Should students expect material on AP or IB exams they never studied in class?

Why do kids contend their AP or IB exams have material they never covered in class?

I’ve been spending time around graduating high school seniors this week, my twins and their classmates as well as the children of friends. So, I’ve been hearing gripes about tests, not teacher-produced tests that kids typically find fair but standardized tests.

The complaint: Their Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests contained material and problems never covered in class.

Here is my question: How does that happen? Is the system designed that way? If so, what are students supposed to do?

In talking to teachers, they say it’s nearly impossible to cover all the content in an AP or IB class. They also say the standardized tests for those classes are often grueling but many students will fare better than they expect as a result of how the exams are scored. The IB literature talks about “grade boundaries,” which are the minimum scores required to achieve each grade and are determined after the tests are administered.

That’s good news because even top students – kids who scored in the top 1 percent on the ACT or SAT – complained about unfamiliar material on IB math and science tests. (Polar equations, for one.) A few students estimated they were 30 to 60 days behind where they should have been in class to have been fully prepared for the tests.

Last year’s IB physics exams triggered a Change.org petition complaining the tests did not align with the course guides. Students worldwide signed it, including one from Thailand who wrote the exams “came straight from the depths of hell.” (If you have time, read comments here from British students about the tests. My favorite: “My whole class buggered it.” )

Several kids who attend private school told me their teacher warned them they would see questions on the AP exams on content they didn’t know. The teacher urged them to try their own catch-up. A friend in New York said her child’s academic magnet high school held weekend review sessions but the kids actually were learning new material that the class never reached.

My oldest son took AP World History from a teacher brand new to the course. A few weeks before the exam she realized there was a gap and offered morning boot camps to expose students to the missing material. It paid off for my son and his classmates who did pretty well on average.

Last year, I had several metro students tell me their AP U.S. History class never got as far as the modern conservative movement, which ended up being a key question on their exam.

Should students expect to see questions on these high-stakes exams on stuff they didn’t learn or discuss in class? Does it come with the territory when the courses are created and graded by the College Board and the International Baccalaureate Organization?

 

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28 comments
Your Teacher
Your Teacher

I teach AP U.S. and the question you are referring to (about the rise of conservatism) was only a portion of that test (25%). The portion of the test that was located in was the Document Based Question, which asks students to be able to analyze documents and write an effective response. Even if you have no idea about the essay topic, you can still get a decent score on that section if you were taught the writing skills that were necessary. The purpose of DBQ section of the test is to assess writing skills and document analysis. If you know any outside information or context, that's only 2 pts. out of a possible 7 pts for that essay. 


The AP U.S. and A.P. World tests are more about reading comprehension than anything else. It used to be about rote memorization of random facts. In fact, the multiple-choice section asks a student to read or analyze a document and then answer 3-5 questions about it. 


My suggestion to parents and students: If you don't like to read or have low reading skills, avoid those two classes. If you do like to read or can read, the class won't be overly difficult. 

willteach4shoes
willteach4shoes

As an AP English teacher for the past 12 years in public schools (25 years total) and an AP Reader (I score the exam free-response essays), I can tell you that every AP teacher must have their course syllabus approved by College Board. These courses are designed at a college level for college bound students, but are taught to 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds of a wide range of ability and preparation levels. Exams, and therefore exam scores, are designed to distinguish students who are extremely well qualified from those who are merely qualified from those who receive no recommendation and points in between. Even those who score a 5 are not expected to know every answer.  These are teenagers who may or may not have paid attention in class every minute of every day, or even been present, and who are expected to take responsibility for their learning beyond the normal high school class. That means reading extensively, studying daily, and seeking help when they need it. For some, those are expectations for which they are not prepared nor held accountable by themselves or their parents. Of course, a veteran AP teacher will likely do a better job preparing her students; that is simply a function of experience. However, every AP teacher I know, new or veteran, works tirelessly and is dedicated to preparing his or her students, not only for the exam, but also to develop the knowledge, critical thinking and reading, and problem solving skills they will need for college and beyond. Students who take AP classes, regardless of their exam scores, have higher GPAs and retention rates in college compared with their peers who took only regular classes or even did joint enrollment. The results speak for themselves.

