AP Is Good for Students

The Advanced Placement program is rigorous and beneficial, writes Mark Carl Rom.

June 22, 2020
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Georgetown University has one of the best political science programs in the country. The university is also one of the most competitive, with an admission rate of 15 percent. In the past 13 years, our government majors have either won or been runners-up in a national undergraduate thesis competition eight times. It is a joy to teach these students, and I have been lucky to have taught Introduction to the U.S. Political Systems -- the Georgetown equivalent of the College Board’s U.S. Government and Politics Advanced Placement course -- for over 20 years.

The students were, I thought, also lucky to have me as their professor. My classes were clearly exceptional. Most thrived in them, and as I watched Hoyas progress through their years on the Hilltop, I was proud that I helped them launch their careers.

When I was first approached by the College Board to help write the AP American Government exam in 2013, I was flattered but also skeptical. AP was not part of my world -- professors focus on college students, not those in high school. Even though I knew essentially nothing about the AP curriculum or exam, I assumed the AP course could not possibly be as good as mine or those taught by other college professors.

I wrote a departmental memo to that effect in 2015: “It is my perception that high school students scoring 4 or 5 on the American Government exam do not meet the standards I typically expect of students in my [introductory] course.” I recommended that Georgetown drop its credit policy.

But I also knew that AP United States Government and Politics is by far the largest source of political science instruction in the United States. In 2013, some 255,000 students in the U.S. took this exam, and the numbers grew to over 310,000 in 2019 (an increase of 23 percent).

Fortunately, before changing the policy, I chose to research it. Did the high-achieving AP students actually meet our standards, or didn’t they? To answer this question, I examined the records of all Georgetown government majors between 2010 and 2015 to learn how the AP students who placed out of the intro course compared to the students who took the Georgetown class.

My perceptions were wrong. The AP students had higher grades over all, higher grades within the government department and higher grades in other courses in American politics. The AP students were not just prepared for the rigor of studying politics at Georgetown, they were better prepared. My recommendation changed, and the policy stayed put.

Does this demonstrate that the AP course is better than mine? Heaven forfend! But it does show that high-achieving AP students do not need my course to succeed at this highly selective university. Granting credit, and allowing AP students to move forward, is in their best interests.

Studies like this, which compare the performance of high-achieving AP students to non-AP students, have been done at multiple institutions and across numerous disciplines. The results are almost entirely consistent: if you take an AP course and if you demonstrate competence on the AP exam, and if you are waived out of the entry-level course at your school, you will likely perform as well in more advanced classes as those who did not take the exam.

Count me an AP convert. The real question is not “Should my program (department, college) give credit to high-achieving AP students?” but rather “On what grounds should we withhold credit from these students?”

I can think of two reasons, and neither casts higher education in a favorable light, as both serve the interests of the institutions rather than their students. A first is snobbery: “Their off-the-rack suit cannot possibly be as good as my bespoke one.” Well, OK, that may be true if your main priority is being custom tailored. H&M ain’t Hermès, but the former will keep you every bit as clothed.

Like my colleague at Fordham University, “I write my own syllabi, articulate my own learning objectives, choose what to emphasize in any given semester, select reading materials and craft exams that cannot easily be graded on a rubric.” I wouldn’t have it any other way. This means that my courses are idiosyncratic, and reflect little more than my own personal view (N=1) of what an introductory politics course should look like. My courses have oddities, gaps and biases, and so do theirs.

The AP curriculum and exams, in contrast, are developed by a team of educators -- a diverse mix of college professors and high school teachers, in a rare example of K-12 and higher education working side by side.

Professors will typically have more content knowledge, but to assert that they are generally better teachers will lead high school teachers to choke down chuckles. The committee-written curriculum and exams are not high art, but they are comprehensive, thoughtful, thorough. They prepare students for academic success.

My question for college faculty: What evidence -- not perceptions, but evidence -- do you have that your introductory course prepares students for success better than the AP test does?

The second reason colleges might deny AP credit is a misguided sense of financial self-interest. Departments may worry that, by allowing students to opt out of their introductory courses, they lose "butts in the seats," and hence what they see as their fair share of institutional resources. Confession: I also noted financial implications in my departmental memo.

There is substantial evidence that students taking AP classes are more likely to persist and graduate. If this is true, these students will on average be paying tuition to the school for more semesters than those who drop out. Students who take an AP exam are more likely to take other classes in that discipline, and more likely to major in it. This is especially true for female students in STEM courses. High-achieving AP students fill seats; they don't empty them.

Yet even a school’s financial concerns were valid, would any "student-centered" institution advertise, “We could give you credit for your AP course, but it is in our financial interests not to do so. Sorry”?

High-achieving AP students are well prepared for the rigors of college. Those growing up in resource-rich environments (e.g., in families with affluent, well-educated parents, who have access to the kind of prep schools that shun the AP exam) do not need the AP program. For those in less privileged settings, the AP program has the dual benefit of providing a challenging curriculum (we should compare AP classes not just to college courses, but to other high school options) that does prepare them and also the inspiring message that they can be prepared.

Without both challenge and inspiration (and the lure of earning college credit), too few of these students might even dream of attending college. The College Board is committed, and has devoted substantial resources, to expanding the program to reach those students underrepresented in higher education.

Let’s be honest. Students don’t take AP exams just to save money. As a professor, I encourage my students to take the most challenging courses available to them.

Yes, even if this means they will -- tragically -- miss out on my exceptional introductory course on U.S. government. High-achieving AP students deserve college credit and the chance to make the most of their time in college.


Mark Carl Rom is associate professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University. Disclosure: Rom has served as a consultant to the College Board but has no financial interest in it.


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