless of their interest, ability or background, throw them into a nearby AP classroom and magically create an AP student out of that kid.  People who believe that are often administrators or counselors who haven’t actually tried to prepare real kids for an AP exam.


I do believe that kids need to have some interest and ability in a subject area in order to tackle the challenging work of an AP class.  I do not believe that they necessarily need to have been in an honors or PreAP track in order to take an AP class.  Student desire to succeed can trump previous experience or the lack thereof.  That being said, a student who jumps into an AP class needs to fully understand what they are signing on for. They need to understand what the work load involves and might have to do even more work to compensate for weaknesses in their background.  I would much rather have this happen to a kid in high school though than in college, where the same level of teacher support and patience is not always available. That’s one of the many reasons why I believe in open enrollment and giving kids who want to take an AP class the opportunity to do so.  If they get a recommended score on the AP exam, then great.  If not, they will still have learned a lot and strengthened their background and study skills.

“Is it a personal green-ness that keeps me from thinking that my students that come from regular pre-cal that can’t factor or evaluate any trig functions for radians on the unit circle have no great shot at passing the exam?”

In my twenty years of teaching AP, I have certainly had plenty of kids surprise me.  What they lacked in symbolic manipulation skill, they sometimes compensated for with a strong conceptual knowledge.  My advice for this teacher is two-pronged.

  • First, teach the kids who show up in front of you.  If they don’t know the unit circle, teach it to them and demand that they learn it by quizzing every day for two weeks.  Bolster up their weak algebra skills at every opportunity while continuing to teach the calculus skills and concepts.  We have an entire year to teach one semester of college calculus.  We certainly have time to fill in gaps in the kids’ backgrounds.
  • Second, begin taking steps to find out why the kids have such weak backgrounds and remedy the situation so that future classes you will teach will be filled with much stronger students.  Find out why kids coming out of regular precalculus don’t know the unit circle.  Maybe the classes prior to yours need to be beefed up.  Make a list of skills that are needed and find out what classes are responsible for teaching those skills.  Talk to those teachers, not in an accusatory way, but in a collegial way about improving your entire program.

If you have the same kinds of students, what percentage of them pass and what are the keys to getting those marginal regulars kids to moderate AP level?

I do have some of those same kinds of students (I hope everyone does!) and am happy to see them trying an AP class.  Much better than having them shelve books in the library or have an additional study hall.  Since my students overall have a fairly high “passing” rate on the AP exam, it doesn’t hurt to have some students who might end up with a 1 or a 2 on the exam.  They might not earn college credit, but they certainly learned a lot and now know that they will need to up their game tremendously in order to be competitive in college.  A few keys to getting all kids up to AP level:

  • Set high expectations from the very first day that everyone in the class will take and do well on the AP exam.
  • Incorporate actual AP released questions (both multiple choice and free response) early and often.
  • Give plenty of opportunities for remediation and extra help to those who are struggling.
  • Establish a community of collegial learners who all work to achieve the goal of mastering the material.
  • Teach from bell to bell every day, including days prior to a big holiday.
  • Find ways to get the students to work on material outside of school time, including after school and on Saturdays.

That last bullet will be the subject of my next post.  If you have great ideas of how to get kids working on AP level material outside of class time, send them to me and I will include them in my next post.  Thanks for reading!



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