Friday, April 1, 2011

AP classes and college development

I'm a big believer in acceleration and giving students the opportunity to test out of courses (I always advised students to explore CLEP). I have never been that impressed, however, with the AP approach. It always struck me as badly thought out and prone to play to the weakest parts of our education system.

I'll make a partial exception for calculus. Because of the extensive prerequisites in majors such as engineering, having cal I or, better yet, cal II out of the way can be a tremendous advantage to an incoming freshman. Add to that the fact that the nature of the subject makes teaching to the test much less of a concern.

With that exception noted, I never saw that strong a case for AP. On the whole, I suspect that college level material is better taught by college faculty, particularly given the test-prep approach of many of the AP classes. If anything, I'd like to see more anti-AP programs. Instead of giving college credit for high school courses, give high school students more opportunities to take college courses (either on site or through distance learning or some kind of independent study). There are certainly precedents: even back in the dark ages, I was in a program where as a high school senior I could attend the local college half-time. With the advent of distance learning, email and digital media, the argument for AP has only gotten weaker.

At this point, I should segue gracefully into a discussion of this paper (via TNR) on the impact of AP courses but to be perfectly honest, I'm in a hurry so I'm just going to give you the abstract and let you all talk it over amongst yourselves:

The Advanced Placement (AP) Program was originally designed to provide students a means to earn college credit and/or advanced placement for learning college-level material in high school. Today the program serves an equally important role as a signal in college admissions. This paper examines the extent to which AP course-taking predicts early college grades and retention. Controlling for a broad range of student, school, and curricular characteristics, we find that AP experience does not reliably predict first semester college grades or retention to the second year. We show that failing to control for the student’s non-AP curricular experience, particularly in math and science, leads to positively biased AP coefficients. Our findings raise questions about recent state policies mandating AP inclusion in all school districts or high schools and the practice of giving preference to students with AP course experience in the university admissions process.


  1. The worst thing I ever did was skip Intro to Mechanics because I had Physics AB credit. Big, BIG mistake - and I had a great physics teacher in high school, too! Intro to Electrodynamics was a breeze since we'd already covered all the material in his class (though with simpler math, since that was all my school offered).

    But Intermediate Mechanics was another story. I was seriously underprepared for that course, and I needed to be OVER prepared because - as it turned out - the professor was sexist refused to work with me.

  2. (cont.) Maybe it would have happened anyway, but it was during his course that I started to question my abilities, and wondered whether I'd be able to complete my degree.

    (I did, but after graduation I ran straight for a field - publishing - that was 90% female and had no computational requirements.)

    Anyway this may be beside your main point, since I think my high school physics course was actually very good - not 'taught to the test' or anything like that (unlike AP English). But even a great high course isn't a substitute for two semester college courses.

  3. Sorry for the typos! I retyped this comment/these comments in a hurry after Blogger ate my first attempt. There really should be a warning about maximum allowed character length.

  4. SD

    1. Thanks for the comments. Don't get me wrong. There are some great AP classes taught by outstanding teachers. What concerns me are some of the larger aspects of the system.

    2. In case I haven't mentioned it before, Blogger kinda sucks.

  5. I went through a program in Washington State ( that let me fulfill the majority of my 11th and 12th grade HS credits by attending college classes at local community colleges. Junior year I went full time my senior year the college was directly across the street from my high school so it was easy to take a mix of classes at both schools. The logistics you mention are important - my fiance had an on-site equivalent for some classes - but my junior year I had a 30-minute drive to the college which meant I took all my credits there, whereas my senior year the college was located across the street from my high school so I could take more of a mix.

  6. Mark, I know you don't say that this paper rules out meaningful positive effects from AP, but I'd just like to comment that it doesn't really shift my priors at all. The specifications are questionable... the standard errors are pretty big.

    I believe this link to the full paper is ungated:

  7. Michael,

    At the risk of being cynical, I always take educational research with numerous blocks of salt. That being said, strong effects have a way of showing through even weak studies.

    AP courses have a well established place in the conventional wisdom and I'm afraid their dominance has kept us from exploring promising alternatives for accelerating the curriculum of gifted students.

    Thanks for the link,