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infographic by Shelby Yount

Making the AP grade

The beginning of the school year is always hectic, as students accustom to the individualistic teaching styles, different class structures and schoolwork overload. Students seeking academic challenge and rigor are presented with 19 various AP courses, ranging from AP Music Theory to AP Computer Science. RBHS’s plentiful opportunities help students obtain college credits and study skills, both deemed invaluable at the collegiate level.

When AP exam week rolls around, students begin to sweat and fret, feeling incompetent in three predominant areas: knowledge, time and confidence.

Junior Alexis Davis took AP World her sophomore year. She loved teachers Gregory Irwin and Shawnna Matteson and even more so loved the engaging topics discussed in class.

Unfortunately, these factors did not play a significant role in her decision, as Davis chose not to take the AP exam. Restricted by time and obstructed by the long response and multiple choice portions of the exam, Davis struggled with the notoriously devilish style of Collegeboard testing.

“In the end it all boiled down to the fact that I was just worried about time,” Davis said. “I went into the class knowing that writing with speed was not a strength of mine. I was also even less confident about the multiple choice section because I’ve never been very good at test taking. I’ve always struggled with multiple choice questions because I psych myself out.”

AP U.S. History and AP Human Geography teacher Kimberly Thielen-Metcalf identifies the root of the problem to one word: perfectionism.

“Kids just freak out,” Metcalf said. “They don’t think they’re going to get a perfect score, and they’re worried about not being perfect. They think they should get a five or nothing—they’ve been hearing that their whole lives, and it’s crazy.”

Nevertheless, approximately 840 RBHS students enroll in an AP class with the drive of passing the exam. Many achieve this goal, as 81% of RBHS students scored a three or higher on the 2014 AP exams.

Included in RBHS’s AP passing rate is senior Hannah Chen who received fours and fives across six AP exams, making her eligible for the AP Scholar with Distinction award which recognizes high school students who “demonstrate outstanding college-level achievement.” Unlike Davis’s situation, Chen was resolute in her selection of AP courses, including her decision to take the exam.

“I find it understandable that some students take the AP class, but not the exam,” Chen said. “Many top universities don’t award credit for certain AP courses, so there’s no point in wasting money.”

For first-time AP students, Chen advises to manage time wisely and effectively, to be familiar with the format and content of the exam and to face the reality that one does not get what they wish for— you get what you work for. When an superb work ethic is developed, all students are capable of doing well on the exam.

“We have to work at reading for meaning to ultimately do well on the [AP U.S. History] test,” Metcalf said. “I would love it if everybody got a five — but we, as teachers, have to teach you how to write the essay. We have to teach you how to pick apart a multiple choice question. And if you get those things, the score will come.”

And if it doesn’t, there’s a problem.

“If a student does very well in the class but poorly on the exam, obviously there’s a problem,” Chen said. “The exam material was not taught sufficiently in the class for the student to be able to succeed.”

Having taught at four different high schools, Metcalf has witnessed students all around who achieve ‘A pluses’ in the class, only to take the exam and fail it. This condition, Metcalf explains, speaks to grade inflation because realistically, a three on the AP exam should equate to a ‘C’ in a college class.

“Grades should reflect what you know, not an accumulation of points,” Metcalf said. “It’s college level, and you are a high school student. It’s supposed to be a push and a stretch.”

When it comes to academics at the university level, there is a rule of thumb that for every hour spent in class, an hour must be spent studying outside of class. Unlike the RBHS block schedule, college classes meet once or twice a week which spawns aloofness in the area of study as well as a greater susceptibility to the greatest disorder in all students’ sytems: procrastination.

“It’s back to that ‘freedom with responsibility’ and how you budget your time,” Metcalf said. “However long it takes to competently do the work, is my answer. It just depends on what your strengths are.”

Metcalf advises to engage in textbook readings through meaningful annotations and by taking “power notes.” Power noting is a method which consists of breaking apart text to reorganize main ideas and supporting details. Students can take notes more effectively through concise, personalized headings and subheadings under a number system that decreases in generalization and ambiguity.

Scientifically proven in the Association for Psychological Science journal, taking notes by hand is the ultimate option for remembering conceptual information over a long period of time.

“You should always take notes while you’re reading, that’s partly the reason why we’re getting access to online textbooks,” Metcalf said. “You have to interact with the reading, and the more you do it, the better you get at it.”

In a world where grades and GPA’s are idolized, the purpose of learning tends to degrade under piles of textbooks and worksheets. Along the lines of Aristotle, education may be bitter in the process, but the knowledge acquired is sweet and rewarding.

“Ultimately, [teachers] don’t give a hoot what your grade or score is,” Metcalf said. “We focus on preparing students for whatever is going to get thrown at you. We care about what sticks in your head, because it’s there in seven years. I will never ever know that, but you will— and that’s what matters the most.”

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