Is AP Too Good To Be True?
Critics fear the rapid spread of Advanced Placement classes is diluting quality
If Neil Panchal had known last year what he was in for, he might have tried to get a little more sleep. Panchal, who recently started 12th grade at Barrington High School outside Chicago, is a man on a college admissions mission: He took his first Advanced Placement course as a sophomore, aced the U.S. History exam, and set his sights on an elite school. Last year, when he saw his classmates filling up their schedules with two, three, even four AP s, he figured that if he was going to be competitive, it was time to ante up.
So he pushed his nonacademic life aside and signed up for a total of five AP courses as a junior--Spanish, calculus, statistics, European history, and chemistry. The workload made him miserable, of course. He had five hours of homework most every night and scaled back his commitment to his beloved tennis team to just one weekly practice. Nevertheless, this fall Panchal is at it again: He's taking another four AP s as a senior, which will bring his grand total, by the time he graduates, to 10. No regrets, though. If his classmates were going to load up on APs, he thought he'd better do the same. Otherwise, "they'd be better off than me when it came to getting into colleges," he says. "I didn't want to fall behind."
The race. Who can blame him? These are, after all, the glory days of Advanced Placement, the latest rage in the ever more challenging race for selective college admissions. AP classes are the highest-level honors curriculum at many high schools: They usually require more reading, more writing, and more problem sets--and they carry high prestige. Some 1.2 million high schoolers took AP exams in 2005, up from 134,000 in 1980. In the past five years, the number of students taking at least one exam in any of the 34 subjects now offered by the College Board, which runs the tests, has jumped by 45 percent. Most colleges continue to give credit to those who score 3 or higher (on a scale of 1 to 5). And as high schools continue to create more AP classes, elite schools are being inundated with applicants like Panchal: At Northwestern University, for example, over 90 percent of incoming freshmen received AP credit last year.
But just as AP, celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall, hits its frenzied peak--with Newsweek going so far as to rank high schools based on the percentage of students who take AP or International Baccalaurate exams--some experts wonder whether the program's wild proliferation has begun to dilute its quality. Several new academic studies indicate that simply taking AP classes--as opposed to passing the end-of-year examinations run by the College Board--isn't a very good predictor of college success. Some high schools are complicating matters by pasting the AP label onto subpar existing courses. And a few highly selective schools have become sufficiently alarmed over the quality of AP classes that they are getting picky about awarding credit even to those who have passed the exams. At Northwestern, for instance, the economics and biology departments grant credit only to students who have earned perfect 5s; Harvard applies the same stringent standard to all AP classes. And Stanford won't give credit at all for such relative newcomers to the Advanced Placement scene as AP Environmental Science and AP World History. A dozen high-profile prep schools have dropped AP altogether. All of which has left some would-be collegegoers and parents wondering: Could Advanced Placement be overrated?
AP was never intended to be at the center of the admissions frenzy, of course. When the program was first developed in 1955, it was designed to give the highest-achieving students, mostly at elite schools, a chance to tackle some college-level coursework--and earn college credit--while still in high school. Placement was the goal, not admissions, thus the name. In the 1980s, though, more and more high schools, seeing how well AP's rigorous subject matter and challenging tests were preparing kids for college, began to add the courses to their curricula. As the program became more popular (and selective colleges continued to show interest in AP students), more parents, believing all students could benefit from exposure to the high-level material covered in AP courses, demanded access. More schools opened the classes to students of all levels, regardless of their ability. Which, of course, had some unintended consequences. Cambridge Rindge & Latin in Massachusetts, for example, offered only one section of AP U.S. History 20 years ago. Today, there are between six and eight sections every year in a school with 1,800 students--which means half of each class is now considered "advanced."
This increased access has had an unmistakable bright side: a dramatic increase in the number of minorities and low-income students enrolling in AP courses. In the past decade, especially, the College Board has given high priority to making AP available to groups that have not, historically, taken the courses. The number of AP exams taken by low-income kids jumped from 32,688 in 1993 to 144,532 ten years later, with minority numbers experiencing a similar leap.