Dawn Moss, Lawrenceville

JFlem1988
JFlem1988

The first year I taught AP (1995), I didn't have an MA in my field, had been to one summer AP course, and scrambled all year (an hour or two of preparation each night, after putting my 3 year old to bed). The greatest help to me was a successful veteran colleague in a different field - he was Calculus and I'm Latin. When I was crying in the faculty lounge about possibly not finishing the syllabus? He helped me plan take home tests, instead of sacrificing class time. My first students' pass rates were probably the single highest moment of my career, and one that kept me in it forever. I've since sought and earned an MA (and hours beyond) in my field, not in education. Numerous professional development opportunities exist - but they cost money. Yes, we have underprepared teachers in front of AP classes. (I was one.) They face the challenge embedded in various school cultures where nightly rigorous homework is not a valued habit in grades 4/5 -12.

I'm in my 29th year in Atlanta private schools, which sell theur very expensive programs based in a large part on the AP pass rates and college acceptances of their students. Teachers are nurtured, supported, hired and given awards for their experience, commitment and talent in their fields.

How can we help similar positive outcomes to become more common in public schools? Step one is for parents to push for all the components of a strong longitudinal program, including NOT blaming the teacher or administrators. Expecting students to go beyond where the teacher can guide them is unrealistic in Calculus, Physics, or Latin et. al., but more possible in US or World History. Exams and syllabi are written and reviewed by professors in the field, with secondary school teachers on the committees and teams. They publish their opinions, graded items, and ideas annually. AP teachers need more planning time, professional development opportunities, appreciation within their own communities.

I make a fraction of what my former students earn, who graduated from law school, in a field of equivalent intellectual demand and still love doing it. Also I can't even count the number of fantastic colleagues who left the profession.

If I didn't offer a great class with a very real hope of success, few in my informed school community would commit.

Loving this discussion and curiosity. Ask on!

PS and stop making jokes about summers off

Starik
Starik

@JFlem1988 Was your pay higher than teachers in the public schools? Did you receive the benefits the public schools teachers receive? You earned them.

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

Generally, private (they prefer "independent") school teachers make less than their public school counterparts.  There seems to be an implicit trade-off in which teachers accept a little less pay in exchange for the opportunity to teach students who are generally harder working and better behaved.

This is NOT because the best and brightest private school students are any smarter or harder working than public school students - they aren't.  Rather, the WORST public school students are WAY WORSE than the worst private school kids - deeply dysfunctional, extremely rude and lazy students are shown the door in private schools, while public schools have to keep them on.

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

p.s. - Something similar happens in public schools - by virtue of seniority, long-tenured teachers dominate the teaching of AP, honors and such classes (again, better students) while the truly challenging classes populated by poor students who could most benefit from being taught by competent, veteran teachers are shunted off to newbies and those with less tenure.

Starik
Starik

These classes are for college bound students; real colleges. In college, particularly in history classes, kids are expected to do some reading. How in the world can a college bound teenager be unaware of the modern conservative movement? It's a "current event."

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Starik I am sure kids were aware of it; the challenge was writing a timed essay on the influential factors that gave rise to it.

Starik
Starik

@MaureenDowney @Starik Challenges abound in college.  It's part of the preparation kids aren't getting in most public schools.

iwd
iwd

One key problem here is that with AP and IB courses, teachers - especially in math and science - are not always truly prepared to teach all of the college-level material, so they select the material (or spend more time on material) that they are more competent in. These are often very challenging subjects. Calculus is a good example. To expect many high school teachers who make modest salaries to master all of what might be in a college-level calculus course is not reasonable. Of course there are some/many who can and do. But the salary structures of occupations is such that the folks who have mastered calculus (and so have likely really mastered advance sciences or engineering in college, and not just had the subjects) are likely to have found themselves in better paying occupations.  I am not disparaging public school teachers here; there are many high school math teachers who really do master college level calculus in a way that they can teach it comprehensively and at a steady pace. But many are drawn towards career tracks that pay better.  Yet the schools have to staff the positions and so attempt to train teachers to teach the advanced courses. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn't, especially if they have never had the advanced material at a younger age (college).

