College prep conundrum

College prep conundrum

Are the AP and IB programs still the best route for college-bound students?
Joseph Moylan, principal of Oconomowoc High School in Wisconsin, meets with students interested in AP and IB programs at the school. He calls IB’s more narrow-but-deeper approach the gold standard for college prep.

Fueled by a growing consensus that students need post-secondary degrees to compete in the world economy, participation in the 58-year-old Advanced Placement program, once reserved for a small band of elite achievers, has doubled in size over the past decade. The much smaller International Baccalaureate program has also grown steadily.

But less than two years after Dartmouth College’s well-publicized decision to stop granting college credit for AP or IB exam scores, experts are divided on whether colleges are exercising more caution about awarding the tuition-saving credit that has been a major selling point for the programs.

“Colleges are more selective in the credit that they will award based on the test scores,” says David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). “They’ve raised the bar.”

NACAC does not survey colleges about their credit-granting policies, and Hawkins’ impressions are not universally shared. Twelve states require public colleges and universities to grant credit for qualifying AP scores, and the College Board, which administers AP, says its annual surveys of colleges and universities detect no trend away from giving credit for scores.

Indeed, Mike Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, thinks less selective institutions may lean the other way.

“Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate are still viewed as rigorous programs, and its students are sought after at the college level,” Reilly says. “So unless you’re particularly selective, it’s probably not in your best interest to push back on students who want to come to your institutions with AP and IB credit.”

Regardless of colleges’ credit policies, school administrators say high-level programs carry intangible benefits, such as exposing students to challenging ideas and highly motivated peers. And the AP’s rapid growth—one-third of last year’s graduating class took at least one exam, up from 19 percent a decade earlier—reflects a concerted effort by educators, politicians and the College Board to expand participation beyond the traditional pool of mostly white, middle-class test-takers.

 “These are the students that are succeeding—the same cohort of students that in other communities don’t have access to this type of coursework.”

Tens of millions of state and federal dollars are spent each year to subsidize the $89-per-exam fee for low-income students. And some school officials have ramped up efforts to ensure all students have access to advanced classes. For instance, six years ago, when Superintendent Alberto Carvalho took over Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth-largest district, he directed every high school to begin offering at least five AP courses.

For students, AP achievement acts as “a bridge,” says Nick Polyak, superintendent of suburban Chicago’s Leyden High School District 212. “It’s going to allow them to have the confidence that they can do college-level work.” Polyak’s district earned College Board recognition this year for raising AP participation and exam scores in a community where half the 3,500 students are low-income and many are Hispanic.

Benefits beyond scores

The equity effort remains a work in progress. Although the number of low-income students taking AP tests has more than quadrupled in a decade, under-representation persists. Last year, an Education Trust report estimated that if low-income and minority students took AP and IB programs at the same rate as white, Asian and higher-income students, an additional 640,000 would enroll.

The AP push has been driven by the belief that students who earn an exam score of at least 3 on AP’s 5-point scale are likely to succeed in higher education. Research suggests that students who earn scores of 3 or higher get better grades in college and graduate at higher rates than other students, says Trevor Packer, who heads the College Board’s AP division.

Not everyone interprets the AP research as rosily as Packer—some argue the positive results may be skewed because AP disproportionately attracts smart, well-prepared students. And a second controversy concerns whether students who earn low scores on AP exams nevertheless benefit from taking challenging courses that carry an expectation of college attendance.

Although research is equivocal, educators insist that even less successful students reap rewards from AP participation. IB makes similar claims, citing recent research showing that Chicago public school students benefited from IB courses, regardless of their ultimate exam scores. “Exposure to an IB way of learning prepared them better for success in university,” says Drew Deutsch, director of IB’s program in North, South and Central America.

That conviction has spurred school districts to eliminate the grade-point cutoffs and strict prerequisites that once limited AP enrollment and opt instead to let almost any motivated student attempt AP. Often, administrators say, students rise to the challenge—and strict gate-keeping, which historically kept low-income and minority students out of high-level classes, is just as likely to screen out those who can succeed as those who can’t.

“In my community, 73 percent of the students live at or below poverty,” Carvalho says. “These are the students that are succeeding—the same cohort of students that in other communities don’t have access to this type of coursework.”

