Questions and Answers about the Value of Advanced Placement

            With all of the changes to standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT coupled with the introduction of and backlash against Common Core curriculum over the last few years, many parents and students have questions about the Advanced Placement (AP) classes and exams.  Some wonder if the exams and classes still hold any value. Others have expressed concerns that too many unqualified students are pushed into taking AP classes.  And others are confused as to how colleges and universities use the AP scores.  Information on Advanced Placement is available on the internet, but understanding what it means often requires expert interpretation.

            The Advanced Placement program, which consists of school-year-long classes followed by a series of three-hour-long exams during the first two full weeks of May each spring, was created by the College Board in the early 1950s after a multi-year study on college readiness sponsored by Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and three of the most prestigious, and expensive, private high schools in the United States.  The study proposed that allowing and encouraging high school students to take college-level material culminating in exams in high school would allow high achieving high school students to enter college with both college credit and experience with the rigorous requirements of college.

            Originally conceived and managed by Gordon Chalmers, President of Kenyon College, and funded by the Ford Foundation, a non-profit founded by inventor and businessman Henry Ford and his son, Edsel, the management of the AP program was transferred to the College Board in 1955.  The College Board is best known for the SAT, the most popular college admissions exam.  According to several reports released by the College Board over the last decade, approximately one million high school students take the AP exams annually and take an average of two per student.  Interestingly, only approximately 60-65% of students enrolled in AP classes complete the exams each May.

            Currently, students can take AP classes and exams in 38 subjects ranging from the sciences, social studies, math, English, the arts, and several foreign languages.  The most popular classes and exams include English Language, English Literature, US History, and Calculus AB, each with approximately 300,000 students completing the exam each year.  The least popular include German Language, Italian Language, Japanese Language, Studio Art: 3D Design, and Latin, each with fewer than 10,000 students completing the exam each year.  Education researchers claim that the more popular the class, the more likely students will complete the exam in May and that the reverse is true as well.  The less popular a class is nationally, the less likely 50% or more of the students enrolled in that AP class will complete the exam that year.

            Given that AP class completion rates hover between 50% and 75% and average around 60%, some parents and teachers wonder if students who are not ready or qualified to take AP classes are being pushed into taking them. While this article cannot answer that question, since it hinges on the feelings of students throughout the United States over large periods of time, data does show that a large number of students taking AP classes do not feel prepared for the exams and choose to opt-out each May.  Students may feel peer pressure rather than pressure from school administrators or teachers since students are well aware that most colleges still consider AP exams a clear indicator of academic rigor.  In their admissions decisions, competitive colleges and universities seem to favor students who have successfully completed AP courses and scored well on AP exams.

            Based on this, it is clear that AP classes and exams still hold value.  While academic studies have shown that high schools that offer AP classes and even have high rates of student success in AP exams are not necessarily “better” high schools according to state testing such as the MCAS (Massachusetts) or PARCC (national) than schools with low AP participation or success rates, individual students who take AP classes, successfully complete those classes, and achieve strong results on the AP exams, are significantly more likely to raise their achievement level across all of their high school courses, feel more prepared upon entering college, and tend to be more successful in college than students who do not participate in AP or a comparable advanced academic program.

            While it is true that colleges consider if a student has taken AP courses and exams in the admissions process, there is still confusion over how AP credit is awarded by colleges and universities.  Colleges will generally only offer credit for AP courses when a student has completed the exam and scored at least a 4 or a 5. Keep in mind that the exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, where 3, 4, and 5 represent passing scores.  When colleges award credit for an AP course, they will rarely reduce the number of courses required to graduate, but instead count the AP courses as extra classes.  Additionally, the AP credit may allow students to begin college in more advanced classes when the colleges use the credit to exempt those students from the introductory level.  A combination of a high score in an AP exam coupled with mastering an individual college’s foreign language placement test may allow students entering some colleges to fulfill that college’s foreign language requirement without having to take the requisite courses.

            Despite the concerns that many students, parents, teachers, administrators, and education researchers have posed about the AP program, colleges across the United States and throughout the world still utilize the results of AP exams in the admissions process, for awarding college credit, and for level placement.  Studies continue to show that students who take AP classes tend to perform better in their other classes, and that students who take AP classes tend to perform better in academics in general than their peers.  Students who take AP classes also tend to be better prepared for the rigors of college than their peers.  It appears that AP classes, and the effort it takes to achieve success in those academically rigorous classes and challenging exams, is still valuable, and still recommended.