New Studies Say AP Works

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 30, 2007; 12:44 PM

The College Board releases its annual Advanced Placement Report to the Nation next week. For us AP and IB dorks, it is the equivalent of the State of the Union address. No, delete that. The State of the Union is usually a bore. AP's Report to the Nation is more like the Academy Awards, for a small group of socially awkward fans like me.

For those of you new to this obsession, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate are courses and tests given to high school students that are designed to be the equivalent of introductory college courses in about two dozen subjects. They impress selective-college admissions offices. If the students do well on the tests, they can earn college credits and skip introductory courses for more advanced stuff when they get to college.

This year there was a bonus in the Report to the Nation. In the advance copy for reporters, I saw a reference to two new studies of AP in Texas that appeared to break new ground. Since these were reports by independent researchers, I was not breaking the College Board embargo if I sought them out and asked to see their work.

The result was a story I wrote for yesterday's editions of The Post. Here are the first paragraphs:

"In the midst of a national debate over whether Advanced Placement courses place too much pressure on American high school students, a team of Texas researchers have concluded the difficult courses and three-hour exams are worth it.

"In the largest study ever of the impact of AP on college success, which looked at 222,289 students from all backgrounds attending a wide range of Texas universities, the researchers said they found 'strong evidence of benefits to students who participate in both AP courses and exams in terms of higher GPAs, credit hours earned, and four-year graduation rates.'

"A separate University of Texas study of 24,941 students said those who used their AP credits to take more advanced courses in college had better grades in those courses than similar students who took college introductory courses instead of AP in 10 ten different subjects.

" 'Both of these papers are home runs. They definitely settle a lot,' said Joseph Hawkins, an AP expert who is senior study director for the private research firm Westat in Rockville.

"The new studies run counter to an unpublished Harvard and University of Virginia study that casts doubt on the worth of AP science courses, and contradict some critics who say that high school courses, even with an AP label, cannot match the depth of the college introductory courses."

Once these studies are available online, which may take awhile, I will have the links in this column. In the meantime, I want to use the extra space here, cruelly denied me whenever I write a news story for the paper, to identify what I think are the most interesting parts, and to let the experts I consulted have more than the paltry 56 words -- I just counted -- that I had room to quote in the news story.

1. AP students v. non-AP students

Both studies attempted to put this competition on a level playing field by comparing the college success of AP students to those non-AP students (or AP students who did not take the AP exam) who were similar in important ways. The larger study, by University of Texas-Austin researchers Linda Hargrove and Barbara Dodd and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board researcher Donn Godin, compared students with about the same SAT or ACT scores, or similar family economic circumstances.

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