class80olddog
class80olddog

The students should EXPECT that the teacher covers everything that would be on the test.  Whether it is covered in class or as assigned textbook reading, it should be covered.  Teachers should plan their lessons to cover all of the material.  if some students can't keep up and fall by the wayside - let them.  This is an HONORS class - the only ones who should be in the class are the best.  This is how we do "tracking" now.

L_D
L_D

IB and AP curriculums are set by the parent organizations.  @Maureen - could you please clarify:  was there material on the AP/IB exam that wasn't in the set curriculum?  Or is it just material that an individual class did not cover?  If the latter, then that is a teacher pacing issue, not an issue with the exam.  Both AP and IB have websites with the course curriculums and testing expectations.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@L_D  Curriculums are set by parent organizations?  Really?  Can someone else confirm this?

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@L_D The charge last year against IB physics was that it ws not set in the curriculum and that was a worldwide lament. (See link to petition above.) The more typical complaint is that individual classes did not cover material, which is a pacing issue. But AP teachers are telling me you can't cover it all. 

Starik
Starik

@MaureenDowney @L_D Do these AP teachers have degrees in the area they're teaching, from reasonably good colleges? Is this a qualification problem?

Lisa Greene
Lisa Greene

The problem with most people commenting here is that they have little to no idea how these tests are actually graded. For AP exams at least (I don't have any experience with IB) a 5, which is the highest possible score, corresponds to about a 70%. You are not expected to know everything on the exam, and you don't need to know everything on it. Teacher's exams are typically not curved at all, and even if they are are no where near the curve of AP exams. For a teacher's exam, it would be unfair to test things not learned. Not so much on an AP exam. (Again I'm uncertain how IB works, but I would imagine that it's similar.)

kaelyn
kaelyn

If the material is addressed in the textbook I think it's fair game, even if it wasn't covered in class. My two kids took a total of five AP exams this year. One was pretty confident that she earned either a 4 or 5 on her exams, while her brother said he probably got a 3 on two exams and "took a big L" on the third.

The difference is my daughter did more than the required reading, finding outside resources that supplemented the class lectures. She even sought out the student who scored a 5 last year on one of the exams, and borrowed his notes. She did say that there was one world history LEQ subject that she had not studied, but she was familiar with everything else.

weetamoe
weetamoe

Yes they should---if they are capable of critical thinking--which is no longer mentioned in these columns.

Robin Cathcart Mathews
Robin Cathcart Mathews

There are many different questions here. Should an AP or IB exam have content that isn't in the exam description? No. Should an AP or IB exam have questions that show a student has synthesized the content from the year? Yes. Should HS teachers "cover" every bit of content on the exam? No. It is a college level course. I never had a college course where the professor "covered" everything in class. We were required to read, write, and study outside of class to be successful. Too many students are taking AP classes without realizing the amount of work required on their own. Schools should limit APs, communicate up front the outside expectations clearly, and allow teachers to teach the class at the level necessary for students to be successful.

redweather
redweather

If teachers are using a textbook that covers all of the material on the test, they should let students know they're responsible for everything in the textbook even if it isn't covered in class. Either that or make sure they cover everything in one way or another.

Kiddada Asmara Grey
Kiddada Asmara Grey

No not at all. My daughter was in IB and said the same thing..I don't know if there is a pacing issue or the expectation is they will have to guess on the exam.

Shira Newman
Shira Newman

That is life. Sometimes the test takes from everything you learn but it is something you have never seen before.

Elisa Maria Chiara
Elisa Maria Chiara

Mmm... Yes. That's how they can show they didn't just memorise content but also understood it and are able to apply it to novel circumstances.