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Advanced Placement, Not Credit

January 18, 2013

Advanced Placement courses might cover college-level content, but Dartmouth College has decided that’s not the same as taking a college course. So beginning with the class of 2018, the college will no longer grant credit based on its students' AP test scores in high school.

Currently, students who enter Dartmouth with scores of four or five on the AP test, which is based on a five-point scale, can earn exemption from certain courses, placement into higher-level courses, or credit toward their degrees. (The exact reward for a high AP test score varies by department.) When the new policy takes effect, students will still be able to place out of an introductory level course or be exempted from certain requirements, but they will not be awarded any credits toward graduation. The policy was proposed by the college's Committee on Instruction, and passed by an “overwhelming majority” of the faculty, says Hakan Tell, the committee’s chair.

“There’s a strong feeling that the high school courses, while valuable -- and there was no sense that these were not good courses -- but they were not the same as a Dartmouth credit,” said Registrar Meredith Braz.

At least one Dartmouth student agrees, writing in the student newspaper about his experience coming to Dartmouth, expecting to be able to triple major or graduate early, and then realizing his high school courses and self-study were not equivalent to taking, for example, a lab-based science course.

But Trevor Packer, senior vice president for Advanced Placement at College Board, which runs the program and the tests, said the College Board goes to great lengths to ensure that its AP curriculums and tests are as rigorous as a college course.

“I do not agree at all with claims that AP courses are not college-level,” Packer said. “The program is designed by college faculty, not the College Board, and research shows students perform at high levels.”

Indeed, research published by College Board but performed by independent researchers has shown that students who have taken and passed an AP course in a subject do better in the second-level course in that subject, taken in college, than their non-AP peers do. (Some subsequent research has questioned whether this is because of the AP program or because of the characteristics of students in the AP program, who are likely to be from wealthier high schools and have stronger academic backgrounds that the average college student.)

But Dartmouth also ran an independent experiment in its psychology department, asking all students who had earned a five on the AP psychology test, which would normally grant them course credit at Dartmouth, to take a placement test that was based on the final exam for intro psychology. Ninety percent of the students who earned a five on the AP test failed that test, according to Tell. The college then monitored students who, after failing the placement test, chose to take intro psychology, and found that they did not perform significantly better than did their peers who either hadn’t taken AP psychology or had scored less than a five on the test.

Though more than 100 students were involved in that study, Tell acknowledges that it is not necessarily universally applicable. Still, he said, it reveals what he and other members of the Committee on Instruction had observed since the committee started debating the use of AP scores 10 years ago: the exams did not seem to predict academic success.

“I suspect that students who are academically ambitious and take AP courses sometimes are much better-prepared, but that’s different, I think, from saying that they have already mastered the material in a college-level course,” Tell said.  

Tell is careful to emphasize, though, that he and other faculty members still value AP courses – just not as a replacement for a college classroom.

“We are not trying to discredit AP. That’s not the point,” he said. “We think it’s still extremely useful and valuable for students to take in high school. We just don’t want to foster the idea in high school students that it is comparable to a college course.”

Packer, however, worries that Dartmouth’s new policy might have unintended consequences. In a survey of high school students, the College Board found that a change in a college’s policy on whether to grant credit for AP courses significantly reduced the likelihood a high school student would decide to enroll in an AP course.

“It’s not enough for Dartmouth to say, ‘We value AP, but we don’t think it’s the same as college-level rigor,’ because that will send the message to students that it’s not worth challenging themselves, and I don’t think that’s the message Dartmouth wants to send,” Packer said.  

Dartmouth is, of course, not the first institution to stop using AP exam scores to grant college credit, and the number of high school students taking AP courses has continued to rise significantly over the years. Each year, according to Packer, about 1.3 percent of the 3,300 colleges and universities that receive AP exam scores change their policies on course credit, with about half deciding to grant credit for AP tests and half deciding not to.

But college credit, Packer notes, was not actually the original intent of the AP program.

“It was called Advanced Placement – it wasn’t called the college credit program,” Packer said.

The trend toward colleges granting course credit for AP tests – the College Board could not provide numbers on how many do – was a natural outgrowth of the initial intent of the program, according to Packer.  

“As many colleges and universities began using AP scores to place students into classes that were not freshman-level courses, universities said there’s no need to make students take additional coursework if they’ve been able to learn some of it before they arrived at college,” he said.

Many have argued that AP courses can be a good way to help students shorten their time to degree, thus lowering costs, although research has raised questions about whether students really use AP credit that way. Still, Packer wonders if Dartmouth, in choosing not to grant credit, is trying to keep students on campus longer.

Braz insists, however, that this is not the case, and notes that there are other options for students who want to graduate early. Students at Dartmouth typically graduated in 12 terms, enrolling in three courses per term. Some of those terms, however, are spent off campus, and students generally have at least one semester off, during which they might pursue an internship, for example, built into their course plan. A student who wanted to graduate early, Braz said, could choose not to take a semester off and could enroll in four courses for several terms at no extra cost. Students can also bring in transfer credits.

The committee, in deciding what to do about AP exams, did consider concerns that not giving credit would cut off a path to early graduation, Tell said, but the committee found that most students who brought in AP credits weren’t graduating early. Instead, they were taking fewer courses during the same number of terms. About 80 percent of students take the full 12 terms to graduate, according to Braz.

The committee plans to review the policy in three years, Tell said. 

 

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