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Let’s say you’re a high school student who expects to go to college. You’re lucky enough to be in a high school that offers two options of, say, Intro to Psychology: one is an Advanced Placement course, and the other is a dual-enrollment course offered in cooperation with the local community college. Which should you choose?

Some context: AP courses are taught by high school teachers, using a curriculum geared toward a single high-stakes test. The tests are graded externally. The tests are scored on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the highest. Although cutoffs vary, most colleges use either a 3 or a 4 as the cutoff for granting either credit (replacing a class) or placement (skipping a prerequisite).

AP courses are still high school courses, so students accrue grades each marking period. Those grades count toward their high school GPA; some schools give extra weight to AP courses in calculating grade point averages, and some don’t. For purposes of college credit and/or placement, though, only the test grade counts, so it’s possible to do well in the class and bomb the exam or vice versa.

In the language of higher ed, AP is credit by examination. Students demonstrate college-level ability in a given field, or they don’t. We don’t look at the qualifications of the teacher. If the student performs at a set level, then that’s that. (Although they’re different in certain ways, for present purposes, International Baccalaureate programs work by the same principle.)

Dual-enrollment classes run in different formats, but the common denominator is that the student is taking a college class for a college grade and college credit. Sometimes it’s taught on a college campus, sometimes in a high school and sometimes online. Typically if it’s taught in a high school, the high school teacher has to have the same educational credentials as an adjunct professor (usually a master’s degree in the discipline taught). The students receive grades along the same scale that the college uses. The credits are supposed to transfer on an equivalent basis to the way they’d transfer for traditional college students. (They don’t always, but that’s another post.)

AP has been around for decades. The dirty little secret of AP is that it’s often used less for credit or placement than for acceptance into selective institutions. It’s taken as a signifier of academic ability and focus. (Its validity for either is another question, but that’s how it’s read.) Selective colleges usually notify students by April 1, or earlier if they’ve applied early decision; test scores don’t come out until after that. The fact of taking the class(es) carries weight separately from the actual scores.

Dual enrollment, by contrast, shifts the focus from a single high-stakes exam to performance throughout the course. Here, there’s no distinction between a course grade and the score used for credit or placement. That tends to favor students who are usually disfavored by standardized tests. For example, a recent CCRC study found that the positive effects of dual-enrollment courses on applications to selective institutions were strongest among Black students. Dual-enrollment courses also offer the option to go beyond the disciplines offered by AP, such as in career and technical majors.

At this point, though, I don’t know whether or the extent to which admissions offices at selective places consider dual enrollment courses comparable to AP. The argument for taking them more seriously is that they reflect performance over time, rather than on a single high-stakes test. They also have stricter standards for teacher credentials. Of course, if you don’t trust high school teachers, the absence of an externally graded test could count as a demerit.

Wise and worldly readers, especially those who know how admissions offices in selective places view these things, which would you choose? And why?

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