Practice Exams – A Modest Proposal

Starting in 2012 the College Board provided full actual AP Calculus exams, AB and BC, for teachers who had an audit on file to use with their students as practice exams. These included multiple-choice and free-response questions from the international exam. (The 2012 exam has now been released and is no longer considered secure. All the practice exams since then are considered secure.) The free-response questions from the operational (main USA) exam are released to everyone shortly after the exams are given and their scoring standards are released in the fall. These are not secure and may be shared with your students.

The rules about using the secure practice exams are quite restrictive. I quote:

AP Practice Exams are provided by the College Board for AP Exam preparation. Teachers are permitted to download the materials and make copies to use with their students in a classroom setting only. To maintain the security of the exams, teachers should collect all materials after their administration and keep them in a secure location. Exams may not be posted on school or personal websites, nor electronically redistributed for any reason. Further distribution of these materials outside of the secure College Board site disadvantages teachers who rely on uncirculated questions for classroom testing. Any additional distribution is in violation of the College Board’s copyright policies and may result in the termination of Practice Exam access for your school as well as the removal of access to other online services such as the AP Teacher Community and Online Score Reports. (Emphasis in original)

Bubble SheetPractice exams are a good thing to use to help get your students ready for the real exam. They

  • Help students understand the style and format of the questions and the exam,
  • Give students practice in working under time pressure
  • Help students identify their calculus weaknesses, to pinpoint the concepts and topics they need to brush up on before the real exam.
  • Give students an idea of their score 5, 4, 3, 2, or 1.

Teachers also assign a grade on the exam and count it as part of the students’ averages.

The problem is that some of the exams in whole or part have found their way onto the internet. (Imagine.) The College Board does act when they learn of such a situation. Nevertheless, students have often be able to, shall we say, “research” the questions ahead of their practice exams. Teachers are, quite rightly, upset about this and considered the “research” cheating.

To deal with this situation I offer …

A Modest Proposal

Don’t grade the practice exam or count it as part of the students’ averages.

Athletes are not graded on their practices, only the game counts. Athletes practice to maintain their skills and improve on their weakness. Make it that way with your practice tests.

Calculus students are intelligent. Explain to them why you are asking them to take a practice exam; how it will help them find their weaknesses so they can eliminate them, how they will use the exam to maintain their skills and improve on their weakness, and how this will help them on the real exam.  By taking the pressure of a grade away, students can focus on improvement.

Make it an incentive not to be concerned about a grade.


(Confession: When I was teaching, I often had nothing to base a fourth quarter grade on. School started after Labor Day and the fourth quarter began about two weeks before the AP exam (and ran another 6 or 7 week after it). Students were required to take a final exam given the week after the AP exam and then they were done. The fourth quarter grade was usually the average of the first three quarters.)

Update June 7, 2015: There are some good ideas in the replies below. Check them out.

Update 2 April 7, 2018. Several updates to the first paragraph.

Update 3: March 13, 2019


6 thoughts on “Practice Exams – A Modest Proposal

  1. I give a mock exam (using a secure MC set and a recent set of FR) over 3 class periods. (We have a 90 minute block.) Day 1 Multiple Choice, Day 2, Free Response, Day 3 grade and analyze. I print up an ap scoring rubric so they can see what they would have made if it were the real thing. For taking both parts, they get an 80 test grade. For analyzing the test, they get a percentage of their score, up to the remaining 20 points. That takes the pressure off, allows the weaker students to make at least an 80, and allows the more serious students to still make an A.


  2. I have made practice AP Exams worth 10 “test” points in the gradebook that is not based at all on their number correct. Instead, students can earn all 10 points by going back through the test and writing on their answer sheet a list of questions that, even though they now know the answer, they still do not know how to do, and a list of topics they consistently struggled on (i.e. “I missed every question about limits”). If on their answer sheet I can see these two lists, the students gets 10/10. It has worked really well.


  3. I have always thought this very same thing. If we are truly wanting for students to practice, we mustn’t make it more stressful for them to do well. The stress of the time constraints is enough for them alone. However, the other side of the coin asks the question: how do we evaluate objectively student work given to accomplish this task of practicing for the test?

    I have employed a number of strategies for this challenge:
    ~ I used to individually conference with each student on a Saturday and give them more problems of those on which they performed poorly. This was time consuming and the follows was equally time consuming.
    ~ I used to grade in three separate points of each problem. 33.3 points for each problem’s setup, process, and quality of answer. This doesn’t account for the correct answer but rather how they get to the answer. I have had kids get the wrong answer but follow the proper setup, protocol, and give a quality answer.
    ~ I have had the students peer review the practice exams and grade them in the quality of their assessment.

    Just a few ideas. I would love to hear what others do as well.


  4. This is exactly what I do! I offer 3 Saturday Sessions prior to the AP Exam. Students are required to attend at least one, although most attend 2 and many attend all 3. We run the sessions as timed Mock Exams and I feed them bagels during the break. We spend the following week going over the exams in class. Students have reported that these mock exams have been critical to developing timing strategies and ferreting (sp?) out any remaining misunderstandings or weak areas.


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