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Advanced Placement Phenomenon
Nov 1, 2012

Two national news magazines, U.S. News and Newsweek, annually publish lists of America's Best High Schools. While Newsweek takes the total Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), or Cambridge (AICE) tests given at a school each year and divides it by the number of graduating students (Newsweek, 2010); U.S. News & World Report calculates its rankings based on the number of AP courses offered and exams taken compared to the number of students graduating (Mores, 2009).

If you are involved in an educational system either as an educator or the parent of a high school student, then you might be familiar with the important role of AP courses in the life of high school students across the United States. AP courses also play important roles for high school students in other countries because AP courses are offered at all International schools opened by the United States. For instance, according to the 7th AP Report to the Nation, "universities in more than 60 countries recognize AP Exam scores in the admission process and/or award credit and placement for qualifying scores" (College Board, 2011, p. b). In other words, students enrolled in AP courses in any of those countries can earn college credit the same way they would do in the United States. So this is not a local phenomenon at all. Naturally, any parent or educator might wonder what the history of AP courses is, and what their benefits and roles are for high school students.

I have worked as an AP Coordinator and Guidance Counselor for a public school for more than three years. Unsurprisingly, many middle and high school parents have asked me numerous questions regarding the AP program. The following interview, which took place between one of the parents who had a daughter at the school and myself, should help the reader develop a good understanding of AP programs and their benefits for both parents and students.

Q: What is the Advanced Placement program?

A: The AP Program was created by the US College Board in 1955 with the motto "Connecting Students to College Success." The AP program aims to prepare students for an academically demanding college experience. "Advanced Placement is a curricular option for academically superior tenth, eleventh, and twelfth-grade students. Naturally, courses offered in the program are more demanding in terms of time and intellectual skills than corresponding courses in the regular high school curriculum" (Postsecondary Educational Planning Commission, 1988, p. 4). Initially, AP courses began as a program for elite private school students to take college-level course while still in high school. This way, outstanding students could begin college with already earned credits needed for freshman year, which potentially would help them graduate college earlier.

Q: What is the role of the College Board regarding AP courses?

A: AP courses are developed and maintained by a non-profit organization, the US College Board, founded in 1900. This organization provides training for AP teachers, provides curriculum resources for both teachers and students of AP courses, and supports universities as they define their policies regarding AP grades, and develops and coordinates the administration of annual AP examinations. According to the US College Board, the AP program offers more than 30 different courses as of 2010. In 2009, nearly 1.7 million students worldwide took 2.9 million AP exams.

Q: Are AP takers increasing or decreasing?

A: According to the recent data released in the 7th AP Report to the Nation, the number of seniors taking at least one AP course and scoring 3 or more on AP exams has increased significantly (College Board, 2011, see Table I). The increases are due to growing awareness of the program, obvious benefits of taking AP courses, and the significant role of AP courses in the college admission process (Reichard & Keirn, 1999). Moreover, the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) offers states substantial federal funding, $24 million annually, to expand AP programs in underserved populations (Manzo, 2005).


Q: Are AP classes smaller than regular classes?

A: Since only academically outstanding students are accepted into AP classes, they are to be smaller, usually less than 15, as opposed to regular classrooms with 25 to 35 students. For instance, smaller schools like charter schools, might provide better opportunities for AP students in terms of class size because their student population is usually smaller than local public schools. Therefore, as is the case in my school, it is not a surprise to see AP classes with as low as 2 or 3 students per course. On the other hand, smaller schools may not offer as many AP courses as other public schools due to its student size.

Q: What about teacher quality? Do better teachers teach AP classes?

A: Yes, it is likely that AP teachers have either better training than other regular course teachers or more years of teaching experience, with higher degrees in subject areas. Moreover, AP teachers receive annual trainings in the subject they teach which is organized by the College Board. For example, I attended one of those trainings when I was assigned to teach AP Calculus in 2009. In trainings, you learn how to teach the course and they provide you with lots of resources to teach your course in depth. Conclusively, I believe that AP teachers may be better prepared in their content area as opposed to non-AP teachers.

Q: Can my daughter graduate early from college if she takes AP courses?

A: Yes, taking AP courses in high school will enable your daughter to realize her goal of graduating early from college because students can pursue college level studies while still in high school. That means AP students can transfer their high school credits to college and can replace them with their required college classes thus eliminating some freshman courses and graduating early. As a result, AP courses have become very popular among parents. They want their children to take as many AP courses as they can take. But taking an AP course is not enough to earn a corresponding college credit.

Q: What else should my daughter do in order for her to earn college credit?

A: For that purpose, students are required to take the AP exams administered annually in May prepared by the Educational Testing Service located in Princeton, New Jersey. This is where AP teachers, parents, and students' decide if students should take the AP exams of the courses they are taking. They usually look at students first semester performances in those classes. If students do not perform well in those classes, they are either recommended to continue taking the AP courses but not to take the exams or drop the course before first semester ends and start taking regular classes of the same course. AP exams consist of a multiple-choice section and a free response section. College professors and AP teachers score the open-ended questions once a year in June. The results of the multiple-choice and free response sections are combined to determine a composite score and then converted to a 5-point scale: 5 being extremely well qualified; 4, well qualified; 3, qualified; 2, possibly qualified; and 1, no recommendation.

