Schools’ Interest in Advanced-Placement Classes Increases

By Sheppard Ranbom — April 13, 1983 10 min read
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When the College Board launched its Advanced Placement Program in 1955, 1,229 students from 104 schools--primarily independent schools in the Northeast--took the examinations.

Next month, more than 140,000 high-school students from 5,525 (or 23 percent) of the nation’s 23,000 secondary schools--spanning all 50 states--will take Advanced Placement (ap) examinations. (See Databank, page 15.)

Twenty-eight years ago, the College Board’s idea, officials say, was to offer a handful of the nation’s ablest high-school students a way to demonstrate superior proficiency that would permit them to leapfrog entry-level college courses in an era of strict “distribution” requirements at prestigious institutions. Since that era, however, the “Baby Boom” and curricular shifts in high schools and colleges have bolstered both the need and the clientele for the tests.

Some educators suggest that the dilution of content in high-school curricula and the recent reinstatement of required courses by colleges after a period of flexibility have combined to increase the attractiveness of a system that certifies that some high-school students successfully complete college-level work. The testing effort, they point out, helps the students, the colleges that accept them (they can offer such students the possibility of entering advanced courses with credit), and the schools that are able to show their communities that they offer advanced-level programs.

Those factors, combined with a marketing effort by the College Board that its officials acknowledge is “aggressive,” have turned the once specialized concept into a broadly accepted component of college-preparatory curricula in schools nationwide.

The Advanced Placement Program is now the third-largest activity of the College Board, rankng in scale behind the agency’s administration of the College Scholarship Service and the Scholastic Aptitude Tests.

Today, nearly 2,000 (or almost two-thirds) of the nation’s colleges and universities now offer some kind of credit for students’ participation in high-school ap programs.

Large Growth

The past 10 years have been the period of largest growth for the testing program, ap data indicate. The total number of students taking the examinations has increased an average of 7,933 students per year since 1972, compared with 3,600 additional students per year prior to 1972.

“The program grows about 10 percent per year,” according to Harlan P. Hanson, director of the program for the College Board in New York. The ap has another office in Princeton, N.J., at the Educational Testing Service, which holds a contract with the College Board to develop and administer the ap examinations, as it does the board’s other major tests.

Mr. Hanson confirmed that ap thrived during the 1970’s in part because of a “resurgence of interest in appropriate education for gifted and talented students” and because of “increased investment by the College Board in publications and conferences.”

The “principal vehicle for effective promotion,” Mr. Hanson said, has been the establishment of regional “drive-in” conferences across the nation. The College Board sponsors 100 such conferences each year. During these day-long sessions, teachers and administrators discuss the ap courses in their schools, and they map strategies to deal with problems. The sessions are organized around specific subjects. The conferences are particularly helpful for teachers, Mr. Hanson said, because conducting the high-level courses can become a “lonely responsibility” for them.

In addition, the College Board spends about $500,000 each year for ap promotional activities conducted through its six regional offices. This year, the charge for each test a student wishes to take is $42; the board waives some or all of that charge in hardship cases, officials note.

‘Appropriate Programs’

“The ap program encourages secondary schools to offer “appropriate educational programs” for advanced students who might otherwise simply “mark time” through their high-school years, according Mr. Hanson. He and other officials said that urban educators have begun using the program to strengthen the “academic rigor” of their curricula.

“We encourage high schools to develop ap programs,” said Joseph P. Allen, associate director of admissions at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “In California, where curriculum slipped so badly, ap is challenging the students again.”

Nathaniel C. Allyn of the College Board’s western regional office noted that the regents of the University of California gave the ap program a boost last year when they decided to “add an extra point toward figuring the grade-point average for students who take honors courses in high school.”

“In effect, the regents told high-school students, ‘if you get a B in an honors course--which the ap courses are considered--we will consider it an A for the purpose of admissions at the University of California.’ Previously, students were afraid to take honors courses because if they received a B in these programs they might not get into Berkeley,” Mr. Allyn said.

Officials at the McCall-Donnelly High School in McCall, Idaho, decid-ed three years ago that the “curriculum lacked challenge,” according to Wilmina Philps, an English teacher at the school. The school’s officials, she explained, “wanted to give top students “a reason for staying in school, and we wanted to equip them with skills they would need in college. We found that Advanced Placement fitted the bill precisely.”

An ap program in Oklahoma City is being used as part of a plan to “improve the image and credibility of the public schools” in a school system where enrollment has dropped from 80,000 pupils to 40,000 pupils in the past 10 years, according to Thomas W. Payzant, the Oklahoma City superintendent.

The ap program, said Mr. Payzant, “takes the argument away from those who have been saying, ‘We can only get good-quality education by moving into the suburbs or by sending our kids to private schools.”’

Raising Standards

Even critics of standardized testing systems agree that the growth of ap is linked to a positive movement toward raising academic standards. Christopher Jencks, professor of sociology and urban affairs at Northwestern University and an outspoken critic of ets, said schools are flocking to develop ap courses because they offer an “expedient” means to instill new rigor “after the loosening of curricula in the 1960’s and 1970’s.”

