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Volume 26, Number 3May/Jun 2010

Putting AP to the Test

New research assesses the Advanced Placement program

Putting AP to the Test, continued


 
Originating in the 1950s, the Advanced Placement (AP)program has evolved from its original mission to provide college-level work to a small group of gifted high school students into an expansive program offering 37 courses. Nearly three million high schoolers took one or more of the optional AP end-of-course exams last year. A new book, AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program (Harvard Education Press, 2010), looks at recent research on the strengths, weaknesses, and impact of the program. Co-editor Philip M. Sadler, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University and the director of the Science Education Department at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, spoke with HEL contributor Lucy Hood.

What accounts for the growth of the AP program in recent years?

There are a number of factors. One is the increasing competition for students to be admitted to elite colleges and universities. Admissions offices have to figure out who are the most qualified candidates. One standardized measure is whether kids have passed these AP exams. One of the points I make in the book is that because of grade inflation at the high school level, there are a lot of kids who graduate from high school at the very high end, getting all A’s or A minuses, so adding in extra points for AP courses means the distribution is less crunched at the end.

Jay Mathews’ ranking of schools (for The Washington Post) is another factor. With 16,000 school systems in the United States, it’s really hard to discern whether your kid’s school system is doing a good job or a bad job. It’s hard for the universities to decide if one high school is better than another when they are admitting students, so this provides another kind of a standardized measure. A lot of superintendents and principals are very proud that their schools have lots of AP courses.

What about the scope of the program? How has that changed?

The College Board has pushed very hard to expand the number of high schools that offer AP courses, the number of AP courses offered in each high school, and the number of students who take these courses. The expansion has been dramatic. It used to be that AP courses were only taken by students who had taken a first-year prerequisite course and had done very well in it. Now many schools offer open enrollment for their AP courses. You can take an AP course as your first exposure to the subject, or you can take it if you don’t have that strong a background. While this has expanded opportunities for many students, there are schools that have a record of students performing very poorly on the AP exams.

What are the main advantages for students in taking AP courses?

Based on [University of Virginia education professor] Robert Tai’s research in the book, kids can be turned on to a field by taking an AP course. Taking an AP course is a predictor of actually majoring in the particular field that you are taking the course in, so getting deeper into a subject can be very appealing to students and gets them hooked on a particular field. I think that’s a very good thing. In the sciences, taking an AP calculus course is very advantageous because becoming more proficient in mathematics in high school pays off when kids get to just about any science course in college. Taking an AP course in high school in a particular area really gives you a leg up if you take that same introductory course in college . . . There’s a better chance of getting in the college of your choice or a more elite college or university. There’s also more of a chance of getting certain types of financial aid or scholarships if you have a high GPA, which taking a lot of AP courses can help you get.

Some educators say that even if kids don’t pass the AP exam, taking the course will benefit them academically.

I know people say that. I would say, “Show me the evidence.” One of the results from our research is that although the College Board says that simply taking an AP course is really a very positive thing for students—because it shows them what college-level work is and that it’s advantageous for all students—we find that students who take AP courses in the sciences and then fail the AP exam don’t appear to do any better in their college science courses than those who haven’t taken an AP course at all.

Also, for students who fail—who don’t pass the AP exam—my research shows that they don’t appear to have learned anything during the year, so there is probably a better course for them. Two economists in the book write about the costs of AP: You have smaller class sizes, you often have the best teacher in the school, and you have lots of laboratory time and specialized laboratory equipment. There are opportunity costs to having an AP course. You could use the resources for other advanced courses that would be more appropriate for these students’ level, or you can use the resources for other kids who might need more help or support.

What are the alternatives to AP for schools that want to provide rigorous courses?


Over the past 20 years there’s been a shift from other kinds of advanced courses to AP courses. Many high schools already had second-year courses in many domains taught by well-prepared and usually very talented teachers, and these courses typically involved in-depth study and usually a research project. These kinds of second-year courses have to a large extent been replaced by AP courses. It’s probably easier to start up an AP course now because you have the College Board’s resources. They maintain online mailing lists for their courses; there’s a conference every summer of AP teachers; there is more of a community supporting AP coursework.

But many elite public and private schools are reducing the number of AP courses they offer or eliminating them in certain fields because they feel they can do a better job in covering advanced material than by following the AP curriculum.

Another alternative written about by some of the contributors to the book are so-called full credit courses. If there’s a local community college or college nearby oftentimes high school students with the right preparation can take courses at the college and that’s an alternative to advanced placement . . . The research says that kids certainly get a similar experience and they automatically get college credit taking it at a local community college or college or university.
Based on your research, what are the potential drawbacks of the AP program?

Kids who take AP courses in a field in high school have a greater probability of majoring in that field, but that’s not everybody, and there are lots of kids who take an AP course in high school and never take another course in that field again. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it might be a lost opportunity for the student to be enticed into the field by taking a college course. High school teachers can be very, very good at teaching the fundamentals of a particular field, but they’re usually less aware of the latest research that might make the student more interested in continuing in the field.

I also don’t believe it’s warranted to give kids credit for a college course at many colleges and universities based only on their passing the AP exam with a score of 3. I think the standards should be higher—maybe a 4 or 5. The College Board likes to say the kids who get Advanced Placement [credit] and then go on to take a second-semester course immediately do well. But I think there are definite advantages to taking that first-semester course [in college] for students.

What about the benefit of getting AP credits so you can graduate early from college?

The kids who take AP courses in high school rarely graduate earlier from college, even though they think they might be able to. You really have to come up with credit for four or eight courses to graduate a semester or a year earlier, and students don’t often do that. They end up taking other courses and still graduating in four years. There is not necessarily that economic advantage. It is possible. But it’s not all that common.

Do you think colleges put too much weight on AP enrollment or AP scores in admitting or placing students?


I don’t think they put too much weight [on enrollment or scores] if they are also aware of and account for other kinds of advanced courses that are offered in the high schools and the sort of level of affluence of a particular student or the background that they come from. In schools where there are cut-offs of GPA, where they won’t admit anybody below a certain level, that can be problematic, because taking AP courses can get your GPA pretty high and make it so that only kids with lots of AP courses have a good chance of getting in.

The kids who do well on the AP exam are much more likely to have parents who are college educated or who have advanced degrees. They often come from wealthier areas and elite schools. They often have strong backgrounds in other coursework, like mathematics. In the statistical modeling we do it’s important to account for all these background factors to see the impact of taking AP or getting a high exam score. [About half of] the success that many people attribute to taking AP courses in high school is about [due to] their background.

What advice would you give to high school administrators who are looking to increase enrollment in AP courses as a way to expand opportunities and increase rigor for their students?


I would say do your best and make sure the AP course is high quality, that you have a well-prepared teacher who’s gone through professional development in AP and has enough resources to teach the course—the lab equipment and so on. Have some mechanisms in place to make sure that students are prepared for this course, and probably most important, monitor the AP exam scores that kids get when they take the exams. That means everybody who takes an AP course should also take the AP exam. That’s the only way an administrator is going to know whether the course is successful or not. The grade that the teacher gives to students is not highly correlated with the AP exam score. The grades that teachers give are not a proxy or a replacement for AP exam scores.


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