Science

Scholars Warn of Overstating Gains From AP Classes Alone

By Debra Viadero — February 14, 2006 5 min read
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At a time when high schools are on the front burner of America’s school improvement efforts, few people would argue with President Bush’s call for bolstering Advanced Placement programs.

But a spate of new and not-yet-published studies on the program suggest that it may take more than increasing the numbers of students in AP classes and adding more teachers to produce measurable learning gains for young people.

“I don’t think AP courses are a panacea for improving science in U.S. schools,” said Philip M. Sadler, a Harvard University researcher, referring to the concern over the nation’s performance in that subject that has helped fuel the current emphasis on AP.“They may be part of the solution,” said Mr. Sadler, who was set to release one of the new studies this week, “but they don’t deliver on some of the rhetoric that has been presented in the press and other places.”

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Operated by the New York City-based College Board, the Advanced Placement program offers a way for students to earn college credit for taking college-level courses in high school. Nationwide, more than 1.5 million students take one or more AP courses in 20 different subjects.

President Bush, in his State of the Union Address on Jan. 31, called for tripling the number of students who take AP exams in math and science and adding 70,000 more AP teachers for those subjects as part of an education initiative he says would help improve the nation’s economic competitiveness.

The effort stems in part from studies showing that the United States’ AP calculus students rank first in the world among advanced students from other developed nations on international mathematics tests. Studies commissioned by the College Board also show that AP math and science students are three to five times more likely to major in those subjects in college than their peers who haven’t taken such classes.

Grades Unaffected

Mr. Sadler’s research suggests, however, that AP courses don’t provide much of an academic boost for students when they get to college.

With Robert Tai, an assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Mr. Sadler examined the grades of 18,000 students enrolled in introductory physics, biology, and chemistry classes at 63 colleges and universities across the United States. The schools, chosen at random, included both elite and nonselective schools.

While students who had taken AP courses in those same subjects in high school received better college science grades than peers who had not, the differences were minimal, according to Mr. Sadler. He said the AP advantage shrank by half when the researchers controlled for differences among students in prior achievement, other high school coursework, and parents’ income and educational levels.

Mr. Sadler’s findings, which are to be discussed Feb. 17 when the Washington-based American Association for the Advancement of Science meets in St. Louis, echo other recent studies.

Kristin Klopfenstein, a faculty research fellow with the University of Dallas’ Texas Schools Project, gathered data on 28,000 students enrolled in four-year public universities in Texas in 1999. She and her research partner, M. Kathleen Thomas of the University of Mississippi in Starkville, found that students who had taken AP courses in high school were no more likely to have high grade point averages or to stay in college for a second year than were other students who had taken regular college-preparatory classes.

“I think that AP courses should be available to kids, regardless of income or ethnic background, because it saves kids money in college,” said Ms. Klopfenstein. “The question is whether scarce federal educational dollars would be better spent earlier. You don’t say to a struggling 9th grader, ‘Oh, here, take a college-level course.’ ”

‘Build a Road to AP’

Examining AP

A handful of recent and forthcoming studies examine the effect of taking Advanced Placement courses in high school.

“Factors Influencing Success in Introductory College Chemistry”
•by Robert Tai, Philip M. Sadler, and John Loehr
•in the November 2005 issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching

“The Link Between Advanced Placement Experience and College Success”
•by Kristin Klopfenstein and M. Kathleen Thomas
•unpublished but available on Ms. Klopfenstein’s Web site.

“The Relationship Between Advanced Placement and College Graduation”
•by Chrys J. Dougherty, Lynn Mellor, and Shuling Jian
•scheduled to be published online this month by the National Center for Educational Accountability at the University of Texas at Austin at www.just4kids.org.

“The Role of AP and Honors Courses in College Admissions”
•by Saul Geiser and Veronica Santelices
published online by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

SOURCE: Education Week

Ms. Klopfenstein’s not-yet-published conclusions fit with those of an influential federal report in 1999 that found that taking a full slate of academically intense courses in high school was the most important determinant of whether young people graduated from college.

“AP is part of a configuration of variables describing the academic intensity of coursework,” said Clifford A. Adelman, a senior research analyst with the U.S. Department of Education and the author of that 1999 study. “But it isn’t the only part. If you want to have AP, you have to build a road to AP.”

But some other experts and a College Board official contend that Ms. Klopfenstein might have come to a different conclusion had she taken students’ AP exam grades into account.

“It’s important to look at whether students are actually learning the AP curricula,” said Chrys J. Dougherty, the research director for the National Center for Educational Accountability, a nonprofit research group at the University of Texas at Austin.

His study, which is scheduled to be posted on the center’s Web site this month, tracks 67,000 Texas students who graduated from high school in 1998. It suggests that both taking and passing AP exams are more important factors in whether students graduate from college within five years than simply taking the classes.

A pair of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, in a study published last year, came to a similar conclusion. Looking at records for 81,445 freshmen who entered the university from 1998 to 2001, Saul Geiser and Veronica Santelices found that although AP coursework did not seem to have much impact on students’ college grades or graduation rates, AP exam scores were “remarkably strong” predictors of college success. (“Study: AP Classes Alone Don’t Aid College Work,” Jan. 5, 2005.)

Trevor Packer, the executive director of the College Board’s AP program, said all of the research suggests that high schools may be giving an AP label to classes that may not be providing college-level curricula. To discourage the practice, the board in August will begin auditing the courses that high schools offer.

“What I really object to is the simplification, when you read all these studies, that AP doesn’t connect to college success,” he added. “The last thing we need to be doing in America is discouraging students from taking more challenging courses in high school.”

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