Published Online:

Advanced-Placement Programs Lifted on Rising Tide of Reforms

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Swept along by the national reform movement, the College Board's Advanced Placement program has experienced the largest annual increase in student participation in its 29-year history, according to George Hanford, the board's president.

South Carolina, in fact, has enacted legislation requiring schools to offer ap programs and several states have allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars to reward participating schools and pay for the ap. examinations taken by their students.

In the past two years, for example, the state legislatures in Florida, South Carolina, and Utah have included strong financial incentives for schools to participate in the program. For this school year, they have invested $820,000, $669,000, and $700,500, respectively, in the program. (See related story on page 14.)

Last year alone, the ap program grew by a record 13.5 percent, adding 446 schools and 19,433 students, according to Mr. Hanford.

As a result of the dramatic growth, the College Board, which was losing money on the program through 1980, last year netted $7 per test, or a total of about $1.7 million, according to Harlan P. Hanson, director of the Advanced Placement program. Mr. 6Hanson said the money goes to support College Board activities, such as research, that do not produce income.

In a statement to the press released last week, Mr. Hanford attributed the program's growth in part to the national drive for educational improvement.

He also said that "in response to requests from educators," the board will publish annual reports that provide composite demographic data about students who take ap examinations.

24 Courses, 13 Disciplines

The ap program consists of 24 college-level courses and examinations for high-school students in 13 subject areas. The content of the courses is determined not by the board, but by the participating schools.

Students' learning is measured through three-hour ap examinations offered every May by the College Board. The examinations, which include short-answer and multiple-choice questions as well as essay questions (and, in the case of studio art, a portfolio judgment), are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 the highest mark.

Two-thirds of the nation's colleges and universities accept the examination grades for college credit or advanced placement, according to the board. Students pay $42 for each test they take.

A Decade of Growth

The College Board launched the ap program in 1955 with 1,229 students from 104 schools, most of them in the Northeast. In the past decade, Mr. Hanson said, the program has grown by 11 to 14 percent almost every year. (See Education Week, April 13, 1983.)

Today, more than one-fourth of the nation's 23,000 high schools offer advanced-placement courses, the board said last week. Of the schools participating in the program, 67 percent are public. In 1984, more than 177,000 students from some 6,000 high schools across the nation took nearly 240,000 ap examinations.

More Minorities, Women

Minority participation in the program has also increased, Mr. Hanson noted. In 1979, 11 percent of the students who took the examinations identified themselves as members of a minority group. By 1984, that number had risen to 15 percent.

The number of ap examinations taken by minority students increased by 161 percent during that period, while the total number of ap examinations taken grew by 91 percent.

Women now take almost half of all the examinations--a proportion that is up from 40 percent 15 years ago. Their strongest gains have been in mathematics, up from 22 percent in 1970 to 35 percent last year; in the sciences, up from 23 percent in 1970 to 36 percent last year; and in history, up from 37 percent in 1970 to 46 percent last year.

Males, however, still performed better than females on all but six examinations (English literature and comprehension; French literature; German language; Latin/Vergil; Latin/Catullus, Horace; and Spanish language), according to the board. Men also earned a higher mean grade (3.19 versus 3.04 for women).

Unexpected Advances

The program is expanding rapidly in parts of the country where officials least expected it. In the past year alone, participation grew by 25 percent in the Southern region of the country--Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mis-sissippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia--and by 26 percent in the Southwestern region--Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas--according to the board's regional offices.

The ap program grew by 35 percent in the Southwest between 1982 and 1983, according to Daniel Beshara, executive director for the board's Southwestern regional office.

Officials say that the program is also growing, although at a slower rate, in areas of the country that have traditionally had high participation, such as California, New England, and New York.

'Wide Acceptance' Appealing

In Kentucky, Superintendent of Public Instruction Alice McDonald has proposed a new "honors" diploma for high-school students that would require them to take at least four classes that reflect the content described in the College Board's course-description booklets for the ap program.

According to Donald D. Hunter, special consultant to Ms. McDonald, the superintendent picked out the ap program to focus on because "it was the only one she could find that was nationally and widely recognized by the vast majority of the colleges and universities." He added that it was "strictly the wide acceptance" of the ap examinations that made the program so appealing.

