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Researchers See College Benefits for Students Who Took AP Courses

By Alyson Klein — February 05, 2007 3 min read
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Students who take Advanced Placement courses in high school appear more likely to graduate from college within four years and have higher grade point averages in college than similar students who aren’t exposed to such classes, according to an unpublished study by researchers in Texas.

The study, which was financed in part by the College Board, the New York City-based nonprofit that sponsors the AP program, followed students who graduated from high school from 1998 to 2002 and enrolled at any public college or university in Texas.

“Overall, the results from this study provide strong support for AP program benefits over non-AP experiences for students and their subsequent GPA, credits earned, and graduation performance,” concluded the study conducted by University of Texas researchers Linda L. Hargrove and Barbara Dodd, along with Donn Godin, a researcher at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The study compared students who took at least one AP course and the associated exam, those who took an AP course but elected not to take the test, and those who didn’t take any AP courses at all. To control for other factors that could affect college outcomes, the study only compared students who had similar SAT scores and similar participation status in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, a widely used indicator of family poverty.

The study found that just over 40 percent of students who graduated from high school in 2001 and who took the AP English Language and Composition course and exam in high school completed college in four years. Just over 25 percent of students who took only that AP course graduated within that time frame, and just under 20 percent of students who took a standard high school curriculum had finished college within four years.

The findings on college grade point averages were similar. Students who took an AP course and the corresponding exam tended to have higher GPAs in their first and fourth years of college than those who only took the class and those who took other types of courses in high school.

For example, 2001 high school graduates who had taken the AP Calculus AB course—and the corresponding test—had an average fourth-year college GPA of 3.0 (out of 4.0), while those who only took the AP class in high school had a GPA of 2.84. Those who took the standard high school curriculum had a GPA of 2.81.

Student Motivation

Joseph Hawkins, a senior study director at Westat Inc., a social science research organization in Rockville, Md., said the study’s conclusions were along the lines of what he would have expected.

“I would have been more surprised if there hadn’t been any differences” between AP and non-AP students, Mr. Hawkins said. He said it’s likely that the challenges posed by AP courses help students develop the self-discipline necessary to succeed in college.

Mr. Hawkins praised the study for providing an “apples to apples comparison” by matching AP- exam-taking students with peers who had similar SAT scores and socioeconomic backgrounds. But he noted that the researchers weren’t able to control for an elusive factor: a student’s motivation.

“Clearly one could say, ‘Well, aren’t kids [who sign on for AP tests] a little different, more motivated, more focused than other students,’ ” Mr. Hawkins said.

Another unpublished study by Ms. Dodd, a University of Texas at Austin professor, and another University of Texas researcher, Leslie Keng, also financed partly by the College Board, found that in general, the average AP exam grade a student received in a particular subject was a good predictor of the student’s college grades, particularly in that subject. The study of University of Texas-Austin students matched AP students to non-AP students with similar class rank and SAT or ACT scores. The Dodd-Keng study has already undergone peer review, Mr. Keng said.

But those results run somewhat counter to another unpublished study, using data collected in 2002 and 2003, by Philip M. Sadler, a Harvard University researcher, and Robert H. Tai, an assistant professor of science education at the University of Virginia.

That study looked at students at more than 60 colleges who took both an AP science course and test, as well as the introductory course the class was designed to replace. It found that students’ AP test scores weren’t necessarily accurate predictors of their grades in similar college courses.

Mr. Tai said his study controlled for more variables that could influence college success not examined by the Dodd-Keng study. The Sadler-Tai study considered students’ high school academic preparation, the median income of their communities, and their parents’ education level, among other factors.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Researchers See College Benefits for Students Who Took AP Courses


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