Studies Point to Value of AP

Amid some doubts about the program, 2 analyses in Texas find significant college gains linked to the advanced courses in high school.
January 30, 2007

Two new studies financed by the College Board and about to be released find that students who complete Advanced Placement courses and take the tests that go with them see significant gains in their college performance.

The studies, reported Monday by The Washington Post, will be discussed next week in the College Board's annual report on the AP program . The studies tracked thousands of Texas students who took the AP courses, and compared them to various other groups of students in college.

These new analyses come at a time of both heightened popularity and scrutiny for the AP program, through which students take advanced -- theoretically the college level -- courses in high school and then take nationally standardized exams to potentially earn college credit for them.

The program's supporters see it as a way to encourage more rigorous education in high school, especially in the senior year when many students aren't challenged. And for students who take many AP courses, as has become the norm at highly competitive high schools, there is the chance to finish college in less than four years or to place out of introductory courses. AP courses have also become a popular way to demonstrate intellectual skill to colleges -- raising concerns from some that students in low-income areas that offer few such courses may be at a disadvantage.

But even as high school students push to get into AP courses, many professors question whether they are truly college-level. A curricular reform plan at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in October proposed barring the use of AP credit to place out of any course except calculus. The recommendation was based on an MIT analysis that found that students placing out of other courses were not doing well in the next sequential course they took. And a study presented at last year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that students who did well in AP courses were only marginally better prepared for college courses than were other students, and that other factors -- such as the rigor of high school mathematics courses -- were better measures of whether students would do well in college science.

The two new studies see the sorts of gains that AP proponents have talked about -- and that have been absent from some of the recent analyses.

One study examined Texas public high school graduates who enrolled in public colleges and universities in Texas. Students were grouped by whether they took AP courses and exams, just the courses, or just the exams, and they were compared with students in dual-enrollment programs and those who had not taken college-level courses. Additional analysis was done based on groupings by SAT score, and by socioeconomic status, as measured by eligibility for free or reduced school lunches.

The study found that students who took AP courses and exams "significantly outperformed" other students on a wide variety of measures of college-level performance. They earned higher grades, earned more credits, and graduated within four years at "significantly higher rates" than other students did. The researchers concluded that the study documented "strong evidence of benefits" of participating in AP courses and exams. The study was conducted by Linda Hargrove, a lecturer in education at the University of Texas at Austin; Barbara Dodd, a professor of education at Austin; and Donn Godin, a researcher at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The second study looked at students in four entering classes at the University of Texas at Austin. It found that students who earned college credit through the AP program "consistently outperformed non-AP students of similar academic ability in all college outcome measures." Further, the study found that AP exam scores are "a good predictor" of future college performance, especially in the areas that match the AP exam in question. The purpose of the second study was to test the impact of the rapid expansion of the AP program and it concluded that the growth "has not diminished the validity of AP exam grades to predict college success."

The latter study was conducted by Dodd, one of the authors of the first study, and by another education research at Austin, Leslie Keng.


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