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Rethinking Advanced Placement

Essentials on education data and research analysis from Edvantia

Six in 10 U.S. high schools offer at least one Advanced Placement class, and a growing number of students are signing up. College Board president Gaston Caperton speaks of the AP program as "an anchor for increasing rigor in our schools and reducing the achievement gap." Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings calls it a "critical tool" in raising student achievement.

This view of AP represents a shift in the program's original purpose. When the College Board established the AP program in 1955, its mission was to prepare high-achieving students for college. But in the 1990s, the program opened its doors to any high school student willing to do the work.

Should high schools offer more AP classes to meet demand? Do students who take more AP classes do better? As school and district leaders ask these questions, they should consider the following information.

College admission Completion of AP courses is often a factor in the college admissions process. Many colleges (but not all) give students college credit for AP courses if the student achieves a high enough score on the AP exam.

College performance Philip Sadler and Robert Tai (2005) examined the grades of 18,000 students enrolled in introductory science classes at 63 randomly selected U.S. colleges and universities. They found students got slightly better grades in college if they had taken an AP class in the same subject during high school. The "AP benefit" shrank to half, however, when researchers controlled for prior achievement, other high school coursework, and parents' education and income.

College completion A recent DOE study found that while the quality and academic intensity of the high school curriculum was a predictor of bachelor's degree completion, AP coursework did not "reach the threshold of significance." Students who pass AP exams, however, are more likely to finish college, according to studies conducted in Texas and California.

The Texas study followed 67,000 students who graduated from high school in 1998. Students who scored at least a 3 on the AP exam were more likely to complete college than those who scored lower or didn't take the test. The California study yielded similar conclusions after researchers followed 81,445 students who entered the University of California at Berkeley between 1998 and 2001.

New criteria for AP classes Some observers think schools may be watering down the content of AP classes to make the classes more "doable" for an expanded group of students. In fact, some colleges are reevaluating their policies on accepting AP credits in lieu of certain general education classes.

In response to these concerns, the College Board announced the AP Audit program, to be fully implemented in the 2007-08 school year. AP courses are being revised, and schools offering them will be required to:

verify that AP course offerings meet course-specific requirements related to curriculum, student resources, school resources and exam administration resources

send the College Board a syllabus, sample assignment, sample exam and information about teachers' educational background and professional development experiences.

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