College & Workforce Readiness

Book Trains Critical Eye on AP Program’s Impact

By Debra Viadero — March 12, 2010 8 min read
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At a time of mushrooming interest in Advanced Placement tests, a new book assembles studies on how capable the program is of meeting the increasingly diverse expectations held up for it.

“The AP program is not going to solve all the problems of American education,” said Philip M. Sadler, one of the editors of AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program, being published this month by Harvard Education Press. “I think AP is really good for some things and not very good for other things,” said Mr. Sadler, a senior lecturer in astronomy at Harvard University, “and people should be aware of what its strengths and weaknesses are.”

Despite quibbles with some of the studies in the book, officials from the College Board, the New York City-based group that runs the program, called the new volume a “landmark collection” in an area where scholarship is badly needed.

“The College Board has long lamented the fact that, except for the grants our organization distributes to fund AP-focused research, there has seemed to be little interest among independent researchers in AP,” Trevor Packer, the board’s vice president for Advanced Placement programs, wrote in an e-mail message.

Growing out of a symposium held at Harvard in 2007, the book focuses on AP science courses in particular and offers evidence on whether they give students an academic edge in college or persuade them to earn degrees in science-related fields. It examines whether the bonus points that colleges and high schools assign to students’ AP grades are warranted, if the program shortens the time it takes to earn a degree, and whether just expanding access to the college-level courses is enough to prepare disadvantaged students for college.

Becoming All Things

Begun in the 1950s to let gifted students undertake college-level work in high school, AP courses, in Mr. Sadler’s words, have since become “the juggernaut of high school education.” Growing at a rate of 9.3 percent a year in the past two decades, enrollment in AP courses well outpaces the 1 percent yearly increase in the number of students graduating from high school, the book says.

Coursetaking Trends

The percentage of high school graduates taking Advanced Placement courses in science and mathematics has risen sharply in recent decades.


The interest stems in part from rankings that judge schools’ quality based on how many AP courses they offer. Students also increasingly see AP credits as a ticket to college. And education reformers hope that expanding access to AP courses among disadvantaged student groups might help close academic-achievement gaps.

President George W. Bush in 2006 also called for training 70,000 more high school teachers to teach Advanced Placement courses in math and science as part of a broader initiative to boost the numbers of students entering the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM.

“With all the other baggage we put on it, we shouldn’t be surprised that the program doesn’t perform miracles,” said Kristen Klopfenstein, another editor of the book and a senior researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas’ Texas Schools Project.

A study by Ms. Klopfenstein suggests that AP courses may not do something they’ve long been advertised to accomplish: shorten the time it takes to earn a college degree.

Drawing on data for nearly 29,000 Texas students who graduated from high school in spring 1997, she found that students who had taken AP classes were no more likely to graduate from college in four years than students who had not done so. Enrollment in AP shortens the time to earn a degree only for the small group of students with enough AP credits to enter college as sophomores, she says.

On the other hand, students who participated in dual-enrollment programs, which allow them to take college classes while still in high school, managed to graduate from college sooner on average than peers coming out of traditional high school programs, Ms. Klopfenstein said.

Mr. Packer of the College Board argues, however, that the new findings run counter to those of other independent researchers using more recent data—some of whom found that taking AP enhances the likelihood of students’ graduating in four years or less.

One difference between the studies, Mr. Packer said, may be that Ms. Klopfenstein focused only on high school students who took AP courses in the senior year, thus putting the students who had taken such courses earlier into the non-AP camp.

Yet in such a large study, that number of students would be small, Ms. Klopfenstein said. That’s because most of the students in her data set took AP classes in the senior year, and the average number of classes they took in high school was only two, she said.

Many students miss out on college credit for AP courses when they fail to earn the passing scores on AP exams that their colleges require. While most colleges grant credit for a score of 3 or higher on a 5-point scale, some set the bar higher, requiring a 4 or 5, and some don’t give credit for particular AP classes.

Also, some students elect to retake the AP course they took in high school by enrolling in an introductory-level course in the same subject in college.

In his study, Mr. Sadler and his research partner, Gerhard Sonnert, look more closely at the retakers in 55 randomly selected colleges across the country.

Their aim was to see whether students who took and passed high school AP courses had an edge over their college classmates in the same subject, after controlling for differences in students’ academic backgrounds or previous science coursework. (AP course-takers typically have more extensive science backgrounds and better grades than non-AP students.)

The answer, judging by the students’ grades in the introductory-level college classes, was yes. The former AP students didn’t ace the classes—their grades fell on average in the range of B to B-plus—but they did better in their chemistry, physics, and biology classes than peers without any AP experience.

That was not the case, though, for students who had previously failed an AP biology test; they fared no better in that subject in college.

Grade Bump

In another study featured in the book, Mr. Sadler also applies some systematic analysis to the GPA-boosting “bonus points” that high schools often assign to AP-course grades. College-admissions officers also use similar methods to add weight to AP-course grades when comparing students’ grades.

To find out if the extra points were warranted, Mr. Sadler asked college students in 113 introductory biology, physics, and chemistry courses about the level of high school science courses they had taken and the grades they received in them. He then compared the results with professors’ reports of their students’ grades in those introductory science classes.

Mr. Sadler found that students who took honors or AP courses in high school science added an average of 2.4 grade points, on a 100-point scale, to their college science grades for each additional level of rigor. Based on that calculation, he figures that students who take honors courses ought to receive an extra half-point on a grade-point-average scale of 1 to 4, while AP courses ought to be worth an extra point, and an extra 2 points if students pass the exam.

“I think it’s the only article I’ve seen that provides evidence for how to calculate high school GPAs,” Mr. Sadler said of his study. “Everywhere else, they just use a rule of thumb.”

Mr. Sadler suggests, however, that college-admissions officials use caution in adopting his scale, to avoid penalizing students from schools where AP classes may not be available.

Questions Raised

While Mr. Sadler’s studies suggest that the program gives students an edge in college, other studies in the book raise questions about nationwide efforts to increase AP participation. In their chapter, for instance, researchers Chrys Dougherty and Lynne T. Mellor of the National Center for Educational Achievement, in Austin, Texas, draw on five years of data collected when Texas’ efforts to expand access to college-preparation courses were getting under way.

They found that, once differences in students’ backgrounds were accounted for, AP students were no more likely to graduate from college than non-AP students. But the opposite was true for AP students who both took and passed AP exams.

The study also found that exam failure rates were disproportionately high among African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students, the disadvantaged groups the policy aimed to help, and that many such students had to take remedial courses in college.

States and districts have tried to increase access to AP by providing subsidies to cover students’ exam fees. But Ms. Klopfenstein argues that, given her findings on the amount of time it takes AP students to earn a degree, such policies are not cost-effective.

In another study, Robert H. Tai, an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, uses data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 to see whether efforts aimed at expanding students’ participation in AP science courses could be an effective way to nurture more scientists and engineers.

“I talk to many people who get good scores on AP exams in order to avert having to take the same course in college,” he said. He found, however, that students who took an AP science class in high school were more than twice as likely to earn a degree in the field in college. But he also cautions against reading too much into his findings, because his data predate recent expansions of the AP program.

“I am by no means anti-AP,” said Mr. Tai, also one of the book’s editors. “I think there needs to be more discussion about what the program is capable of actually delivering, and it needs to be based on data.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as Book Eyes Impact of AP Classes and Exams


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