College & Workforce Readiness

Benefits of Advanced Placement Program Questioned

By Caralee J. Adams — April 24, 2013 4 min read
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More and more high school students are enrolling in Advanced Placement courses with the hope that the experience will better prepare them for college and boost their chances in the application process.

But an analysis of AP research by a Stanford University faculty member calls into question the consistency of AP courses and blanket claims about the benefits.

The College Board, meanwhile, strongly defends the program and suggests bias by the researcher.

The newly released paper, The Advanced Placement Program: Living Up to Its Promise? by Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and co-founder of the research and advocacy organization Challenge Success, is a review of more than 20 studies on AP courses. Pope highlights research that both supports the success of AP and others that fall short, concluding that parents and students should look closely at the program in their school before investing the time and money in an AP course.

The first question that Pope examines is whether enrolling in AP classes makes students more likely to succeed in college. She suggests there is lack of proof that the AP program caused the students to be successful in college. “It should come as no surprise that the same motivated, hardworking, and advanced students who take AP classes in high school are still motivated, hardworking, successful students when they get to the university,” Pope writes.

She cites several researchers who have raised this point and other rigorous studies that find positive links, particularly with students who took AP science courses. She concludes that student success in college may not be attributable to AP programs alone and more research is needed.

In an email response, Trevor Packer, a senior vice president for Advanced Placement at the College Board, said he agreed that any studies claiming benefits for AP must rule out alternative explanations for college success. “The problem with Ms. Pope’s analysis is that she fails to separate studies that analyze the benefit of simply taking an AP course (regardless of the grade or exam score) from studies that analyze the benefit of learning enough to succeed on the AP exam,” he wrote. Researchers have consistently found that students who scored a 3 or higher on AP exams do achieve higher college GPAs, Packer notes.

Packer writes that Pope is misleading readers by selectively choosing findings to report and suppressing evidence that is favorable toward AP. He suggests her opposition to “test scores and performance” through her organization has influenced her commitment to including accurate descriptions of the research.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Pope said she expected the College Board to react to her paper and that her work reflects both positive and negative findings regarding the AP program.

“I do see pros and cons. It’s not black and white, not all good or bad,” said Pope. What she hopes her research will do is prompt individuals to make more informed decisions about AP enrollment by examining the courses offered at their school.

Looking at another aspect of AP benefits, Pope raises the question of whether colleges should consider AP course enrollment in the admissions process. She cautions colleges from using AP experience for the purpose of admissions because the research isn’t clear on whether the experience alone increases the probability of college success. Also, some students don’t have access to AP in smaller or poorer schools.

Packer maintains that admissions officers are very careful to stress that they are seeking evidence that a student is willing to challenge herself/himself in high school, but do not specify that any one type of advanced academic program is required for all applicants. He said while the AP exam gives a comparison of student learning, regardless of where the student lives, “admissions officers are also very careful not to penalize students for not taking AP if AP is not available in their school.”

While Pope says there is consistency in the AP exam, she urges the College Board to take note of the variability in the courses and make changes in its professional development for teachers, its auditing, and its classroom visits to ensure all programs are high quality. Because there are no mandatory prerequisites to teach an AP course, the results are highly varied, Pope writes.

“Not every course is the same and not every program is doing as good of a job to help level the playing field,” said Pope. “Because of the variability of courses and teachers, the average parent needs to be careful in making course selections.”

Some students, who are not prepared, get in over their heads and others just take too many AP course at once, she said.

“It’s very expensive to take an AP course,” said Pope. “Part of the decision as a family should be ‘Is it worth it?’”

The fee for each AP exam is $89, with schools retaining an $8 rebate per exam. The College Board provides either a $26 or $28 fee reduction per exam for students with financial need.

Last year, nearly one in five high school graduates scored a 3 or higher on an AP exam. That is up from 18.1 percent who passed in 2011 and 11.6 percent among the class of 2002. There were 954,070 public school students who took at least one AP exam last year or 32.4 percent of 2012 graduates, up from 30.2 percent the year before and 18 percent of graduates in 2002, according to the most recent AP report from the College Board.

Pope’s paper concludes with recommendations for making the AP program a net positive. She encourages students to consider why they want to take an AP course and not to enroll just with the expectation that it will help with college admissions or because they hope to earn college credit. Also, students should look at the expectations of the specific courses and get extra help, if needed, to get the most out of the experience.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.