The majority of teachers of Advanced Placement courses are satisfied with the college-prep program but worry that its quality could erode as more and more students—including those who are less prepared or who seek only to boost their college credentials—are allowed to participate in classes, according a new survey.
The survey, commissioned by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education research and advocacy organization in Washington, comes as more high schools across the country are adopting the AP curriculum and a record number of students are taking AP exams. In 2008, 1.6 million high school teens sat for 2.7 million AP exams, a 45 percent increase in students from 2004. (U.S. News uses AP achievement data as a component in its high school rankings.)
Researchers involved in the Fordham survey asked more than 1,000 public school teachers about the effectiveness and popularity of the AP program and found their views to be "highly conflicted." Nearly 9 in 10 teachers praised the coursework and the standardized tests as rigorous and effective, and 8 in 10 teachers said the tests help to motivate and focus students.
But when asked for their views on the popularity of the program, many teachers seemed to suggest that the rigor of AP courses is being compromised by school policies that allow almost any student to enroll. Three quarters of the teachers surveyed believe that their schools are opening up AP classes to more students to improve their ranking and community reputation. Only 29 percent of teachers said that their schools ask for grades or a teacher recommendation before letting a student enroll in an AP class.
Meanwhile, students "appear to be focused on AP for utilitarian or pragmatic reasons, not intellectual reasons," according to most teachers, who said that "more students want their college applications to look better." As a result of these attitudes among students and school leaders, "too many students overestimate their abilities and are in over their heads" in AP courses, 56 percent of teachers said. More than 6 in 10 said that putting some limits on who can enroll would improve the AP program.
The conflicting views of teachers reflect a larger debate in education about how schools can best prepare more students for college. U.S. News has profiled some high schools on its Best High Schools list that require all their students, even those who may not be up to the task, to enroll in at least one AP class. The principals of those schools believe that all students benefit when they are exposed to challenging work, even if not everyone receives a passing score of 3 or higher on the AP test. They see the AP program as an opportunity to motivate and prepare more students for college. Other high school principals believe that opening up AP classes to students who are not prepared for the difficult work only sets them up to fail and damages their self-esteem. Some schools actively discourage capable students who do poorly in an AP class from taking the test.
Trevor Packer, a vice president of the College Board, which administers the Advanced Placement program, said in an interview that the questions raised in the Fordham survey are worth studying. At the moment, he said, the data don't show consistent trends that average mean scores on AP exams have dropped or gone up as more students participate in the program. "AP teachers [in the survey] confirmed that so far the quality of the AP test has not been compromised by their efforts to enroll a greater diversity of students," he said. "But it's important for us to [ask]: At what point will the quality decline if students aren't better prepared for these courses?"