Advanced Placement or AP exams are tests given in the United States that allow high school students to earn college credit or placement for work done while still in high school. Although the credit awarded varies depending on the college that the student ends up attending, even the most competitive colleges in the United States will at generally least give placement to students who do well on certain exams.
On most exams, students take a multiple choice section followed by a free response section. The raw scores on these sections are combined using a formula to create a composite score, which is then reported to the student and colleges as a score between 1 and 5, with a score of 3 or higher being considered a passing grade. Most competitive colleges require a 4 or a 5 on exam before they will consider giving credit for it. Students never see their composite or raw scores.
Many teachers feel that preparing their class for an AP exam limits the control they have over the material that the class covers and forces them to skip otherwise valid, interesting subjects that don't appear on the exam. Some exams have also been criticized for being broad but shallow which allows some students to do well on them without having particularly solid knowledge of the subject; for example, there have been widespread reports of students receiving 5's on the Statistics and Environmental Science exams after a single night of preparation, rather than a full year. That said, many AP exams, including AB and BC Calculus, American and European History, English, and various foreign languages are very highly regarded, and courses to prepare for those tests are viewed as providing students with a solid foundation in those subjects. In addition, AP tests have been credited with helping to improve the quality of education in American high schools, with Newsweek even going as far as to base its (utterly worthless) ranking of American high schools on the number of AP exams taken per graduating student.