Let ‘um Try!

Last week, I received an email from a mother whose concern really ticked me off. 

The mother of a student entering eleventh grade this fall wrote because her son wanted to take AP Calculus next fall. He will not be allowed to take the course because he missed the cut-off grade in his precalculus course by less than two percentage points.

That’s wrong!

The College Board, under prerequisites in the current calculus Course and Exam Description, states, “Before studying calculus, all students should complete the equivalent of four years of secondary mathematics designed for college-bound students.” Her son has done that. There is nothing about achieving a certain arbitrary average.

A percentage grade does not tell you anything useful. (I’ve discussed this before. See here and the opening paragraphs here.)

How can you pass a student in precalculus and then turn around and tell them they aren’t ready for calculus? If they are not ready, fail them in precalculus.

It is certainly reasonable to council a student with an average or below average grade. You can, and probably should, sit down with them and their parents and explain that they may find the AP course difficult, and to do well they will have to commit spending more time and effort than they may be used to. Offer them extra help – it’s you job! If their grade was a D or D– you can be a little more insistent that they think it over carefully. But to flat out deny them the opportunity is just wrong.

Passing Rate.

Often teachers and administrators are concerned about their passing rate in AP courses. I once attended a session at an NCTM meeting where a teacher explained how he achieved a great passing rate each year in AP Calculus. It is easy to do. He explained that he carefully weeded out those students who were not likely to do really well. Once in the course, if they were struggling, he counseled them not to take the exam. (Why waste your money?) So, if passing rate is your concern, that’s how to do it.

He ended with, “I don’t want those students in my denominator.”

Sorry, it’s not about you!

Let’s say you carefully select the students who take the course and later the exam. You have 10 students who take the exam, and they all get a qualifying score (3, 4, or 5). Well, great you have a 100% pass rate.

Now let’s say you let another 10 students into the course. Twenty kids take the exam and 15 get qualifying scores. Even better. An additional five students have earned qualifying scores. That’s what counts! You’ve done a better job! And the five students who did not qualify will benefit from having taken a college-level course and will be better prepared for math in college.

Your pass rate has dropped to 75%, but you’ve helped more students – and that’s what it’s all about.

When I was working for the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), part of my job was to vet schools who wanted to join our program. NMSI insisted that there be no artificial barriers or cut-off points for admittance into all AP courses. Students who had passed the prerequisite courses and wanted to take an AP course had to be admitted. And it worked: the schools had more students qualify every year than the year before.

If all your students are earning 3, 4, or 5, you are being too selective.

I gave the woman what advice I could. I hope it helps. I wish I could have done more for her and her son.


2 thoughts on “Let ‘um Try!

  1. I would love to have more students in AP Calculus. In recent years, an increasing number of students (and their parents) have weeded themselves out, because they’re fearful of earning a grade less than the 95-100s they’ve always enjoyed, thus dropping their GPA and their class rank. I encourage most PreCalc H students to take AP Calculus, but for some of these kids, GPA and class rank are more important than a stronger transcript which includes AP Calculus. Additionally, the spiraling level of anxiety lately in teens (it is real) has made some students too afraid to attempt AP Calculus. Our school’s COVID grading policies inflated grades, such as adding 6 points to a final grade if students display good effort. This has led to unrealistic grade expectations, especially for the honors-level students. Hopefully this will get back to normal soon – or is this the “new normal”? In our school, AP Courses are open to all. My administration doesn’t seem to pay attention to AP scores; at least I’ve never received feedback from them over the 10 years I’ve taught AP Calculus. I agree completely with your post, Lin. Thanks for always giving great insight.


  2. I agree completely! Let all students take AP Calc. However…. the pressure to weed them out at my school comes from admin, not me. “Why aren’t your AP scores higher? It’s making the school look bad.” And they added another math class “just in case they can’t handle AP Calc”


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