Is Advanced Placement Advancing Students?
According to a recent report as well as the recently published AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program, “the percentage of high school graduates taking Advanced Placement courses in science and mathematics has risen sharply in recent decades.” In fact, AP enrollment has grown at a rate of 9.3 percent per year for the past twenty years.
Why the dramatic increase in AP enrollment?
- Schools are rated and ranked nationally based on the number of AP courses they offer and the number of students enrolled in those courses.
- High schools typically weight grades for AP classes.
- There is more competition for college admissions.
- Colleges and universities demand that students take a more rigorous curriculum.
- Many colleges weight AP courses, which gives students an advantage in the admissions process.
- Parents believe that obtaining college credits in high school will save money and shorten the length of stay in college.
- Many believe that increasing the enrollment of disadvantaged students in AP classes effectively levels the playing field and will close the achievement gap.
- The study of over 40,000 students who had taken AP classes determined that they were no more likely to graduate from college in four years than students who had not done so.
- Enrollment in AP shortens the time to earn a degree only for the small group of students with enough AP credits to enter college as sophomores.
- Students who participated in dual-enrollment programs, which allow them to take college classes while still in high school, managed to graduate from college sooner on average than peers coming out of traditional high school programs.
- Some students elect to retake the AP course they took in high school by enrolling in an introductory-level course in the same subject in college. Students who retook the AP course they took in high school did slightly better in the course in college.
- Students who had previously failed an AP test did no better in that course in college.
- “Students who take honors courses ought to receive an extra half-point on a grade-point-average scale of 1 to 4, while AP courses ought to be worth an extra point, and an extra 2 points if students pass the exam.”
- Once differences in students’ backgrounds were accounted for, AP students were no more likely to graduate from college than non-AP students. But the opposite was true for AP students who both took and passed AP exams.
- Exam failure rates were disproportionately high among African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students, the disadvantaged groups the policy aimed to help. Many of these students had to take remedial courses in college.
Implications for school leaders:
- Students who take AP courses and receive a score of 3 or higher on the exam benefit in college.
- Those who fail the AP exams do not do better in college courses.
- Simply placing students in AP classes is not helpful. It is our responsibility to build the capacity of students to, not only take the courses, but to succeed on the exams. This is an issue of both equity and excellence.
- Students who receive college credits from AP exams do not graduate early from college.
Something to think about
While AP courses contain college level material, they move at half the speed of a college course. Within a few short months after graduation from high school, former AP students will be enrolled in college classes that are moving at twice the rate of the high school AP classes. If students can’t keep up with the pace of AP classes in high school, how are they possibly going to succeed in college? College-ready doesn’t mean admitted to college. College-ready means that graduates have the readiness level to actually succeed in college courses. That means that high school graduates must acquire the requisite reading, writing, and math skills. Reading gets students to college. Writing keeps them there.
When school leaders open enrollment to AP courses for all students our job has just begun. Now begins the long-term task of building student capacity so that they can benefit from the course and succeed on the AP exam.