As we celebrate the annual College Board Festival of Advanced Placement Exams, let us pause for a minute to consider the question, Should students who take AP courses be required to take AP exams? That has never been a simple question, and it is even less so today.

For much of my career my answer would have been a clear “yes,” and in fact my school continues to expect students who take AP courses to take the AP exam (we will not get into the semantics of “expect” vs. “require”).  The classical definition of an AP course is that it is a course designed to prepare a student for the AP exam, which then provides the potential for earning college credit.

But is that definition of an AP course still valid?  Today AP courses have more value for admission to college than for college credit or placement.  AP has become the nation’s top curriculum brand, making the AP syllabus (or at least the AP designation on a transcript) more important than the AP exam.  With AP exams now costing $89 and less likelihood of receiving college credit than used to be the case, is it fair to require students in an AP class to take the exam?

That begs the question, “Fair to whom?”  It may not be fair to the student with financial hardship and little chance of earning credit, but it may be fair to teachers who need every carrot and every stick at their disposal to stave off senior slump at this time of year.  Exams of any type promote accountability, and there is an educational argument to be made that taking an exam has educational value in itself, helping a student to pull together information and make connections between ideas.  Most of my colleagues who teach AP courses are impressed with the quality of the exam, especially now that exams like Biology have moved away from regurgitation of information and toward critical thinking and problem-solving.  Several years ago a Chemistry teacher argued that the AP exam didn’t measure the right things.  I pointed out that you can make that argument when your scores are good, whereas it looks self-serving when your scores are modest.

The question, then, is how essential a component of the AP experience is the exam itself?  Is taking an AP course but not taking the exam the same experience as taking an AP course to prepare for the exam?  My gut tells me it’s not, but that’s not necessarily a reason to require a student to sit for the AP exam.

But what about a student who shows AP courses on his or her transcript but no evidence of having taken an exam? Does that concern or worry colleges?  It is less of an issue today when schools have to get approval to label courses as AP, but without the exam component what’s the difference between a course taught using the AP syllabus and an Honors course? 

Having an AP exam score provides information both about the student and potentially about the course as well.  There is a big difference between having an A in an AP course with a score of 5 on the exam and an A with a 2 on the exam.  Most of us would guess those aren’t equal courses. There are certainly students who don’t test well, but when an entire class scores poorly on the AP exam it may say something about the quality of the class.  When a student’s transcript show AP courses with no evidence of having taken the exam, do colleges assume that the exam wasn’t taken or that the scores weren’t very good?

I have never been described as an apologist for the College Board, which I have labeled “America’s Most Profitable Non-Profit Organization.”  I think the AP curriculum provides rigor and quality, although I also think it may restrict good teachers from delving into topics that are not on the exam.  I also have reservations about the “AP for average students” movement.  That having been said, I think that most students who take AP courses should also take the AP exam, with exceptions made for those for whom the cost of the exam causes financial hardship.