Q: Do all colleges give credits for AP courses?

A: As common practice, more than thirty five hundred colleges give college credit to test scores 3 and above. Although this is still a common practice in almost all colleges, some universities and colleges have recently started to limit credits by requiring either a 4 or 5 exam score. For example, the University of Pennsylvania is very strict in awarding the AP Calculus credit and MIT is requiring its students to re-take a college introductory chemistry course at their institution regardless of their AP Chemistry scores while they are all still accepting other AP courses (Manzo, 2005).

Q: Do having AP courses on my daughter's transcript increase her chance in college admission?

A: The use of AP courses in the admission process began after the 1980s. At first, only highly selective colleges and universities considered AP courses to make fine distinctions among the increasing number of applicants (Reichard & Keirn, 1999). Today, AP and honors courses receive special consideration by almost all selective colleges and universities in the admissions decision. The way AP scores are used may vary from one institution to another. For example, the University of California recalculates an applicant's high-school grade-point average (HSGPA) by giving additional "bonus points" for approved AP courses while others do not recalculate but accept the school's weighted HSGPA. Regardless of how colleges evaluate students' AP courses, yes, having AP courses on a transcript puts a student in a more advantageous position as compared to non-AP students in admission decisions. Once, I remember a parent who was evaluating all the high schools in her district in terms of their AP offerings to enroll her son. When she was asked why she was doing so, she said it was because colleges look at the number of APs on an applicant's transcript to make an admission decision. As a high school counselor, I know that this is a common practice among upper middle-class parents to ensure their children get a college admission. Thus, this puts great pressure on schools to expand their AP offerings.

Q: Then, can I say that I will pay less tuition and save time?

A: Yes, indeed, taking AP courses in high school will save the student and parent, both time and money. As of today, skipping an introductory course in college could translate to an average of $3,000 per course. For example, one of my students took 9 AP courses while she was in high school. It is equivalent to almost a year of time and $27,000 money. Why would a reasonable parent and/or student miss this great opportunity?

Q: But I am afraid that my daughter may not graduate from a college because many high school students are not ready for college challenges both in terms of academics and in life?

A: Yes, you are right to have such concerns because Lewis (2010) reports that just 56 percent of those who enroll in a four-year college earn a bachelor's degree. The number one reason why the rate is low is because students are mostly unprepared for the college experience. On the other hand, research has revealed that students who pass AP exams are more likely to graduate college on time (College Board, 2011). For example, in a study sponsored by the College Board, it was found that taking AP courses in high school and passing the exams appear to help students perform better in college classes and graduate on time. They analyzed four incoming classes at the University of Texas from 1998 to 2001 by looking at their ten individual AP subjects. These researchers reported that, "AP Credit students consistently outperformed non-AP students of similar academic ability in all college outcome measures" (Keng & Dodd, 2008, p. 1). Thus, taking AP courses and passing its exams usually put students one step ahead of their non-AP counterparts.

Moreover, according to Dillon's (1986) study, completion of AP courses convey to colleges that students who have taken AP classes have developed scientific inquiry, reasoning, problem solving, and analysis methods. In other words, they are more ready for college challenges. As a result, it is not surprising to see that academically prepared high school students are not only more successful in academic work in college, but they are often more self-confident, have increased aspirations and "fit-in" more easily into college. This is true because AP students are exposed to the academic rigor, expectations, and autonomy, which are usually linked with the content and rationale of college curriculum. For instance, Syracuse University found that students with AP credits showed as high as a 96% first-year retention rate while the national average was 79% (Miller, 1994). Therefore, taking and completing AP courses help students have a smoother transition from high school to college in terms of both curriculum and lifestyle.

Q: My last concern is about my daughter's senior year. I know from my oldest son who didn't study much and skipped his classes a lot. Therefore, he barely passed his classes and graduated. Thus, he did not get an admission to a 4-year college. Can my daughter really take AP exams during her senior year?

A: All high school counselors know that "senioritis" is a disease and that it is contagious and there's no vaccination or cure for it. Delicath (1998) found trends in AP courses as they deal with high school seniors. Delicath stated that AP classes help solve the problem of "senioritis," defined as senior-year boredom among capable high school students who complete most of their graduation requirements by the end of their junior year. The good news is that the seniors who enroll in AP courses often remain more focused and attached to learning than their non-AP counterparts. Thus, seniors overcome their stresses and last year boredom.

In conclusion, in light of all its benefits, I would strongly suggest all high school administrators and counselors to be more knowledgeable about AP and try to create a very strong AP program at their schools so they can send more students to four-year colleges. Also, having a strong AP program at schools prevents students from dropping out due to financial reasons, first generation fear, and so on. Therefore, it should be the goal and duty of all high school teachers and counselors to inform and prepare their capable students to benefits from this great opportunity.

Alpaslan Sahin, PhD from Texas A&M University, College Station TX, is a school administrator. His research area is Mathematics Education.


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