Finding the Best High Schools -- Part Four: Rationing AP

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 3, 2007; 9:46 AM

William Lichten, the distinguished Yale professor emeritus of physics, is at it again, trying to keep U.S. high schools from giving so many Advanced Placement courses and tests to racial minorities and low income students. Too many of those people fail the tests, he says. They should be given something easier to do.

Most of the AP teachers I know think Lichten is out of his depth on this issue. I agree with them. He is a brilliant man who knows the dynamics of the forces of nature, but he does not understand the dynamics of American public high schools. What he sees as harmful failure on AP college-level tests is actually beneficial exercise of flabby academic muscles. Interviews with many students, and some major studies, indicate that struggling with hard courses in high school helps prepare students for the academic demands they will face in college.

Lichten has published a new paper, "Equity and Excellence in the College Board Advanced Placement Program," available at It is an update of his 2000 paper, "Whither Advanced Placement." Lichten may be out of the AP mainstream, but his papers have influence. Faculty members at Scarsdale High School recently cited his work in their proposal to drop AP in favor of their own home-grown college-level courses. That Scarsdale report says: "Critics such as Yale professor William Lichten, who conducted a study of AP in the year 2000, now says the program no longer represents the standard it once did. 'There is firm evidence,' says Lichten, 'that the average test performance level has dropped. The College Board's scale and claims for AP qualification disagree seriously with college standards.' "

Only one of those three Lichten points--the drop in average test performance--appears to be true. But Lichten is an energetic scholar putting his retirement years to good use, so he deserves a fair review. Here is what his new paper says:

The College Board has been calculating the national AP passing rate for 50 years. It is the percentage of the 5-point exams that receive grades of 3, 4 or 5, the college equivalent of a C-plus, a B-plus or an A. Most colleges give credit for at least a 3 on an AP exam in many subjects, although their rules vary widely. The most selective colleges are apt to give credit only for scores of 4 or 5.

In 1998 that average passing rate for all AP exams, as measured by the portion of 3s, 4s and 5s, was 63 percent. By 2006 that rate had dropped to 59 percent. This was the apparent result of a large increase in the number of AP test takers, including many minority and low-income students who, on average, have less academic preparation than middle class students and thus lower scores on most standardized tests.

Lichten argues that these College Board passing rate percentages are a sham. He calculates the AP pass rate in a different way, using a sample of college AP credit rules at 41 colleges and universities to estimate NOT the percentage of AP tests that get grades of 3 and above, but the percentage of AP tests that are likely to receive college credit.

In the abstract of his new paper, Lichten says, "The College Board's claim that a score of 3 'qualifies' disagrees with the facts of college acceptance. The pass rate has dropped from 51 percent in 1998 to 39 percent in 2006."

He emphasizes a different statistic, which he calls the "incremental pass rate," the percentage of new AP test takers that would be expected to score high enough to earn college credit as the number of test takers increases. Lichten says this incremental rate was only 29 percent between 1998 and 2006, and was particularly bad for minorities. "By objective measure, the expansion of AP courses into inner city schools has failed," Lichten says. "African American and Mexican American (AP Spanish excepted) minorities have an incremental pass rate near 10 percent. These shortcomings, which contradict the claim that AP is 'for everyone,' call for reform of AP admissions policy."

Stop the madness, Lichten says, and allow only students with high standardized test scores to take AP classes. "Only a small minority of students are advanced enough to do college-level work in high school," he says.

"With burgeoning growth of AP came slipshod teaching, careless administration, curriculum stasis, and an escalating failure rate," he says. "Reforms underway could solve some of these problems; moreover, rather than the present anarchy, it would be important to control admission to AP. . . . The PSAT, SAT or ACT tests are widely used, are often the most effective predictors of success in the AP program, and could be used to guide admission to it. If limits were set to achieve the College Board's claimed success rate of [about] 75 percent, a million tests [compared to the 2.3 million given last year] would still be taken."

To Lichten's credit, he is quick to acknowledge his errors and reluctant to comment on matters, such as what happens in high school AP classes, which he has not studied carefully. But that does not excuse the shortage of supporting data in his latest paper. He readily responded to questions about this sent to him by College Board experts--in some cases admitting he made mistakes--but he said I could not quote that part of his message to me.

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