College & Workforce Readiness

Study Suggests Fewer Students Receive AP Credit

By Debra Viadero — July 12, 2000 3 min read
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The proportion of students who get college credit for passing grades on Advanced Placement exams may be far lower than policymakers, educators, and students commonly believe, a study suggests.

The College Board, which launched the AP program in 1955, claims in its promotional literature that almost two-thirds of the high school students who take its exams score high enough to qualify for advanced placement or academic credit in the colleges they enter.

That means they earn a 3 or better on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 signifying a student who is “extremely well- qualified.”

But in a paper published last month in the online journal Education Policy Analysis Archives, a retired Yale University physics professor suggests that just under half of all AP test-takers—49 percent—may actually get college credit for passing grades on the exams.

And he contends that the discrepancy between the College Board’s numbers and actual college practices suggests that the organization’s grading scale is out of step with the nation’s colleges and universities.

“One of the strengths of the program is the idea of external validation by people who are knowledgeable,” the study’s author, William L. Lichten, said in an interview. “If that external validation no longer holds, then I would say everything’s up for grabs.”

But the exam program’s top administrator disputed that claim.

“AP standards have been maintained over time because we tie our standards to students’ college- level performance,” said Lee Jones of the New York City-based College Board.

Statistics Questioned

He said the board sets its scales and rechecks them periodically by giving the exams to college students taking comparable, introductory-level courses, comparing those scores with students’ actual grades, and then tracking their progress in the next-level course.

“That’s the ultimate test of whether our standards are right,” Mr. Jones said.

The issue is timely because policymakers at the state and national levels are increasingly looking to the AP program as a way to raise the level of coursework students complete in high school.

A U.S. Department of Education study last year showed, for example, that whether high school students have taken rigorous courses, such as those the AP program offers, is the single most important predictor of their success in college. ( “Study Links High School Courses With College Success,” June 2, 1999.)

Nationwide, 1 million students take AP exams each year, at $69 per test. The nonprofit College Board—which also sponsors the SAT college-entrance exam—vowed earlier this year to expand the popular Advanced Placement program further by doubling the number of exams administered and putting 10 AP courses in every high school in the country by 2010.

Critics such as Mr. Lichten contend that the rapid growth of the program is partly to blame for what they perceive to be its softening academic standards.

“In the case of AP, it started out as an extremely elitist program, mainly for students who went to prep schools and then went on to Harvard and Yale,” Mr. Lichten said. “However, I think the College Board has concentrated on increasing the numbers of people in the program, and has let slide the quality.”

Mr. Lichten based his estimates on the percentages of students obtaining credit for AP courses from a survey of 41 colleges and universities where large numbers of students apply for such credit.

Tighter Requirements

In 15 of the most competitive schools on the list, students must get an AP score of at least a 4 to receive academic credit, meaning they are “well qualified,” rather than simply “qualified.”

“Overall, some highly selective colleges and universities have tightened up from the standpoint that they don’t award credit for as many 3’s as they used to,” Mr. Jones acknowledged.

But he said the College Board’s own annual survey of 2,800 institutions shows that 88 percent of schools accept predominantly 3’s or a mixture of 3’s and 4’s for college credit.

More exact percentages are hard to come by because each academic department at a college sets its own acceptance standards.

“What’s probably most alarming about this study is this elitist notion that seems to come through that says AP is for a small population in selective schools,” Mr. Jones added. “We don’t buy that.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Study Suggests Fewer Students Receive AP Credit

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