Advanced Placement Basics: How we Approach AP Programs and Exams

October 29, 2021

Alpha’s approach to education begs the question, “How does Alpha address more traditional school offerings, such as the Advanced Placement Program and exams?”

Let’s begin with a few AP basics. In the United States, AP exams are standardized tests offered by the College Board to high school students each May. Built to assess a student’s mastery of a particular subject, AP exams give students the opportunity to earn college credit from many college programs. Any credit awarded is based solely on the discretion of the college or university. Exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5 and include multiple-choice and free-response questions (essays and open-ended questions). Students who earn a 3, 4, or 5 “pass” the exam — a 5 suggests a student is well-qualified to receive an A or A+ if they were to take a college-level course in the given subject area, while a 3 would result in a C to B-.

Our goal is to equip students as well as we can for life beyond Alpha. Philosophically, this means students should be equally prepared to enter into a rigorous college program or to successfully launch a technology start-up. Practically, this means we not only offer AP courses, but our AP exam preparation is rigorous. We also consider AP exams to be third-party validation that our approach to education is effective and ultimately, better.

Students pursue only the AP courses that are relevant to their individual pathways

We build each student’s high school experience around their particular interests. A student interested in pursuing a career in medicine will likely take AP Chemistry early in their high school career, whereas a student working toward publishing a book might take AP English.

Each student selects a mastery-based project by the end of their freshman year that they’ll do over the course of their time at Alpha. Students devote over 1000 hours to becoming an expert in a particular area and eventually demonstrate their expertise in a subject area. We build a student’s academic program around the tangible skills they need to complete their project. Rather than the traditional approach to APs, our students select AP courses mindfully and as they make sense.

All students taking AP exams participate in a workshop called AP Strategies

We’ve realized at Alpha that half the battle for a student taking an exam (whether it be an AP exam or the SAT), is learning the strategies that will equip them to do well on the test. A student may have mastery over a particular subject, but fail to understand the basic tools that could drastically improve their outcome.

AP Strategies can be thought of as Survivor for the academic mind. Students complete a variety of exercises to equip themselves to thrive even when they’re under extreme duress — students might take an AP test in half the time allotted for an actual test, they might be interrupted halfway through a test and forced to refocus to finish. Ultimately, the Guide facilitator is assessing where each student gets stuck and then implements strategies and third-party resources to equip each individual student with the tools they need to overcome the obstacles they may encounter while taking a test.

Students learn AP content utilizing adaptive learning software

We believe students learn more effectively when they move at their own pace and level. We’ve developed a progression of adaptive applications to ensure Alpha students master the content they will encounter on their AP exams. During one year, a student will complete three apps for one AP exam subject area. Students aren’t beholden to the pace of their peers, so they’re able to go in-depth on the content areas that are more challenging for them to master while breezing through content they already understand.

We believe students are limitless, so they are not required to take prerequisites before beginning an AP course

At most schools, 9th-grade students are permitted to take one AP course — Human Geography. We’ve dismantled the notion that a freshman is only capable of mastering AP content for Human Geography. We truly believe students are limitless, and so if a 9th-grade student wants to take AP Biology or AP Chemistry, we let them (just ask them! We have several freshmen doing both!). Our only requirement is that students have a genuine desire to go deep into the subject. We meet students where they are at and allow them to own their academic careers and buy into the content they are learning.

So, how do Alpha AP outcomes compare to other schools?

Across the United States, the mean score on an AP exam was 3.03 in 2021, and about half of students who took APs passed with a score of a three or better. During Alpha’s first round of AP exams, 100% of students passed with a 3 or higher, and 80% of students received a 4 or 5. These results are our first data-set, but they are initial evidence that by empowering students to own their own learning pathway and giving them the tools to progress at their own pace through adaptive learning software, the sky truly is the limit for their learning.