High stakes. Some analysts wonder, though, whether all of these new students are really doing college-level work. Teens typically receive bonus points on their grade-point averages for completing AP courses. But in a study to be published this fall, Saul Geiser, a research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California-Berkeley, comes to the stark conclusion that in California, at least, there is little to no correlation between simply taking an AP course and students' first- and second-year college GPAs. (A study of students in Texas drew a similar conclusion.) Doing well on AP exams is another matter, Geiser says: High test scores are one of the best predictors of college success. But since only about two thirds of California students in AP courses actually take the exam, for many kids the classes themselves are where AP begins and ends. At one time, Geiser says, good grades in AP classes may have been a reasonable barometer of academic ability, but he thinks colleges need to reconsider using AP coursework alone as a criterion in high-stakes admissions. "AP is being used for a purpose for which it has never been validated," he says.
The UC system's powerful statewide admissions board, which commissioned his study, is now considering dropping the bonus points it currently awards for AP courses when calculating GPA s. And the stakes are high: Admissions experts say that by threatening to downgrade the status of AP, much as it did when it considered dropping the SAT in 2001, UC, with its 208,000 students, could do a lot of damage to the program's reputation.
These critics are not the first to take AP to task, of course. A similarly gloomy report written in 2001 by the National Research Council concluded that as AP expands, the courses, too often, are being led by poorly prepared teachers who teach to the test by stressing rote memorization rather than "active problem solving and discussion." Part of the reason for this is the design of the AP curriculum itself, which calls on teachers to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short period of time. In AP U.S. History, for example, students must be familiar with everything from the pre-Columbian era to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the Industrial Revolution, and the emergence of America as a world power. Then there's the 20th century to go through as well. The three-hour AP exam ranges over this entire period, which means teachers have to cover all of it at high speed, sometimes at the expense of depth and analysis.
Caution. This troubles some educators, who worry that by trying to become everything to everyone, AP is losing its luster. A dozen high-profile private schools, including the tony Fieldston School in New York and the alternative Crossroads School in Santa Monica, Calif., have dropped their AP courses in recent years, saying the curriculum is too inflexible. Some colleges, meanwhile, are starting to be more cautious about giving APs on transcripts a free pass. Applicants can no longer count on bowling over admissions officers with the sheer number of AP courses they've taken. "We're very careful in training new people to be wary of the fact that this person who has six APs is not obviously better than someone who has two or three," says Daniel Walls, dean of admissions at Emory University.
Trevor Packer, the College Board's executive director of Advanced Placement, acknowledges that there have been some quality-control problems with AP courses of late: "What we've seen, over the past five years in particular, is too many schools rushing into AP without having an infrastructure in place to support such rigorous academics," he says. Some schools have gone off the reservation entirely, creating AP courses in subjects unapproved by the College Board--accounting, botany, even one course called AP West Virginia History. New AP teachers are not yet getting enough professional development training, he says. But Packer is quick to emphasize that the program is still quite popular. Some high-profile dissenters notwithstanding, in the past year alone the number of independent schools using AP has jumped by 15 percent--the largest growth of private-school participation in the history of the program.
And Packer points out, quite rightly, that few critics, including UC's Geiser, are questioning the value of the AP exams . There is no need, in other words, to throw the baby out with the bath water: The College Board recently took the first step toward upgrading program quality when it announced a new certification program that will require high schools that use the AP name to be audited by the organization. As of next February, "if they're not providing labs or using textbooks," says Packer, schools will no longer be able to label their courses AP. More schools, in the meantime, do seem to be requiring their students to take the AP exams: Nationwide, some 73 percent of students enrolled in AP courses last year also took the tests, an increase of more than 10 percentage points over the previous decade. Critics' concerns "are valid," says Packer, "but I do think they're being addressed."
It's possible, to be sure, that AP can continue to evolve on all fronts--expanding access to the underprivileged, maintaining its quality, and continuing to be a ticket into elite colleges. For students like Neil Panchal, it's what selective schools decide to do with AP that truly matters. As long as so many keep looking for those two magical letters on applications, high schoolers' lives will continue to involve a lot less sleep--and a lot more AP.
50 YEARS OF GROWTH
More teens are taking Advanced Placement tests--in multiple subjects
Source: College Board; USN&WR
This story appears in the September 19, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.