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Research: AP Classes Not Big Predictor of College Success

While many states are working to increase the number of students taking high school Advanced Placement courses as preparation for college, new research suggests that these more rigorous classes do little to predict college success, a study released Wednesday found.

Using U.S. Department of Education longitudinal data, researchers Brad Hershbein, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, and syndicated technology columnist Gregory Ferenstein, discovered that "students with one more year of high school instruction in physics, psychology, economics, or sociology on average have grades in their first college course in the same subject just 0.003 to 0.2 points higher on a four-point scale."

"For example," they added, "for students of similar race, socioeconomic status, and high school standardized test scores, those who took a year of high school economics earn a final grade in their college economics class 0.03 points higher than students who have never encountered that subject before. What’s more, these trivially small differences hold even for students who took exactly the same college course."

Their research, published by the Brookings Institution where Herschbein is a non-resident fellow in economic studies, comes as college access and funding is debated, and offers both an achievement and an economic perspective for school districts and families concerned about education progress.

Some education advocates have decried inequity as some poorer school districts have few teachers — in some cases none — trained to teach Advanced Placement (AP) classes. They argue that a changing global economy demands students focus on tougher and more specialized classes to keep up with their international peers.

In addition, some suggest that by taking more AP classes, and passing the AP exams, college-bound students can bypass some early degree requirements, saving them money on higher education. According to the College Board, which oversees the AP program, more than 2,600 colleges and universities grant college credit for AP coursework.

AP courses are specialized and immersive and offered in more than 30 subjects — everything from economics, English literature, art history and music theory to calculus, biology, physics, chemistry and foreign languages.

If a school offers an AP class, there is no extra charge to a student. However, students who take the AP exams pay a fee, currently $92 each, but it can be reduced or refunded, in relation to economic need. Certain AP Capstone course tests cost $141 each. Some states offer subsidies to offset testing costs.

AP test scores get sent along to a student's college of choice. Students can earn a 5, which means "extremely well-qualified," to a 1, which means "no recommendation," on subject mastery.

Hershbein and Ferenstein noted in their paper that more students than ever are earning high school diplomas — now 82 percent, they said — but college completion rates have remained "stagnant" — "exacerbated by a throng of college-bound students ill-prepared for advanced courses." They described this as a "troubling hidden pattern," seen by colleges where more and more students are forced to take remedial coursework to move ahead in their degree programs.

The researchers cautioned that they aren't suggesting that higher level subject matter classes in high school aren't important, but they are recommending that school systems rethink their approach to what specifically helps to ensure college success. They also noted that many universities are making students take classes to engage critical thinking skills, including writing, even as they come to college with plenty of AP credits from high school. Harvard, they cited as an example, does not allow any student to bypass its entry-level writing course — even those who earned a top-level score of 5 on the AP's English exam.

The researchers made recommendations that schools explore other broader options for courses that are both "innovative" and also "experimental," adding that such classes could be focused on areas that might help students focus on long-term success.

"National assessments need to follow students through college graduation to understand what works and what does not over the long term. To date, many standardized tests (including international assessments) simply assume that performance in high school necessarily predicts later success, without revealing how students use such knowledge and skills in college classes or to finish their degree," they wrote.

"For example, non-cognitive skill development and technical education in high school may be a more productive strategy to promote college completion than traditional advanced courses," they added.

"We believe that freeing up some curricular time to pilot alternative pedagogical approaches that would be studied may yield more evidence on what works for whom without the worry that students will be shortchanged by less drilling on subject content."