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Why Summit students do so well on AP exams

Why Summit students do so well on AP exams

By Nancy Berlier 

The news that our students received an astounding 90 awards from the College Board for their performance on Advanced Placement (AP) tests this year prompted us to take a deeper look into the reasons for this success. 

While our students did extraordinarily well this year, that kind of performance isn’t new. Summit students have a history of doing well on these exams. In the past five years, 31 students were named National AP Scholars, and students accumulated 377 AP awards. That’s a lot for a school as small as ours. 

Why is this important?  

AP tests are one measure of The Summit’s ability to prepare students for college, and they give students advantages once they are in college. Most U.S. colleges and universities award credit, advanced course placement or both for grades of 3 or higher on AP exams. 

“Because AP classes are college-level courses, students in high school are learning skills that prepare them for college and give them a head start,” says The Summit’s College Counseling Director Nick J. Accrocco. “High scores on AP exams might award a student college credit.” For example, a 2018 Summit alumna who scored a perfect 5 on all nine tests that she took at The Summit achieved sophomore status in the second semester of her first year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Advancing students in their college curriculum can reduce tuition and give students more time to pursue academic and extracurricular pursuits outside the college classroom,” Dr. Accrocco says.  

We believe the key factors that contribute to our students' success are: An abundance of AP classes, expertise of faculty and aptitude of students. 

Large number of AP offerings 

Typically, schools as small as The Summit offer only a handful of AP courses. Because The Summit’s faculty is highly-trained, we are able to offer 22 out of 32 available AP courses, and more sometimes when students request independent study.  

Because we have such a large variety of AP classes – calculus, biology, psychology, economics, world language, music theory and art portfolio to name a few -- our students can pick and choose the ones that play to their strengths and interests. 

Faculty have also been willing to oversee independent study for students interested in other AP classes that aren’t offered.  

The Summit Upper School has an enrollment of about 400 students. Kirstin McEachern, Ph.D., Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs, says the number of AP courses offered in a school this size is notable. “The ability for a student to take an AP course as an independent study if we don’t offer it in our typical schedule speaks to the commitment and quality of our faculty, as does the fact that we have trained AP readers teaching courses,” Dr. McEachern says. “So while our AP program clearly challenges and prepares our students, they ultimately succeed because of the academically rigorous coursework they have engaged with to that point.” 

Expertise of faculty 

Indeed, Head of School Rich Wilson credits the faculty with The Summit’s long-standing record of high-level performance on the AP exams. 

“I believe it is because our teachers are some of the best in the city,” he says. “The vast majority of our teachers have advanced degrees. They give students personalized attention and challenge them. And they set the bar high in our own rigorous college-prep curriculum, so students who take AP classes are already accustomed to a higher level of expectations for their performance.”  

Thanks to the generosity of The Summit’s benefactors, The Summit has a robust program for professional development to train and update teachers in best practices in education.   

“Surprisingly, anyone can be an AP teacher,” says Dr. McEachern. “It's up to the school to deem who is fit to do so, as there is no official certification necessary. In our case, we aim to send every teacher to a certified AP workshop prior to teaching an AP course, and we regularly send veteran teachers for refreshers.” 

Several teachers are AP readers, which means they help score the national AP exams. This gives them insight which they bring back to their classrooms and share with other members of the faculty. These AP readers and other teachers who have taken workshops to learn how to teach AP classes, know what it takes for students to do well in them. 

Upper School Social Studies teacher Tracy Law, Ph.D. says the six summers she has served as a College Board Reader have given her insight into how questions might be asked, so she can help students hone their responses to maximize their scores. She’s also benefitted from developing relationships with high school and college teachers from across the country whom she can ask for resources or feedback at any given time.   

“One of my favorite aspects of teaching AP Human Geography is the reaction of alums when they enter the collegiate world, or even once they enter their career field,” Dr. Law says. “Consistently, I hear how valuable the class is in terms of providing a strong foundation for upper level classes in Business, International Business, International Relations, Politics, Economics, Urban Planning and a host of others. The ‘real world’ emphasis in the course provides a great lens as students move forward.”   

Ultimately, the students themselves deserve credit for their record of success on AP exams. 

Aptitude of students 

Having so many AP National Scholars, Scholars with Distinction, Scholars with Honor and AP scholars in a school our size is impressive but, even more telling, is the increasing number of students with passing scores. 

“What impresses me most is The Summit’s decision to require all students enrolled in an AP course to take the AP exam,” said Dr. McEachern. “This is not common practice among private schools. It is easy for a school to tout high AP scores when they control who takes the course and then allow students to opt-out of the exam if they don’t think they are going to do well. Our strong AP results truly reflect the quality of our AP program.” 

*Percent of Summit students whose scores average 3 or better over the last five years. 

We believe that so many students thrive in the Summit’s rigorous academic environment because they love a challenge and love to learn. You might expect seniors taking the AP tests to do well, but juniors and sophomores are also earning AP awards.  

Things to know about AP courses at The Summit: 

  • Most AP courses have prerequisites. 

  • Recommendations for these courses are made by department, following a set of criteria. 

  • All students in AP courses must take the national exam in May on dates scheduled by the College Board. 

  • All students must also take a final exam given by Summit and scored by their AP teacher before they take the national exam. This exam is part of their Summit grade. The national exam score has no impact on the student’s grade for the course. 


About the Author 
Nancy Berlier is the Communications Director at The Summit Country Day School. She is the editor of The Summit magazine, a former education writer at The Cincinnati Post and former education editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer.