Keeping Score

Note: this post was originally drafted last summer — on July 5, 2014 — but not posted due to a lack of internet access in the remote parts of the Scottish Highlands. It has been almost a year since I put it on the shelf, yet given the insane amount of test-related anxiety floating around the air in the past two weeks, I thought would be fitting to finally finish.

The view from the Scottish Highlands.  These pictures don’t nearly do justice…
The view from the Scottish Highlands. These pictures don’t nearly do justice…

Yesterday was the Fourth of July.1 Which means: independence, fireworks, and that big hot-dog eating contest that always makes you wanna hurl.

It also means that AP exam score reports become available over the next couple of days.

In my first couple of years with the course, I looked at the AP scores as a measure of how well I was performing at my job. That view has changed2 since.

Nevertheless, since this is usually a big moment in the year for us, let me try to describe what it’s like.

Teachers in different time zones are allowed access to their score reports at staggered stages throughout the two-day period immediately following the July 4 holiday — the staggered time slots to prevent the internet from exploding.3 4

When you log on to College Board scores site and open the score report, the first thing that you see at the top is the breakdown of scores by quantity of 5-4-3-2-1’s.5

I don’t really know what to compare the feeling to, that feeling of having your heart temporarily suspended in your throat when you click/tap on the “view score report” button, but the only thing that I would imagine even remotely close would be when a student checks online at the website of a college / university that they’ve applied to to see if they’ve been accepted or not.

In other words, it’s basically a feeling of success or failure.6 Or something like that, anyway.

Yes, we place too much emphasis on the damn things… but perhaps that’s just the nature of the game.7

My first year of teaching the course8 when I had absolutely no frame of reference, I asked Cathy Morgan — who mentored me in the course that year and would retire at its conclusion9 — what kind of scores to expect and/or shoot for. She told me that as long as the “pass” rate10 is above seventy percent, you’re doing alright.11 Our students were well above that. 12

The numbers may have been great, but I remember at numerous points during the following year 13 feeling trapped by the previous year’s success,14 and as a result of tunnel-visioned goal of trying to improve on them, there were moments in which I feared I was pushing my students *too* hard.15

After that 2nd season of AP Stat, the score sheet on the other side of the heart-gagging click of the mouse said that 103 of our 106 test-takers passed. And while that resulted in a few hours of euphoria,16 immediately afterwards I thought a couple of thoughts:

  1. That is too high of a pass rate. Our scores will never go any higher than that.17
  2. I wished that more of my students had taken the exam;18 106 of my 126 took the test, but I estimate that about half of the remaining 20 had a decent shot of scoring at least a “3”. I would have gladly taken a lower passing percentage if it meant more kids placing out of the class for college.19

Nowadays — with those first few years of scores under my belt — if the question ever arises over whether a student can really hack it in AP Stat, I will almost always err on the side of “yes it’s good to get a year of stat under your belt before college”20 rather than “well I’m not sure if you can pass the AP Exam”.21

And that brings up one22 unfortunate side-effect stemming from the over-emphasis of standard testing: When we start looking at our kids primarily as potential numbers on a bottom line, you know something is terribly wrong with the system.

(And… now we’re back to present-day: May 18, 2015)

Testing season brings on an unwieldy degree of stress and anxiety for teachers. The results of the exams taken over the course of the past two weeks play no small part in determining the ratings of our schools and perhaps the fates of some teachers. For the mathematics department, the vast majority of these tests are being taken by either our freshmen — who are barely a year removed from middle school — and seniors — who care more about prom dresses and figuring out who their roommates will be next year at college than they do about some arbitrary exam.2324 This is absolutely the worst time of the year for me,25 and my anxiety stems from an AP Exam that my students are not even required to take.26 I have extreme empathy for my colleagues whose necks are hanging in the balance by state standardized tests that27 all of their students are required to take.28

Last week, a former co-worker of mine pointed me to this gem from John Oliver. A bit lengthy, but informative, funny, and very real:29

And yes, I caught the earlier news about Pearson losing some of their contracts in Texas. Good riddance.30

  1. Again, this post was originally drafted on July 5, 2014↩︎
  2. or at the very least, softened. Edit (May 2015): Actually, since I now teach at a campus where final exams exemptions are given out as an incentive for merely taking the AP exam, it has changed quite a bit.↩︎
  3. Though apparently, according to Twitter, the internet exploded anyway.↩︎
  4. Texas’ access usually begins in the morning on the 6th or 7th, but this year we’re on the 5th.↩︎
  5. along with a mean score and standard deviation. If you know not what “standard deviation” is, think: average distance from the mean score. Kinda/sorta. Good to just leave it there for now.↩︎
  6. and I’m not one of those people that deals particularly well with fear of failure↩︎
  7. Or maybe it’s just me. Scratch that, it is definitely not just me — we place way too much emphasis on the damn things.↩︎
  8. Season 4, 2010-11, which incidentally was the first year College Board eliminated the 1/4 point penalty for incorrect responses on the multiple choice section of the exam.↩︎
  9. She planned to retire — I didn’t push her into it… at least I think…↩︎
  10. while roughly a third of colleges require a score of at least a four to earn any credit, a score of a 3 or above is commonly referred to as “passing”. Thus I will use the phrase “pass rate” to mean “3+ rate” from this point forward without using quotation marks.↩︎
  11. Although the population pass rate is a perennial 58-ish percent, I think she was being kind, knowing that it was my first year of teaching the course, as I later learned that our program’s pass rate was typically in the 80’s.↩︎
  12. I would’ve been pleased with an 80% pass rate. I was hoping — much in the way a young child “hopes” to see Santa coming down the chimney on Christmas Eve — for a pass rate of 90, and we were even a few ticks above that. It was a record pass rate for the McNeil AP Statistics program, and I’m sure she felt some measure of professional satisfaction by being able to ride off into the sunset on that high note. I had just finished a grueling year of putting in 6-10 hours of prep every single Saturday from August to April, and I know those scores made me feel like all of the pain was somewhat worthwhile.↩︎
  13. Season 5, my first year of being solely in charge of the program. Also the year in which my “pregnant zombie bovine” levels rose to their all-time high — I actually remember telling my students in the final days leading up to the exam that I felt like I’d been pregnant with the exam for 10 months↩︎
  14. I actually feared that when — not if — the scores went down after the following campaign, that somebody above me was going to find a way to blame ME — or, more realistically but just as worrisome, blame our department chair — for it. Thankfully, I believe our administrative team is very reasonable, and I know now that I was probably being unnecessarily irrational… but one can never be too weary when it involves school politics.↩︎
  15. At the time, the crumbling experience of two Springs prior was still fresh on my mind, when I promised myself that I wouldn’t ever allow things there again.↩︎
  16. okay, maybe months↩︎
  17. Truthfully, I am not sure that I WANT the pass rate to go any higher, because I feel that at a certain point, a high pass rate is a byproduct of choking the borderline students out of the AP program, which I don’t believe is in the best interests of the Advanced Placement program.↩︎
  18. I recently read a blog post about proper semicolon usage. I hope this was proper…↩︎
  19. There’s a line in “Tokyo Drift” that rings true: 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing. So I’ll propose “a corollary of the Tokyo Drift Theorem”: I’d rather have 80% of two hundred than 100% of ninety. … … Yeah, that sounded more poetic in my head…↩︎
  20. while it’s free!↩︎
  21. Yes, I admit, it’s easy to feign the higher road when you know that the scores will be decent.↩︎
  22. of MANY↩︎
  23. Again, some campuses reward their students with an automatic exemption from the Spring final exam just by taking the AP exam — irrespective of their eventual score on the exam. If you’re an AP teacher whose students sign up for the AP Exam for the sole purpose of “buying” their way out of a final exam and have no intent of ever studying for anything all year long, before or after: gg.↩︎
  24. Everyone I speak to says invariably: “I need a vacation.” And believe me, when teachers say that, it’s not for sport — we REALLY need a vacation.↩︎
  25. I could figuratively — though not literally — feel the hair falling out in clumps.↩︎
  26. But oh, they still matter to us, as I have been reminded a number of times this year by my new bosses.↩︎
  27. for the most part↩︎
  28. There’s a recent “Onion” article that headlines something to the effect of: “Standardized tests are biased against students who don’t give a [darn]”. I would link to it, but… it has some naughty language. [oops]↩︎
  29. Also, John Oliver is now on my weekly “must-watch” list.↩︎
  30. Though, sadly, this is not a story that will soon have a happy ending.↩︎