Are AP classes and tests worth investment? No, says DeKalb school board member.

The DeKalb school board recently approved paying up to $310,000 so students taking AP classes can also take the standardized exam related to the college-level course. Board member Stan Jester questions that investment.

He's not alone. Some studies suggest the AP program has been oversold and its benefits exaggerated.

One of the nation's most elite prep schools, Choate Rosemary Hall, plans to stop offering AP classes. In an email to parents, Choate said, "Over the last several years, we have had many conversations in our community about the role of Advanced Placement courses in our curriculum. These conversations stemmed initially from a sentiment expressed by Choate students that AP courses were not serving their needs optimally and that their teachers of current AP courses could do a better job if freed from the limits of the AP Program.”

AP courses are college-level courses created by the College Board and offered in high school. Students have the option of taking a standardized test at the end of the course, which is graded on a 1 to 5 scale. Students can earn college credit from scoring a 3, 4, or 5.

The Georgia Department of Education encourages students to take AP classes and last week released new College Board data showing a slight improvement in AP test scores.

"Georgia’s class of 2016 recorded an excellent performance on their AP exams, and Georgia’s teachers and schools continued to expand access to this valuable program to more students,” said School Superintendent Richard Woods. “The AP program allows us to expand access to high-quality, relevant coursework for Georgia’s students. I’m pleased to see that access expanding to more students, and proud that Georgia remains among the top-tier for AP performance in the United States.”

The fee for an AP exam is $93. Some districts assume the cost; many do not. The state of Georgia covers the cost for one AP exam for low-income students. By annual board vote, DeKalb has paid for one test per student regardless of income since 2013 so low-income students in the county get two tests underwritten. (The district had paid for AP tests earlier but that had apparently ceased during the recession.)

The DeKalb administration's rationale has been the research showing students who successfully complete an AP course are more likely to graduate high school and college.

But Jester contends students who choose AP may be intrinsically more motivated. He asks whether AP enrollment is a true surrogate measure of quality and whether pushing more DeKalb students into AP courses is an effective academic strategy, especially given performance on the tests in some county high schools.

"At best, it is giving people a false sense of progress and success at their school. At worst, it undermines instruction in both AP and non-AP classes," he says. "There is also the opportunity cost. This money could be redeployed to another use that did produce an increase in student success in some way. What is absolutely, specifically clear right now is that the AP exam pass rates at many schools in DeKalb are a robust indicator that something isn’t working well with the district’s emphasis on AP courses and their exams."

Jester looked at AP exam results for the last seven years:

There are 6 schools that have pass rates percentages of under 10% -- Cedar Grove, Columbia, MLK, McNair, Redan, and Towers.

There are 8 schools that have pass rate percentages between 10-25% -- Arabia Mountain, Clarkston, Lithonia, Miller Grove, Stephenson, Stone Mountain, and Tucker).

There are 2 schools that have pass rates of 26%-43% -- Cross Keys and Southwest DeKalb).

There are 6 schools that perform at or above the average pass rate (44%) for the school district -- Chamblee, DECA, DeKalb School of the Arts, Druid Hills, Dunwoody, and Lakeside.

Jester notes troubling trends at Redan High School:

Towers has a 24% decrease in the number of students taking the AP exam and a 2% increase in the number of students that pass the test. Clarkston should be relatively proud of itself, AP exam participation has gone from 193 to 238 students and from 10% to 11% passing rate. Redan embodies epic failure. Redan had a 25% decrease in the number of students taking the AP exam and went from 15% to 5% of the students passing it.

The College Board, which owns the AP curriculum and administers the tests, has its own research showing the classes help students excel in college. Those findings have been challenged by independent reviews.

In this study -- "Advanced Placement Exam Scores as a Predictor of Performance in Introductory College Biology, Chemistry and Physics Courses" – researchers from Harvard and the University of Virginia conclude:

We find that the students in our sample who reported AP exam scores of 3 or higher earned college grades that were higher than the student average. However, many AP 5 students performed at levels below the College Board’s claims of excellence even after taking a semester of the college science. While 73% of AP 4 students earned college science grades above the College Board’s stated “mid-level B performance in college,” about half of the AP 5 students missed the A level performance cited by the College Board

Based on our analysis, it appears that about half of the advantage attributed to AP experience can be accounted for by variables representing the academic abilities and experiences possessed by AP students prior to, or independent of, their AP course experiences. Students’ backgrounds, particularly their mathematical and verbal skills, appear to contribute mightily to their performance in college science courses. While the AP examination program is an elaborate system, with its professional development program rivaling its assessment program in size and productivity, the Advanced Placement exams themselves appear to fall short of the predictive validity claimed by the College Board. Based on the findings from our study, AP exams scores of 3 do not appear to warrant the granting of college credit over those students who take an AP course in high school, but do not take the exam. In addition, we found that an AP exam score of 1 or 2 offered little evidence of any benefit derived from the AP coursework experienced by the students in high school. In addition, students passing an AP exam might well consider retaking introductory courses in college to more completely master the content, as many colleges and universities already require.

Advanced Placement has become one of the most highly respected “brand-names” in secondary/postsecondary education. However, our study has found indications that the AP program, while certainly of value to many students, may lack some of the evidence necessary to support its claim of academic rigor equal to that of introductory college and university courses in science. While this current study certainly suffers from limitations, as do all research studies, what is clear from our findings is that the claims of the College Board regarding the interpretation and validity of AP exam scores are problematic. Our findings indicate the need for further investigations of greater size, scope, and intensity, especially given the potential being ascribed to the Advanced Placement program as part of the cure for what ails American science education.

After her review of 20 studies on AP courses, Stanford education expert Denise Pope was asked whether kids were wasting their time taking the classes. Here is her response:

If you are truly interested in the subject, there’s a good teacher and you’re surrounded by other motivated students, then you’re probably going to have a good experience from taking a more advanced class. But if you’re pushed into it without good preparation and without a safety net in place at the school to help you if you get in over your head, then it may be more harmful than helpful.

Colleges don’t always accept the courses for college credit, many students end up repeating the course in college anyway, and you can run the risk of memorizing material for a test versus delving into a subject and exploring it in an enriching way. Sometimes an honors course at a high school is actually a better option for rigorous and engaging learning.

Here is a link to a good discussion of the decision by a top-ranked New York school system to move away from AP.

What has been your experience with AP classes and tests?

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.