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Should students expect material on AP or IB exams they never studied in class?

I've been spending time around graduating high school seniors this week, my twins and their classmates as well as the children of friends. So, I've been hearing gripes about tests, not teacher-produced tests that kids typically find fair but standardized tests.

The complaint: Their Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests contained material and problems never covered in class.

Here is my question: How does that happen? Is the system designed that way? If so, what are students supposed to do?

In talking to teachers, they say it's nearly impossible to cover all the content in an AP or IB class. They also say the standardized tests for those classes are often grueling but many students will fare better than they expect as a result of how the exams are scored. The IB literature talks about "grade boundaries," which are the minimum scores required to achieve each grade and are determined after the tests are administered.

That's good news because even top students – kids who scored in the top 1 percent on the ACT or SAT – complained about unfamiliar material on IB math and science tests. (Polar equations, for one.) A few students estimated they were 30 to 60 days behind where they should have been in class to have been fully prepared for the tests.

Last year's IB physics exams triggered a petition complaining the tests did not align with the course guides. Students worldwide signed it, including one from Thailand who wrote the exams "came straight from the depths of hell." (If you have time, read comments here from British students about the tests. My favorite: "My whole class buggered it." )

Several kids who attend private school told me their teacher warned them they would see questions on the AP exams on content they didn't know. The teacher urged them to try their own catch-up. A friend in New York said her child's academic magnet high school held weekend review sessions but the kids actually were learning new material that the class never reached.

My oldest son took AP World History from a teacher brand new to the course. A few weeks before the exam she realized there was a gap and offered morning boot camps to expose students to the missing material. It paid off for my son and his classmates who did pretty well on average.

Last year, I had several metro students tell me their AP U.S. History class never got as far as the modern conservative movement, which ended up being a key question on their exam.

Should students expect to see questions on these high-stakes exams on stuff they didn't learn or discuss in class? Does it come with the territory when the courses are created and graded by the College Board and the International Baccalaureate Organization?


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.