High school students often take college-level classes to save time and money in college, but there is one catch: You have to pass the exams in order to get the credit.

According to a recent study by The College Board, nearly 50% of high school students taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses do not pass the exams to qualify for college credit.

"While AP enrollments are on the rise, the reality is that the vast majority of new AP class takers are not becoming AP exam passers,” says Jeff Livingston, senior vice president of College and Career Readiness at McGraw-Hill Education. “These students are unprepared for the rigors of college level coursework in high school."

AP exams are scored on a five-point scale, with test scores earning a three and above considered a passing grade by most universities. Some schools will give college credit for students earning a score of two on certain exams. 

Besides preparing students for the challenge of a college course load, passing AP courses can potentially save students thousands of dollars in tuition and give them a better chance to graduate in four years, says Auditi Chakravarty, vice president of AP Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment at The College Board.

“Students have the opportunity to explore electives and courses outside their major, or even to complete a double-major,” she says.

AP tests cost $87 a piece--significantly less than the cost of that course in college.

Why are students unprepared?

Chakravarty says students are academically unprepared for the difficulty of AP courses, whether they are taking the course too early in their high school career or without the appropriate preparatory courses.

Livingston explains that schools are encouraging more students to take AP classes--including students whose families haven't planned for or encouraged college--to give them exposure to college-level work.

“Lots of these new test takers are from socioeconomic backgrounds where college is far from a given--the level of preparation entering the AP classes is not the same as their colleagues who have always been on what we might call an advanced placement track,” he says.

Because there are more students than ever taking AP courses, more teachers are needed for both preparatory curriculum and for the advanced classes, resulting in a decrease in the quality of teachers, according to senior advisor at College Confidential Sally Rubenstone.

“Now second- and third-string teachers have been called upon to teach APs and many react with mixed feelings,” she says. “My own son is just a freshman in high school, but already I’ve seen the chasm that separates his strongest teachers from his weakest ones.”

Rubenstone adds that a growing number of high schools are requiring the AP exam for all students who take an AP class, “or the school will not put the vaunted “AP” designation on the transcript if the student bails on the exam.”

“In the old days, “I can’t afford the test,” allowed some unprepared students to wheedle out,” she says. “But now, even with recent budget cuts that affected AP exam fee waivers, many school districts provide free testing for students from low-income households.”

What teachers can do

To ensure that their students go into exam day feeling prepared, teachers should be very familiar with the course description and exam format for any AP class, advises Chakravarty.

“This is why all new AP teachers are required to have their course syllabus approved by college faculty,” she says. “The AP Program offers a variety of professional development workshops and conferences to help AP teachers continue to grow and improve.”

While proper instruction is a necessity, Livingston adds that it’s essential that teachers relay to students the importance of self-preparation and commitment to the material.

“Promoting that sense of ownership in the learning process is something that the best AP teachers already do and that the new AP teachers should learn to do.”

What can students do to be more prepared?

The experts stress that college-level courses are academically rigorous and that students need to understand the level of time and energy needed compared to high school classes to successfully pass the end exam.

Students should familiarize themselves with class materials by checking out a list of the courses and what’s required before they sign up, recommends Chakravarty.

“Getting to know the exam format is very important, and it is a great idea to talk with other students who have taken the exam in the past,” she says. “It is also much better to work hard throughout the year rather than to cram before the exam, which is not effective for the kinds of learning measured on AP exams.”

Practice tests and online programs can help students understand what to focus on for the duration of the class, as high grades in an AP class won’t necessarily mean high scores on the exam, says Rubenstone.

“The students need to recheck the practice material throughout the semester to see if what they’re learning in class seems to mesh with what they’ll be asked on the exam. Students who aren’t in touch with the pending exam questions are blindsided by low exam grades after succeeding in the course itself.”

 McGraw-Hill Education recently announced the launch of the ONboard Series for Advanced Placement, an all-digital learning solution designed to improve students' performance in AP classes and on exams.

“We’ve provided digital, online, self-paced guides specifically tailored so that a student can spend a part of his or her summer preparing for AP environmental science or AP world history,” says Livingston.