Legislators also like the idea of national standards and national examinations against which they can measure their own students' performance, according to Richard E. Kendell, associate superintendent for public instruction in Utah, where lawmakers in 1983 approved financial incentives for schools to participate in the ap program.

In addition, regional officials of the College Board note that schools see the ap program as an inexpensive way to meet both the demand for "educational excellence" and the needs of gifted and talented students.

Changes Said Economical

There is no fee to participate in the program and there are no prescribed course materials. Often, school officials say, existing honors programs can be fashioned into ap courses. And because the College Board provides course descriptions and suggestions, Geoffrey E. Freer, associate director of academic support services for the board's southern regional office, noted that schools and states can save the time and money they would have spent trying to develop a program on their own.

"I think it has always grown because it was found to be fruitful and pleasant to all concerned," said Mr. Hanson, director of the national ap program. "Teachers felt themselves professionally stretched and exercised. Students and their families found they received more challenging instruction in school and more appropriate placement. ... Colleges found that ap students did more than well if placed ahead. They went on to get honors, to graduate with distinction."

Training Efforts Cited

A consortium of colleges and universities in the Southwest--along with individual colleges across the nation--is actively pushing for the program's expansion by providing graduate-level summer institutes to practicing and prospective teachers of ap classes. The number of summer institutes sponsored by colleges and schools each year has increased from 50 to more than 200, board officials said last week.

Regional representatives of the College Board also credit the board's own marketing efforts for the program's growth. These include daylong informational workshops and special workshops for principals and superintendents. Since 1981, the number of teachers and administrators attending the workshops each year has increased by 70 percent, to more than 14,000.

Credit Advantages Emphasized

The new emphasis on marketing also includes the "ap Talent Search," a program begun last year that provides colleges and universities, for a nominal fee, with the names of students who have taken the ap examinations. Some 40 colleges and universities are using these lists this year for the first time to recruit students, according to Mr. Hanson.

Clemson University in South Carolina, for instance, has sent prospective students an "ap credit card," which looks like a commercial credit card, that lets students know how much credit they would receive for their particular ap courses if they chose to attend Clemson.

Louisiana state officials have estimated that, at $300 per credit-hour, the state's students could save more than $1 million annually in college and university costs by taking ad-vanced-placement examinations.

Mr. Freer said his office played a "major role" in the development of both Florida's and South Carolina's legislation and has been active in setting up programs, developing curricula, and training teachers.

"We've become a lot more sophisticated right now in terms of being in the trenches day in and day out, in terms of actual problems with scheduling students, working out prerequisites," he said. "We can hardly keep up, there's such a big demand."

Negative Effects Denied

Most of ap's supporters say they do not believe that the growth in the program will have any negative repercussions, such as drawing attention away from less academically talented students.

"Up until the last couple of years, if you went to any specially talented-and-gifted conventions or meetings, you'd hear pretty good arguments that the most neglected kids for many years were the better students," said Robert E. McDonough, director of academic support services for the College Board's midwest regional office.

He contended that enormous amounts of money have already been invested in remedial programs, programs for disadvantaged students, and programs for the handicapped. "We have for the most part neglected the bright and the ambitious student," he said. "So I think they're getting a few crumbs now that have been long overdue, and I don't think it's going to hurt the kids at the other end of the scale."

Constituency To Be Served

Mr. Hanson argued that "in most countries of Western Europe, every secondary school offers instruction roughly at the ap level. This is what pre-university means."

According to Mr. Hanson, the program "serves a significant student constituency well."

"I think serving any student constituency is the business of the school," he said. "To say it takes away from other [students] is like saying, 'Does having a good library take away from other things you expect at the college?' I think they're all competing concerns, but it's the business of schools to meet [those concerns] at least at a competing level of quality."

Others argue that unlike other accelerated programs, the ap program is not reserved for "geniuses" but is open to any relatively bright student who is willing to work hard.

In addition, Mr. McDonough and others say that ap courses have an uplifting effect on the rest of the curriculum. Individual departments are forced to think about the succession of courses and course content that will prepare students for an ap class, they say. Teachers receive better training, which they carry into other classes. And a sharper attention to the broader curriculum results.

Concluded Mr. Freer: "For anybody--teachers, students, parents, colleges--for all the different kinds of acceleration that there might be out there, there is only one that is a constant. There is only one that has reliability in terms of a strong academic, content-oriented program, and that has a national reputation. And that is the ap program."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories