As AP Expands, Studies Disagree on Its Value

Bill Rhatican talks U.S. and Virginia government with AP students Shannon Smith, left, and Alexandra Knoppel at West Potomac High School in Fairfax County.
Bill Rhatican talks U.S. and Virginia government with AP students Shannon Smith, left, and Alexandra Knoppel at West Potomac High School in Fairfax County. (Photos By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Angie Palma, a student at West Potomac High School, was stunned to discover last spring that the honors U.S. history course she hoped to take her junior year would no longer be offered.

For many years, honors courses have been an attractive compromise for American high-schoolers. They have sampled the choices like Goldilocks: Regular courses? Too easy. Advanced Placement courses? Too hard. But honors courses were just right.

Of course, that was before Advanced Placement and the smaller-but-similar college-level International Baccalaureate began a period of rapid growth that changed school curriculums across the country. More than a million high school students took AP tests in May, double the number who took them 10 years ago. And the Bush administration has proposed funds for training 70,000 new AP science and math teachers.

Now, a series of competing, sometimes contradictory studies have begun to look at the effectiveness of AP and IB in meeting their central purpose -- preparing students such as Palma for college. Some parents and students are questioning whether the college-level courses are placing too much strain on children and supplanting useful honors courses. And the College Board, which sponsors the AP program, has begun to ask schools to examine the content of their AP courses to make sure they meet the program's standards.

Palma is taking AP psychology but decided on the regular history course, calling the AP class "beyond my capabilities." Choices such as hers are part of a debate over AP that shows no signs of abating as the program undergoes growing pains.

The growth and expansion of the program comes as a new study, "The Relationship Between Advanced Placement and College Graduation" by Chrys Dougherty, Lynn Mellor and Shuling Jian of the National Center for Educational Accountability in Austin, has found that students who get a score of 3 or better on one of the 5-point exams, now offered in 35 subjects, are more likely to graduate from college than students who score poorly or do not take AP tests at all.

The center's former chairman, Tom Luce, published a book last year with scholar Lee Thompson that surveyed 78,079 low-income and minority Texas students. Those who failed an AP exam in high school still had higher college graduation rates than students who did not take an AP exam. Luce and Thompson warned that taking an AP exam would not necessarily cause students to do better in college, but the book encouraged educators to urge students to try AP. Some teachers noted that getting a good grade on the test -- shown to improve college graduation chances -- was unlikely if a student did not take the course.

Dougherty and Mellor cited one explanation for the Luce-Thompson result: Students who took and failed an AP exam had higher college graduation rates because they were more motivated, more persistent and more likely to keep going if they flunked an AP test or struggled in their freshman year at college.

In their paper, they compared AP test-takers and non-test-takers of similar economic status and academic achievement who attended high schools that had similar average family incomes and academic achievement. Their results indicated that in most cases, students who took and failed an AP test were not much more likely to graduate from college than students who do not take an AP test.

Among students who were not from low-income families, there was no advantage. Low-income students who took and failed an AP test were 5 percent more likely to graduate from college within five years than similar students who did not take an AP test. White students in that category were 3 percent more likely to graduate than those who didn't take an AP test, and Hispanic students were 1 percent more likely.

Among African American students, those who took and failed an AP test had a graduation rate 18 percent higher than African American students who didn't take an AP test. But the numbers of African American students in the study were so small that Dougherty and Mellor warned against making much of that result. They also cautioned against discouraging high school students from taking AP or IB courses and tests, because they could not accurately predict the success a well-motivated student might have.

Another recent study, by Kristin Klopfenstein of Texas Christian University and M. Kathleen Thomas of Mississippi State University, was less favorable to AP. The two economists looked at a sample of 28,000 Texas students and concluded that "with the lone exception of Hispanic students taking AP science, AP experience has no impact on first semester college GPA." They acknowledged, however, that their sample included many students who had taken AP courses but did not do well on, or even take, an AP exam.

While educators debate the conflicting research, some private high schools are objecting to the College Board's new AP course audit, in which AP teachers must sign a form attesting to the quality and content of their courses. AP Executive Director Trevor Packer has emphasized that there is no official AP curriculum and that there are many different ways to teach the courses, but it has not mollified some school leaders, who say AP already has too much influence over what they teach.

Peter M. Branch, head of Georgetown Day School, reacting to the audit, said: "I am distressed by this assumption of oversight of our program by the College Board. I don't see the necessity. It seems to me the student scores are the ultimate audit of the effectiveness of the school AP program."

In public schools, parents and students say they are less concerned about the audit and more concerned about the added stress of AP or IB courses becoming the standard for all college-bound students. Fairfax County schools spokesman Paul Regnier said that "most of our kids are able and should be taking the AP or IB courses," rather than honors. But not all parents and educators agree, and they are waiting to see what choices students make in the next few years and how they do in the courses.

Laurel Schaefer, a freshman at Falls Church High School, said students prefer to get their feet wet in an honors course before diving headfirst into AP or IB. Without the honors option, she said, "most of the students in regular classes are going to stay in them all throughout high school no matter what their potential."

Dick Reed, whose daughter will be a freshman at Hayfield Secondary School in Fairfax County in the fall, said he agrees that "every high school student should take at least one IB or AP class." But, he added, "what about the other thirteen classes that students will take in their junior and senior years? To me, the solution is honors classes."

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