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Professors and Students Split on AP Credits

February 10, 2009

The number of Advanced Placement credits granted by Tufts University has jumped 32 percent in the last five years. During the same period, the percentage of submitted tests with the maximum score of five has grown by almost 26 percent. To some, this suggests the university is enrolling brighter students. To others, these figures show the potential for AP credits to diminish the value of college degrees.

Last week, Tufts’ Education Policy Committee -- a group made up of students, faculty and administrators -- recommended that the university limit the number of pre-matriculation credits that students can count toward graduation and restrict the use of these credits to fulfill entire distribution requirements. At Tufts, an average full-time course -- typically counted as three credits at most institutions -- is counted as one credit. The proposal would limit the number of pre-matriculation credits that a student could count toward graduation to five. As the average Tufts student enrolls with about three AP credits, though some enroll with five or more, the proposal is most likely to affect the large number of students who use their AP credits to place out of entire distribution requirements.

James G. Ennis, chair of the committee and sociology professor, said that the past year has seen much debate among the faculty about the transfer value of AP credits. He said many faculty members have questioned whether the substance of an AP test can truly replicate the value of face-to-face coursework at Tufts. Therefore, the committee has also asked that each of the university’s academic departments reevaluate the tests and scores it deems appropriate for the granting of college credit.

“If you read the recent College Board report, the phrase ‘college-level work’ is repeated over and over again like a mantra,” Ennis said. “What college? What level of college? Colleges aren’t all one thing. The idea that there is this easy-to-ascertain method of determining college-level work for all colleges in the United States is questionable. If it were up to me, I’d set [the proposed limit of credits] lower than five.”

Some students, however, find the proposal’s limit of pre-matriculation credits to five somewhat arbitrary and argue that the required AP test scores to earn credit should instead be increased for all disciplines.

“I felt the message this proposal sends is different from the one Tufts should be sending,” said Duncan Pickard, Tufts Community Union president and a junior history major. “What’s the difference between the fifth AP credit I receive and the sixth one? Instead, I think the focus should remain on limiting the allowable score to earn credit. This would make a statement about the academic quality we expect of a student.”

Though Ennis admitted that the limit of pre-matriculation credit to five is arbitrary, he noted it was “arbitrary in the way that a 90 percent is an A” and that Tufts’ “graduation requirement is 34 credits.” He noted that initial ideas to raise the AP score thresholds for earning credit across all disciplines were shot down by the committee.

“That presumes a five is a five is a five,” Ennis said of the test’s maximum score. “It presumes department aren’t in the best place to ascertain what signal is best relative to their discipline. It begs the question whether these scores are worth dealing with in the first place. Is five the god signal of academic quality, or is a four in calculus equivalent to a five in world history?”

The committee’s proposal also echoes some of the recent results of the College Board’s annual report – which noted that participation in AP tests was up across the board, but that were still gaps for certain racial and ethnic minorities. Instead of dividing up its AP-taking students by racial or ethnic groups, the proposal divided these students by the amount of aid they received from the institution.

Number of Advanced Placement Tests by Financial Aid Categories (2004-08 combined) at Tufts

  No Aid Low/Medium Aid High Aid
Number of Students 2,342 643 778
Average # of Test Scores Submitted 5.67 5.68 5.44
Average # of Credits Received 3.55 3.58 3.17

Source: Tufts University Education Policy Committee

Considering this data, Ennis said the committee accepted that there was “a modest socio-economic skew” to the AP credits awarded by the institution and noted that there was not “a level playing field as to who has access” to these tests.

Compared to some of its self-selected peer institutions, he noted, Tufts's proposed restriction of AP credits would still be relatively generous. Boston College and Williams College, for example, do not allow any AP credits to be used to reduce the number of courses required for graduation. Williams made this change last year. Other institutions with which Tufts compares itself cap the number of AP credits that can be awarded. For example, Wesleyan University allows students to count two courses toward graduation from AP credit, Washington University in St. Louis allows for five courses and Wellesley College allows for eight courses.

Ennis said he would like to see the university eventually wean itself completely off of counting AP credits toward graduation, noting that he did not think that the credits were comparable to college-earned credit. Still, he added that any changes to this policy would best be implemented slowly and that he was willing to reach a “reasonable compromise” in the meantime.

Many students, however, see the committee’s proposal to limit AP credits as placing an undue burden on them in already tough financial times. Last week, the Tufts Community Union Senate -- the student government body -- formally recommended that the university not make these suggested changes. The student resolution argued that changes to the AP credit policy would place a strain on already “high-demand introductory-level courses.” Noting that the current cost of an AP test is $86 and that a full semester at Tufts costs $25,700 -- five-and-a-half credits at $4,672 per credit -- it also argued that many students use AP credits to graduate early and thereby save money.

“Being able to graduate early with AP credits means saving money for a lot of students at Tufts,” said Scott Silverman, Tufts Community Union vice president and a junior biology major. “One of our primary concerns is that this could become a financial burden, changing the way students are forced to pay for education.”

Although Ennis said these changes might affect the “very small number” of students who attempt to accelerate their graduation by a full year, he pointed out that it might not affect those students who attempt to accelerate their graduation by a semester – or five credits, the proposed limit on AP courses.

Tufts undergraduate faculty will vote on the proposal later this month at their next meeting. Students and professors on both sides of this issue said they expect the measure to pass.

 

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