“My impression,” he added, “is that the program is responding to a widely perceived problem among colleges and is acting as an agent of colleges and the College Board. The preparation of [high-school] students is not what colleges wish it were.”

Mr. Jencks added that there is “soft atmospheric evidence” from “the rhetoric of school-board meetings and local newspapers” that schools are now “getting students to learn more,” but he said he has seen no hard evidence in the “day-to-day” workings of schools that any major improvements have taken place.

Mr. Jencks expressed concern about “the use of an organization dedicated to multiple-choice tests to step in and drive the curriculum.” But he added that although the Educational Testing Service has the ap contract, the College Board has overseen the development of an advanced-placement test that includes essay questions. The ap examination is ''an appealing model” for standardized tests, according to Mr. Jencks, who is the author of several books about the use of standardized tests in education.

Schools’ Prerogative

David S. Crockett, vice president for public affairs for the American College Testing Program (act) in Iowa City, commented that one reason act does not have a program that reaches into the schools like the College Board’s is because of the “danger of interfering in curriculum development,” which he termed “the prerogative of schools.”

“The danger is in developing tests which ‘lead’ rather than ‘reflect’ the curriculum,” according to Mr. Crockett.

Mr. Crockett also said act’s college-admission test, which he described as “curriculum-based” and comparable to the ets’s Scholastic Aptitude Test, serves the purpose of advanced placement. It is used by many colleges and universities to place students, allow exemptions from elementary courses, and award credit, Mr. Crockett said.

Though act “sees no reason” to develop a program similar to ap, “the climate to develop new proficiency examinations is good,” according to Mr. Crockett.

As a pamphlet from the College Board points out, the content of high schools’ advanced courses is not prescribed by the College Board. An ap course offered in a high school can take any number of forms, according to the board: “It may not be called an ‘ap course,’ and it may not even be a course. It can take the form of an honors class, a strong regular course, a tutorial, or independent study.”

Students’ college-level learning experiences are measured through three-hour ap examinations offered every year in May by the College Board. The examinations not only include short-answer and multiple-choice questions, but essay questions and, in the case of studio art, a portfolio judgment.

Popular Exams

The most popular ap examinations are those in English literature and composition, American History, calculus, biology, European history, and chemistry, in that order.

Although the number of students taking examinations in ten subject areas doubled between 1972 and 1982, the number of students taking examinations in Spanish literature, German literature, and French literature actually declined. And the number of students taking the tests in German, Latin, and music is quite small, according to the College Board.

The ap program has developed several new examinations in recent years, instituting the Spanish-language tests in 1977; music theory in 1978; German language, studio drawing, and English language and composition in 1980.

In May 1984, the program will test students who seek advanced college placement in computer science.

Interest in the programs varies from state to state. In Utah, which has the highest percentage of students who take ap tests, there are 200 examinations taken for every 100,000 students. In Arkansas and Mississippi, two exams are taken for each 100,000 students, according to Mr. Hanson.

In 1981, the national average was 82 examinations taken per 100,000 students, he said.

Colleges offer course credit based on test scores, grade-point averages, and the standards of individual de-partments. The tests are graded on a five-point scale: 5 (extremely well qualified), 4 (well qualified), 3 (qualified), 2 (possibly qualified) and 1 (no recommendation). The decision whether to exempt a student from a specific course or to grant a student semester-hours of credit, or both, is made by the academic department involved and varies among departments and institutions, admissions officials say.

Semester-Hours of Credit

At Colorado College in Denver, for example, an ap score of 3 on the English examination will allow a student to receive anywhere from 3 to 7 semester-hours worth of credit in English. But a score of 4 may or may not exempt a student from first-year calculus,” according to Ellen S. Goulding, director of admissions.

“Generally, over a third of the candidates receive grades of 4 or better, over a third receive 3’s, a fifth receive 2’s, and 7 percent receive 1’s. However, in no subject in any year has the grade distribution matched this pattern exactly nor are the grades determined by such a formula,” according ot a pamphlet entitled Grading, Interpreting, and Using Advanced Placement Examinations published by the College Board.

In 1982, 807 college faculty members and high-school teachers familiar with college-level courses graded the ap examinations. The mean grade in 1982 was 3.19. Fourteen percent of students received a grade of 5; 21 percent received a grade of 4; 36 percent received a grade of 3; 22 percent received a grade of 2; and 7 percent received a grade of 1.

Average Scores

In 1981, ap students scoring 3 or above on at least one ap examination had an average score of 549 on the verbal portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test and an average score of 594 on the mathematics portion. That year, the average scores nationally for students taking the sat were 424 on the verbal section and 466 on the math section.

In reaching out to more of these higher-scoring students in a wider variety of schools, the ap program is said to be encouraging the shift to higher standards in the high schools. But as one admissions director at a prestigious private university cautioned, after terming himself “an enthusiastic supporter of advanced placement": “The ap program serves as a measure of the excellence of offerings at a school. But we see courses listed as advanced-placement courses on many applications that probably aren’t really that. It depends on the school.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 1983 edition of Education Week as Schools’ Interest in Advanced-Placement Classes Increases


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