Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Sunday, May 27, 2018

AP doesn't spell success

Two recent studies found that Advanced Placement course experience does not correlate with success in college, even as the College Board, which gives the tests, strongly disagrees.

The first study, presented Jan. 5 at the annual meeting of the American Economics Association, looked at 28,000 students who graduated from a Texas high school and continued on to a Texas four-year university in fall 1999.

The study, conducted by Kathleen Thomas, professor of economics at Texas Christian University, and Kristin Klopfenstein, assistant professor of economics at Mississippi State University, said that when all variables are equalized, including "student, family and high school characteristics, ... AP students are no more likely than non-AP students to return for a second year of college or to have higher first semester grade point averages."

Their working paper, "The Advanced Placement performance advantage: fact or fiction?," states that "the results show that on average, AP courses do no better than other challenging high school courses at preparing students for academic demands of college."

Thomas and Klopfenstein attribute this problem to the rapid expansion of the AP program, which spread to schools without maintaining the standards of quality.

The second study came to the same conclusion. Saul Geiser, a senior research fellow at the Center for Higher Education at the University of California at Berkeley, and Veronica Santelices, a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley's School of Education, looked at 81,000 students from the University of California who were enrolled as freshmen some time between 1998 and 2001.

Geiser and Santelices looked at AP scores as indicators of success, as well as information based on experience in the AP class and success in college.

Geiser said his study "found that the number of AP courses that a student took in high school didn't correlate to later success at the University ... and that scores are stronger predictors of success."

"But scores are not as useful as experience," Geiser added, "because not all students take the tests."

Additionally, the California researchers said their work "calls into question" the bonus point system that the University of California has in regard to AP and other honors courses.

The University of California gives a "bonus point" for grades in AP or honors courses. For example, if a student received a B in an AP class, which is a 3.0 on the 4.0 scale, he or she would receive an extra point and get a 4.0 just for taking the class, Geiser explains.

As a result, students take more AP classes, driving up their GPA and increasing their chances of acceptance to California's public universities.

Trevor Parker, the College Board's executive director of AP programs, said Thomas and Klopfenstein's results were "absurd."

The College Board, Parker said, views the first study as "problematic because it makes claims about the AP without adequately defining what an AP course is" and that it does not evaluate the results of AP tests. "Especially when you are looking at Texas, which is a state that pays for AP exams, ... the students have no reason not to take the tests," Parker said.

He also said the College Board thinks that the "study done by the researchers from Texas is counter to University of California's study" and that it "cannot be taken seriously" as it makes "sweeping and unjustified claims" because it does not evaluate AP scores.

AU currently does not keep data on the "relationship between AP experience and success," said Karen Froslid Jones, director of the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment.

However, Froslid added that GPA and SAT scores are compared and that high school GPA has "more direct relationship between undergraduate [success] than SAT scores."

In 2004, 621 of the 1,284 AU freshmen took a total of 1,572 AP courses, according to Sharon Alston, director of Undergraduate Admissions. The average AP scores for the AU freshmen class is 2.53. Overall, 253 students took at least one AP course, while 50 took five courses, and one student took 12.

AU does "consider [AP] coursework in the admissions process" because it is "an excellent indicator of a student's willingness to expose himself or herself to a challenge," Alston said. AU awards credit for scores of 4 or 5, except AP Calculus BC, for which it will accept a 3, Alston said.

Alec Brown, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, says his "AP classes didn't prepare [him] any more for college than [his] other classes" because even though he took college-level AP classes, he had to adjust from learning the information from "nine months [in high school] to four months" in college.

Sarah Braham, a junior in the Kogod School of Business, said that AP Calculus is the only AP course that prepared her for college.

"It gave me a good foundation, so that when I took [the math course] here I got an A," she said.

Rachael Brekke, a freshman in Kogod, said her AP background prepared her for college because "other classes had meaningless homework. The reading I did in AP classes is more like college and my teachers didn't give me the answers the day before the test, either."

The most popular courses are AP U.S. History, English Literature, Calculus AB, English Language, U.S. Government and Psychology, according to Alston.

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