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Advanced Course Bonus Points Challenged

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page A08

Researcher Saul Geiser, of whom few American teenagers have heard, has completed a study that could send their heightened anxieties about college admissions into the stratosphere. His target: the bonus grade point, a popular high school device that may be in trouble if educators take seriously what Geiser has written.

Geiser and his research team at the University of California already have helped persuade the UC system to give more emphasis to students' rank in high school and less to SAT scores in admissions, leading to a major overhaul of the SAT taken by more than 2 million U.S. students each year. High school educators are wondering if the same could happen to bonus points for Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and other advanced high school courses.


Saul Geiser and Veronica Santelices say bonus points given in AP and IB courses do not necessarily predict better college grades. (Randi Lynn Beach For The Washington Post)

_____From Jay Mathewss_____
Read more on AP courses and the college admissions process in the Class Struggles column.

Geiser and colleague Veronica Santelices, in a 29-page study that is being peer-reviewed, said the bonus points given in AP, IB and honors courses in California appear to discriminate against students who do not have access to such courses because the points do not predict better college grades.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling found in a 2003 study that 69 percent of public and private schools give bonus grade points. They are popular for encouraging students to take challenging courses and making them look better to college admissions officers. As a result, grade-point averages above the formerly unbeatable 4.0 have become so common that many high schools have a dozen or more valedictorians every year.

If the study sample of 81,445 freshmen entering the eight campuses between 1998 and 2001 is representative of other selective colleges, Geiser and Santelices said, "those institutions may need to reconsider the manner in which such courses are treated in 'high-stakes' admissions. Such reconsideration assumes special importance in view of the marked disparity in access to AP and honors courses among disadvantaged and underrepresented minority students."

Geiser, who was director of research for the University of California system until he retired last year, was instrumental in the university regents' 1999 decision to open the eight campuses of the UC system to the top 4 percent of each California high school's graduates by grade-point average and de-emphasize the SAT in such a way that the College Board was persuaded to change both the math and verbal sections and add a writing test.

But when it was suggested that the regents also reduce the weight of bonus points for advanced courses in high school, they sent back the idea for study. Geiser kept working on the project even after he retired, and the just-released preliminary study is the result.

Michael T. Brown, the UC Santa Barbara psychologist who chairs the Board of Admissions and Relations With Schools for the UC system, was one of many educators who said they were surprised by the study. Brown and George Blumenthal, chairman of the UC Academic Senate, said that it might take a year for the issue to reach the regents for a decision but that in the meantime, high schools and other universities are beginning to reconsider their bonus point systems.

Bonus points brought complaints in New York recently when the system was introduced without warning to some teachers and students. Most concerns nationally have not been about the bonus system's unfairness to students who cannot take advanced courses -- even though more than 30 percent of public high schools do not offer AP or IB courses -- but the lack of a standard bonus and the confusion that brings to the college admissions system.

In the Washington area, for instance, Montgomery, Charles, St. Mary's, Arlington, Spotsylvania and Prince William counties and Falls Church and the District add a full grade point to AP or IB course grades. Prince George's, Frederick and Calvert counties increase the grade point for each AP class by 25 percent. Fairfax County, the area's largest school district and the one with the most AP and IB courses, adds half a grade point but won't do that if a student does not take the AP or IB test at the course's end.

Geiser, now at the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education, and Santelices, of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, said the study was not intended as an assessment of the value of AP, IB or other honors courses. Their data suggest that students who do well on the independently written and scored AP and IB exams do significantly better in college.

Other researchers who have studied the impact of AP and IB say the study is skewed by the fact that UC freshmen are in the top 12 percent of California students and likely to do well in college regardless of whether they have had advanced courses. Experts expressed concern for the 54.9 percent of college-bound high school seniors in California who the UC report shows took no AP, IB or honors courses and are therefore likely to struggle in college.

"We cannot construct or execute policy for everyone on the basis of the performance and history of elites," said Clifford Adelman, a senior researcher at the U.S. Education Department. His research indicates that average students, and particularly minorities, are more likely to graduate from college if they had intense academic experiences in high school.

Which, high school educators say, leaves them in a bind, because if the bonus points for advanced courses are reduced to be fair to students whose high schools don't have such courses, it will be more difficult to persuade students to subject themselves to the heavy reading lists and three-hour final exams that make up a typical AP course.

"If we are going to ask students to take on those challenges, there has to be some reward for accepting that," said Kenneth J. Bernstein, a social studies teacher who hopes to have an AP Government class at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt in Prince George's County in the fall.

Many educators say they are troubled by students who take advanced courses just to get extra grade points. Jon Reider, guidance counselor at University High School in San Francisco, said it "gets in the way of the real educational questions: What have you learned, and how can you show it?"

But the way to encourage learning is to get more advanced courses to more students, rather than cut back on grade points, said Mike Riley, superintendent of schools in Bellevue, Wash. "The United States should make preparation for and access to and success in AP classes the number one goal for all students," he said, "but most especially those traditionally underserved by its public schools."

The California study can be found at: ishi.lib.berkeley.edu/cshe/publications/papers/papers.html.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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