College & Workforce Readiness

Getting College Credit for AP Linked to On-Time Degree Completion

By Caralee J. Adams — May 11, 2015 2 min read
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As high school students sweat over their Advanced Placement exams this month, more evidence is out that their effort may pay off.

A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows a link between students who score high enough on AP exams to get college credit and on-time degree completion.

“Giving College Credit Where it is Due: Advanced Placement Exams Scores and College Outcomes” by Jonathan Smith and Michael Hurwitz of the College Board, along with Christoper Avery of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, analyzed scores for 4.5 million AP exams of high school students who graduated between 2004-2009 and tracked if they attended colleges that granted credit for their scores.

The researchers discovered when test takers achieved a score that led to earning college credit (typically a 3 or higher on a scale of 1-5), the probability that they will receive a bachelor’s degree within four years increased by 1 to 2 percentage points per exam. The acceleration was linked to actually getting the credit, not merely scoring well enough to boost students’ preparation or confidence to do college-level work, the paper notes.

“We do find there is a cumulative effect,” said Hurwitz in an interview. “The more AP exams for which you earn credit-granting scores there is an additive effect on the increased probabilty of on-time B.A. completion. So certainly getting a head start and taking APs your junior year is a very good idea because that means you can take more your senior year.”

While the analysis covered a wide array of exams, the researchers focused on the impact of those who took the six most popular (Biology, Calculus AB, English Llanguage and Composition, English Literature and Composition, U.S. Government and Politics, and U.S. History).

Of the students analyzed who take the six major AP exams, 94 percent attend a college that gives credit for the exams, with about 58 percent of students attending colleges that requires a score of 3, while 38 percent attend colleges that require a 4, and 4 percent go to schools that require a 5, according to the paper.

Colleges and universities vary on policies for granting AP credit and the landscape is fluid, as some states are mandating public institutions accept 3s on AP exams while other selective schools are raising the threshold for acceptance to 4s and 5s.

While this research does not try to figure out the optimal scores for colleges to use with their policies, Hurwitz said that the paper’s findings are consistent with a score of 3 or higher leading to increased on-time graduation rates.

Added Smith by phone: “This is one piece of a puzzle that policymakers and universities should use in their decisionmaking, but it is not the entire puzzle.”

The researchers acknowledge that the perception may be that AP scores may help in the admissions process, but the paper demonstrates that colleges value rigorous coursework and the experience can increase the chance of completion if students indeed send their AP transcripts to their colleges.

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