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The Grade-Setting Process

When you receive your AP Grade Report and find out what grade you earned on that exam you took in May, you may wonder just how you got an AP grade of 3 instead of a 4, or a 4 instead of a 3. What happened in that time between mid-May and early July, the results of which you see in the grade report? Here is the story:

Scoring the AP Exams

After the May AP Exams, participating schools return all AP Exam materials to the AP Program.

  • The multiple-choice section is scored by computer. Each answer sheet is scanned and the total multiple-choice score is computed by adding the number of correct responses and subtracting a fraction for each incorrect response as an adjustment for haphazard guessing.
  • The free-response section is scored at the annual AP Reading held during the first two weeks in June. Specially appointed college professors and experienced AP teachers evaluate free-response answers.
  • The total scores from the free-response section and the multiple-choice section are combined to form a composite score.

From Composite Score to AP Grade

The process of grade setting—establishing the AP grade boundaries (determining how many composite score points equals what AP grade)—takes place immediately after the Reading.

AP Exam grades are reported on a 5-point scale as follows:

5  Extremely well qualified*
4  Well qualified*
3  Qualified*
2  Possibly qualified*
1  No recommendation**

*Qualified to receive college credit or advanced placement
**No recommendation to receive college credit or advanced placement

During grade-setting sessions (there is one for each AP Exam) composite scores are translated into AP grades by setting boundaries for each grade based on a statistical technique called equating.

Equating relates an AP Exam from one year to an AP Exam from another year so that performance on the two exams can be compared. This is accomplished by looking at how well AP students performed on a set of multiple-choice questions that is common to both exams. These particular multiple-choice questions cover the curriculum content and represent a broad range of difficulty; they can therefore provide information about the ability level of the current group of students and indicate the current exam's level of difficulty. This same set of questions may show up on next year's AP Exam and the one after that too. That's why you aren't supposed to talk about or share the multiple-choice questions from the AP Exam with anyone; it's all because of equating!

Grade Comparability Studies

The AP Program periodically conducts college grade comparability studies in all AP subjects. These studies compare the performance of AP students with that of college students in the courses for which successful AP students will receive credit. In general, the AP composite score cutpoints are set so that the lowest composite score for an AP grade of 5 is equivalent to the average score for college students earning grades of A. Similarly, the lowest composite scores for AP grades of 4, 3, and 2 are equivalent to the average scores for students with college grades of B, C, and D, respectively.

Students who earn AP Exam grades of 3 or above are generally considered to be qualified to receive college credit and/or placement into advanced courses due to the fact that their AP Exam grades are equivalent to a college course grade of "middle C " or above. However, the awarding of credit and placement is determined by each college or university and students should check with the institution to verify its AP credit and placement policies. Students can find this information by using the AP Credit Policy search.

How Many Composite Score Points Equal What AP Grade?
AP grades are not like the A, B, C or number grades that you may have come to know and love over the past 11 or 12 years; "A" doesn't equal a predictable 91 to 100 and getting 81 to 90 points or percent doesn't guarantee a "B." Confused? Before you EXIT, Close, or Escape, look at the table below.

AP Grades and Composite Score Ranges

AP U.S. History AP English Language and Composition
Gr. 2001 Composite Score Range 2002 Composite Score Range 2001 Composite Score Range 2002 Composite Score Range
5 114 to 180 115 to 180 108 to 150 113 to 150
4 92 to 113 94 to 114 93 to 107 96 to 112
3 74 to 91 76 to 93 72 to 92 76 to 95
2 42 to 73 46 to 75 43 to 71 48 to 75
1 0 to 41 0 to 45 0 to 42 0 to 47
  • Notice that for each AP grade there isn't a fixed composite score range that is consistent from year to year, or even from subject to subject.
  • Instead you will see that to earn a grade of 4 in the 2001 AP U.S. History Exam, for example, you would need a composite score between 92 and 113 points, while to earn the same grade in the 2002 exam, you would need a composite score between 94 and 114 points.
  • You may be very surprised to see that your composite score can be approximately two-thirds of the total possible score and you could still earn a grade of 5! Earning that score on other exams might translate to an "F" at worst and a "D" at best.
  • The table also illustrates the variation that occurs between AP subjects in setting grades. If you compare exam grades and equivalent composite score ranges for AP U.S History and AP English Language, you will see that the requirements for a grade of 3 are quite different. For example, a student who scored 72 on the 2001 AP English Language Exam would earn a grade 3; this score would only earn a 2 on the 2001 AP U.S. History Exam, however.

The grade-setting process is a precise, labor intensive, very individual scrutiny and mathematical, statistical, and psychometric analysis of the results of a specific AP Exam in a specific year and the particular group of students who took that exam. When the grades are set for the AP Exam(s) you take in this year's administration, and the outcome reaches you in the form of your grade report, you can be assured that your AP grade is an accurate assessment of your proficiency in an equivalent college course.