Downside of expansion?

But critics of AP’s expansion point to a decline in the percentage of test-takers receiving exam scores of 3, 4 or 5—the scores for which colleges award course credit—as evidence that too many students are being pushed into courses for which they are unprepared.

“The reason for taking the AP class should be because you’re truly interested in the subject and you want to be challenged—not because it’s the fallback, because all the other courses in your school are too easy.”

In the nation’s graduating class of 2003, more than 64 percent of AP test-takers earned a 3 or better, College Board figures show. In the 2013 graduating class, with nearly twice as many students taking AP tests, the 3-or-above mark fell to almost 61 percent. In 2013, even as the College Board honored Miami-Dade for score improvement, only 46 percent of the district’s AP students earned a score of 3 or better on at least one AP test.

But Packer of the College Board calls the concept of an AP pass rate “educationally meaningless.” He prefers to note that of the 489,000 additional students joining the AP program since 2003, most of them earned a 3 or better on at least one test. His conclusion: “Educators were right to believe that more students deserve these opportunities.”

IB picks up steam

As AP expands, the far smaller International Baccalaureate program—which, unlike AP, includes middle school and elementary school components—is also growing steadily. In high school, students can take individual IB courses that culminate in AP-like exams. Or, they can complete the full two-year diploma program, which includes exams in six subjects and a 4,000-word research paper.

Although well-known internationally, in the United States, the 46-year-old IB is a minnow to AP’s whale. IB figures show 70,000 American students took IB exams in 2013, compared to the two million AP test-takers claimed by the College Board.

“You can’t have the high school reforms without ensuring that the elementary and middle school reforms have adequately prepared students to take these courses.”

Still, IB’s interdisciplinary program has passionate fans among American educators. Joseph Moylan, principal of Oconomowoc High School in southeastern Wisconsin’s Oconomowoc Area School District, calls IB’s narrower-but-deeper approach “the gold standard” for college preparation. IB covers a range of subjects rigorously, he says, and requires students to do in-depth research and writing.

“IB is a trip between Boston and New York, hitting every historical landmark along the way,” says Moylan, whose high school offers both programs. “AP is a trip between Boston and LA” in the same amount of time, he says.

Costs to consider

Implementing high-level courses entails costs. Some are financial: a successful AP program requires lab equipment, college-level textbooks and professional development for teachers. On top of those expenses, IB also charges districts an annual per-school fee—for such services as curriculum development, program evaluation and marketing support—that tops $10,000 for high schools.

Launching high-level programs may also require swallowing the cost of extra-small class sizes, especially in schools with no history of rigorous college-level courses. But over time, class sizes will grow enough to cover the cost of the teacher at the blackboard, superintendents say. “You have to build it, and they will come,” says Carvalho. “Up front, it is an investment, but it is one whose return is equally compelling.”

Professional development for AP and IB teachers can pay additional dividends, educators say, as these teachers share best practices with their colleagues and promote a schoolwide climate of higher expectations for student achievement. “It raises the level of rigor and instructional ability for teachers in all courses, in all subjects,” says Roger Rindo, superintendent of the 1,500-student, Oconomowoc Area School District.

But Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, argues that money spent training teachers for advanced courses could be better spent training a whole faculty in, for example, curriculum and lesson planning. “The quality of the teaching schoolwide would go up,” says Pope.

Over-emphasizing high-level programs carries subtle dangers for schools, Pope warns. Among the hazards she cites is “brain drain” when good teachers migrate to AP or IB classes, leaving less able colleagues to instruct lower-level students. And, she warns, schools must make sure to offer students mid-range alternatives between college-level classes and low-level, virtually remedial classes.

“The reason for taking the AP class should be because you’re truly interested in the subject and you want to be challenged—not because it’s the fallback, because all the other courses in your school are too easy,” Pope says.

Ultimately, educators say, college preparation begins long before students are old enough to enroll in AP or IB diploma courses.

“You can’t have the high school reforms without ensuring that the elementary and middle school reforms have adequately prepared students to take these courses,” says Hawkins of NACAC. “Adequately supporting students is the only way in which a lot of these curricular reforms will work.”

Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.