College & Workforce Readiness

Study: AP Classes Alone Don’t Aid College Work

By Vaishali Honawar — January 04, 2005 3 min read

There is no evidence that high school students who enroll in college-level courses such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes improve their academic performance in college unless they take the tests offered at the end of each course, says a study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

Universities may need to reconsider the manner in which such courses are treated in competitive admissions, say the authors of the study, Saul Geiser and Veronica Santelices, both education researchers at Berkeley.

“The Role of Advanced Placement and Honors Courses in College Admissions” is available online from the University of California at Berkeley. ()

The researchers examined the role of AP and similar high school courses for 81,445 freshmen at the University of California’s eight undergraduate campuses between fall 1998 and fall 2001. They examined admissions data about those students as well as first- and second-year grade point averages at the university and college- persistence rates.

The study itself was inspired by the university system’s admissions policy that adds bonus points to a student’s high school grade point average for taking an AP, IB, or honors course, even if the student did not take the test associated with the course.

The study says that the increasing emphasis on AP and other advanced courses as a factor in admissions, particularly at colleges that are difficult to get into, has highlighted “a number of problematic features,” including disparities in availability and access to AP courses for underrepresented minorities and others from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Although many states, including California, have adopted policies encouraging expansion of AP coursework in disadvantaged schools, participation in AP and other honors-level courses remains sharply skewed along socioeconomic and racial/ethnic lines,” the report says.

Mr. Geiser said the purpose of his study was to look at AP and other honors courses as predictors of college outcomes.

“In high-stakes admissions, we have to justify whatever criteria we use by showing they predict success in college—something that is routinely done at highly selective institutions,” he said.

College Board Reaction

The College Board, which sponsors the AP program, has been trying to recast the program to bring it within the reach of any student willing to do the work, regardless of academic standing. Observers say the trend could help bridge the academic gap between lower-achieving Hispanic and black students and their white and Asian-American classmates. (“Advanced Placement Courses Cast Wider Net,” Nov. 3, 2004.)

Trevor Packer, the executive director of the AP program, called the study an “important step to fill a gap in research on AP” and pointed out that it did not question the traditional use of the advanced classes as a tool for placement into college courses and granting college credit.

But the scope of the study would have to be expanded beyond the University of California before the College Board could consider advocating its use in informing admission policy.

“This study doesn’t show that students who don’t take the exam don’t perform, well because we are looking at a very limited size of already gifted and talented students,” Mr. Packer said.

The Berkeley report presents policy options for colleges and universities to consider, such as asking them to give extra weight to AP coursework in admissions decisions only when students take the end-of-course exams.

It points out that while performance on the exams is strongly related to college performance, a large and growing number of students now enroll in AP coursework without taking the AP exams. One estimate says that one-third of AP students do not sit for the exams. Another option would be for colleges to reduce the weight given to AP and honors coursework in admissions.

The study has not yet been peer-reviewed, but one researcher interviewed agreed with its findings.

Jennifer Dounay, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, did a study in 2000 on state trends and policies on the AP program. She agreed with the Berkeley report that simply weighing coursework for college admissions may not be a good idea because it is likely that students who just take the courses may not complete them.

“It is important to test at the end to gauge what a student learned,” Ms. Dounay said, adding that evidence appears to suggest that students who take end-of-course tests for honors courses do better in college than those who take the classes but not the tests.

A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Study: AP Classes Alone Don’t Aid College Work

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