Do AP programs set kids up for failure?

The Advanced Placement backlash: Is the pendulum swinging too far?

To AP or not to AP? That’s the question raised by a spate of recent stories questioning the value of Advanced Placement programs.The nut of the these stories is simple: AP is failing kids; the program is over-funded; we’ve let it grow too fast on too little evidence. Or as education reporter Liz Bowie from the Baltimore Sun frames it, AP’s expansion “has not lived up to its promise.”

Politico’s Stephanie Simon is far more blunt: AP expansion has resulted in “a lot of time and money down the drain; research shows that students don’t reap any measurable benefit from AP classes unless they do well enough to pass the $89 end-of-course exam.”

But have those dollars truly been been “wasted” as Ms. Simon contends? Or have low-income students like Destiny Miller, the dogged Baltimore County high school senior profiled by Ms. Bowie, really been unfairly “targeted” by a voraciously expanding AP program?

Growth of the Advanced Placement Program

Destiny Miller (left) measures liquids during AP Biology at Woodlawn H.S. Photo by Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun.
Destiny Miller (left) measures liquids during AP Biology at Woodlawn H.S. Photo by Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun. View the complete photo essay.

That the AP program grew dramatically—both in terms of enrollments in AP classes and of numbers of exams administered—from 2002 to 2012 is indisputable. As Jay Mathews reported on his Washinton Post blog earlier this year, “954,070 members of the class of 2012 took at least one AP exam, a 102 percent increase over 2002. Of that group, 573,472 had at least one passing score on an AP exam, an 88 percent gain in a decade.”

Equally indisputable is that as the number of AP students rose—especially among students from under-resourced schools—the pass rate dropped by four percentage points (to 57 percent) over the same 10-year period. Meanwhile, the public bill for these programs has grown: Per Ms. Simon, the federal government tally to subsidize AP among low-income students totaled $275 million over five years, with states contributing “millions more.”

The College Board’s explanation of the decline is simple: From 1999, when federal funding was first provided, to 2012, the program became significantly less “elitist,” notes College Board spokesperson Deborah Davis. “The number of AP exams taken by low-income students has risen by more than 640 percent.”

The baby & the bathwater: Are investments in AP really money down the drain?

The stories in Politico and the Baltimore Sun both hinge on the contention that new research refutes earlier studies which linked college success to the benefits of AP coursework – even among students who fail the test. But that’s not really what new research shows.

Last spring, Challenge Success, an organization out of Stanford, issued a report widely viewed as critical of the AP program. The report, which stemmed from an in-depth review of 20 studies on AP and college success, found no causality between AP enrollment and college success.

In spite of that, the report noted clear indications that even students who failed the AP did better in college–as long as they scored better than a one out of a possible five points. (The evidence on a score of two was less consistent.) In the MindShift story discussing the report, its author Denise Pope noted a number of problems with the way the program was often implemented. She was nonetheless clear about its overall value: “[S]tudents who take AP courses are more likely to succeed in college,” she said.

The takeaway

It’s a given that students who take AP and succeed in college may be a harder working bunch to begin with. Or that they may have been directed to AP courses through college prep programs that provide broader support. Or that any number of other factors may have influenced their success.

It’s also a given that AP often provides academic rigor that would otherwise be unavailable to underserved students–and that sometimes, those students suffer the consequences (poor grades, AP failures, etc.) of years of poor preparation for that rigor (another point emphasized by Pope).

Does the downside mean we should get rid of AP? No.

The program  isn’t a silver bullet solution that will undo years of subpar schooling. There’s no such thing. But in an educational system where so many students are so often badly served, we need to look for a broad range of solutions to improve the quality of K-12 schooling.

Could the program be implemented better? Yes. The College Board says as much. But based on the available evidence, the throw-the-baby-out tone of this most recent batch of AP critiques is overkill.


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