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A Brief History of Advanced Placement Exams

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In 2013, more than 2.2 million students sharpened their No. 2 pencils and sat for an Advanced Placement exam—and if growth trends are any indication, even more will do so this year. [PDF] But with eyes on their futures (and noses deep in their textbooks), today's students don't think of the decades of test-takers who came before them. While current college admissions pressures have put increased importance on the AP program in recent years, the College Board has been torturing—uh, enriching—students since 1955.

So, who started the AP program? How has it changed since the 1950s? And—the million dollar question—is it effective? Read closely—there will be a quiz.

Bridging the Gap

Following World War II, American educators sought a way to bridge the widening gap between secondary and higher education. [PDF] The Ford Foundation created the Fund for the Advancement of Education, which supported two studies dedicated to figuring out how, exactly, to make that happen.

According to the College Board, the first study was conducted by educators from three prep schools—Andover, Exeter, and Lawrenceville—and three colleges—Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. The study urged high schools and colleges to view themselves as "two halves of a common enterprise" and recommended that "secondary schools recruit imaginative teachers, that they encourage high school seniors to engage in independent study and college-level work, and that achievement exams be used to allow students to enter college with advanced standing" (namely, some completed scholarship). Sound familiar?

In the second study, the Committee on Admission with Advanced Standing worked to develop college-level curricula that students could jump into during their final year (or years) in high school. Their challenge lay in creating high school courses and accompanying assessment tests that colleges would deem rigorous enough to be worthy of credit toward a degree. Both studies made one thing very clear: high schools and colleges needed to work together in order to avoid coursework repetition and to provide motivated students with a challenging curriculum that will allow them to transition easily to college.

In 1952, a pilot program consisting of advanced courses in 11 subject areas was launched. And in the 1955-56 school year, the College Board (a "mission-driven not-for-profit organization" founded in 1900) took over the program's administration, renaming it the College Board Advanced Placement Program.

The AP Program Grows

That first year, 104 high schools and 130 colleges participated in the College Board's AP program, with 1229 students taking 2199 exams across the 11 disciplines. In the following decades, the College Board worked to expand its program. In the 1960s, they focused on training high school teachers in the new curricula. And in the 1980s and 1990s, the College Board worked to get more minority and low-income students in AP classes. Their efforts must have worked, because more and more students across all income levels took AP classes every year. [PDF]

By the 2012-2013 school year, 18,920 high schools and 4027 colleges participated in the AP program. And the number of students ballooned to 2,218,578 taking a total of 3,938,100 tests across 34 subjects. That's 33.2 percent of high school students, as compared to 18.9 percent in 2003.

The Ford Foundation and the College Board set out to create a curriculum that would make the transition from high school to college easier for students, and, more than five decades later, they've established a monstrosity of an institution. But they did achieve their original goals?

The College Board, for one, seems to think so. In the 2007 study "AP Students in College: An Analysis of Five-Year Trends," [PDF] Rick Morgan and John Karic found that students who scored a 3 or higher on their AP tests achieved better grades in intermediate college courses than students who had taken an introductory course but did not participate in the AP program in high school. And students who scored 5s on their AP exams did much better than their non-AP-taking peers. Morgan and Karic also found that AP students graduate earlier than non-AP students.

Similar studies, however, have proved less conclusive. In "The Relationship Between AP Exam Performance and College Outcomes" (2009), Krista Mattern, Emily Shaw, and Xinhui Xiong had similar results to Morgan and Karic, but also found that, when controlling for both SAT scores and high school GPAs, AP students did not earn higher first year GPAs than students who did not take AP exams. They chalk this up to one of two things: Either high achieving students (quantified by SAT scores and high school GPAs) will get good grades in college regardless of AP participation, or non-AP students enroll in less rigorous college courses (which are easier to get good grades in).

"In sum, these results suggest that participation in an AP Exam may better prepare students for the more rigorous academic demands of college-level work," Mattern, Shaw, and Xiong conclude. "Nevertheless, it is possible that other factors beyond prior academic performance contribute to the group differences." [PDF]

The AP Program Today

While it's obvious the AP program's popularity—meaning its participation stats—has grown exponentially since its inception, critical reception of the program varies. Educators, parents, and students (much like the program's founders and the aforementioned researchers) ask whether "teaching to an exam" is an effective mode of education. Therefore, in an attempt to stay ahead of the criticism, the College Board constantly reevaluates and changes its offerings.

The AP courses and exams are developed by committees of college faculty members and AP teachers. Keeping in mind the findings of the founders' initial studies, the high school and college faculty work together to define scope and expectations of the courses, the curriculum framework, and the knowledge and skills students will need to acquire in order to score well on the exam. And if a course or exam needs revision, the committees work backwards from their achievement goals (what do we want our students to take away from this?) to make changes.

With tests available in 34 subject areas in the 2013-2014 school year—and two new Physics exams planned for next year and changes to the Art History and European History exams set to roll out in 2015-2016—the AP program's offering has tripled since the 1952 pilot program. And seeing as enrollment has doubled in the past 10 years, it seems safe to say that your children's children (and their children, and their children) will be loading their high school schedules with AP classes. 

Because nothing says "I'm ready for college" like a year or two's worth of Red Bull- and candy-fueled cram sessions.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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