AP Exams: The Myth of Passing

As Advanced Placement courses become more widely available to high school students, more families are looking at the exams and wondering what constitutes a passing score? However, the College Board (also maker of the SAT exam) is very careful not to claim any specific score as “passing” the exam, nor do they suggest any score constitutes a “failure.” Instead, they direct students, educators, and families to look into an individual college’s policies for granting AP credit.

Is this a case of shifting the blame or responsibility from the College Board, who merely scores the exams, to the colleges and universities, who make the choice as to whether to grant credit? Possibly. However, barring a national or international standardization of college requirements and courses, it would be nearly impossible to create an AP course that perfectly mirrored the content and rigor of every iteration of the course at the college level. The College Board’s solution elegantly walks the line between collegiate autonomy for granting credit and the integrity and value of the AP exam program.

Taking an AP course is an academic benefit, offering increased rigor and delving deeper into content. For many students, the primary goal is to earn college credit. With enough effort, students may be able to enter college with advanced standing, having many credits already earned, credits which they will not have to pay the college tuition for.  This option can make a college education more affordable and accessible to many families. Even earning AP credit in a single course can give students an edge in their first college semester, lightening the course load, and keeping them out of huge freshman seminar courses. (Check this site to see if your college offers credit for AP scores.)

How is the AP exam scored?

Aside from Calculus BC and Music theory, all AP exams are scored on a five point scale. Most AP exams consist of both multiple choice and open-ended, or essay, questions. The exact conversion between the number of questions correct and the AP score changes from year to year. The College Board says that a score of 5 means a student is “extremely well qualified,” equivalent to earning an A or A+ in a college level course. 4 is “very well qualified,” reflecting an A-, B+, or B. Then it gets a bit tricky.

The score of 3 is defined as “qualified.” However, most colleges only give credit to students earning 4 or above, some only offer credit for 5’s, and some do not recognize AP scores for credit. It might be a big ask, but students considering taking an AP course should know before starting if their dream or goal colleges accept AP scores, and if so, at what threshold. Given that more and more juniors and even sophomores take AP courses, this may not always be possible.

If a student does score well, but is then accepted to a college that does not recognize AP scores for credit, it can be tempting to ask what the point of the course was. AP courses have more benefits than saving time and money in college. Even students who do not meet qualifying scores have been shown to go on to be more prepared for college level coursework, and have better academic outcomes in those college courses than their peers who come from Honors or General Education track high school courses. AP courses cover more varied and complex content than non-AP classes, providing a broader base of knowledge for students. These courses demand more self-study and independent work, which are also skills that directly translate to college success.

Rather than thinking of AP exam scores as “passing” or “failing,” consider adopting the framework of “earning college credit” or “not earning college credit.” Even if a student does not earn college credit, either based on their exam score or the college’s policy, that student will also have gotten a GPA boost from taking the course, and demonstrated a personal commitment to academic rigor, both of which can positively improve their college admission profile.