Pushing students to take Advanced Placement courses does not help anyone

Does the Advanced Placement program foster academic excellence? PROThe U.S. National Archives

Millions of American high school students take the Advanced Placement (AP) test each year. In 2014, that number was over 2.3 million.

However, these numbers do not tell the complete story. Approximately one-third of the enrolled students end up not taking their course’s AP test. It is, therefore, likely that about one million students who enroll in the AP course never take their course’s AP exam.

Given this scenario, researchers have begun to ask tough questions of the AP program: do students need to take the AP test? Is the program cost-effective? And what is the place of AP in fostering academic excellence?

To test or not to test?

The AP program is sponsored by the College Board and allows high school students to take a college-level course while still at high school.

Independent federal government statistics show that 36.3% of public high school students in 2009 (the most recent year with available data) earned college credit through the AP program. And College Board data show from the 1990s onwards, the number of students taking the AP examination has more than doubled each decade.

Despite such popularity, little independent research was conducted on the AP program before the early 2000s.

To learn more about these students, my colleagues and I recently conducted a study to learn whether AP students had any academic achievement gains over non-AP students, even when the AP students did not take the exam.

Here is how we did our study:

We obtained data from every high school student in Utah and divided them into four groups: non-AP students, students who enrolled in an AP course but never took the AP test (“AP non-examinees”), students in AP courses who took the AP test but did not pass it (“AP exam non-passers”), and students in AP courses who took and passed the AP test (“AP exam passers”).

We decided that the best measure of academic achievement available to us was students’ ACT score, which is a college admissions test that measures high school achievement.

The results of our study were surprising: we found that there were no differences between the ACT scores of non-AP students and AP non-examinees. However, we did find advantages for AP students who took the exam, both AP exam passers and AP exam non-passers. In fact, the AP exam passers still had the highest ACT scores of the four groups.

Based on these findings, my colleagues and I concluded that the advantage of taking an AP course lies in preparing for the test – with the biggest benefits going to those students who actually pass it.

These findings are consistent with two other studies conducted by researchers at Harvard University and Georgia Tech University. Both groups of researchers found few or no differences in academic achievement between non-AP students and AP non-examinees.

The other studies also show that AP exam passers have the highest academic achievement after high school compared with any other group. These findings are consistent across all three samples and across all the AP courses studied, including Calculus, English, Chemistry, Biology, Physics and more.

State and national policies

Today, 49 of 50 US states provide some sort of incentive to schools to offer AP classes and/or to students to take AP courses.

These incentives include exam fee reductions for low-income students, state financial support for teacher training for AP classes, legal mandates for high schools to offer AP courses, and even paying the exam fees for all students. Therefore, one question to consider is: are these legal mandates and financial incentives good investments of resources?

Separate studies in states with generous financial support for the AP program find that the financial incentives offered through the AP program do not save taxpayers money by helping students graduate college more quickly.

The financial incentives offered through the AP program do not save taxpayers money. flickr./com/photos/amanda_munoz, CC BY

In Florida, two government studies showed that the state paid almost twice as much per AP credit hour than for traditional university credit hours. Another independent study in Texas showed that the state tuition savings from the AP program were only one-third the cost to the state.

Texas and Florida are generous states in providing incentives to students and schools, and these results may not be typical of other states. The most common incentive offered at the state level is to pay most or all of a low-income student’s AP exam fees.

Yet, these are often the students who are least likely to pass an AP test and earn college credit. It is not clear whether these subsidies for low-income students are an efficient and effective use of scarce public education funds.

Fostering academic excellence

Despite the recent research indicating that taking and passing the test is vital to reaping academic rewards from the AP program, it is possible that many educators and policymakers believe that offering AP courses could help create a culture of academic excellence that would be beneficial to all high school students.

For example, in 2000, the then-Secretary of Education Richard Riley proposed offering 10 AP courses in every American high school. Additionally, some high schools have eliminated non-AP versions of some courses (eg, senior-level English or US history) in an attempt to give all students access to an advanced curriculum and improve academic achievement.

But there is, so far, no evidence that increasing the number of AP courses or enrolling all students into AP classes increases overall academic achievement, although there might be some benefits on mathematics achievement.

For instance, in another study I conducted, my coauthor and I did not find improvements in reading or in US history scores among some racial and ethnic minority groups as a result of the widespread increase in AP participation.

Likewise, a 2006 case study of Philadelphia public schools, where the schools offered an average of 4.4 AP courses (a respectable number at the time, though not extraordinarily high), found the median AP exam passing rate to be less than 10% – hardly an indication of academic excellence. Clearly, offering AP alone will not magically turn a failing school into a successful one. And it does not seem beneficial to push students into an AP class if they are not prepared for it academically.

Unanswered questions

It is remarkable how the AP program has grown even in the absence of independent research on the program’s effectiveness.

Before the early 2000s, almost all of the research on the AP program was conducted by scientists affiliated with the College Board.

Today, there is finally a body of independent research that permits scholars to form the general opinion that the AP program can provide some individual benefits to students who are ready for rigorous academic work. But there are still important, unanswered psychological, educational and policy questions about the AP program.