AP surges as a tool for schools raising standards

“It’s kind of an easy reform—plunk in an AP course,” said University of Northern Colorado scholar Kristin Klopfenstein, who edited a recent collection of studies on the AP program. But without accompanying steps, it’s not clear AP does much good, especially for students scoring 1s and 2s. “What I’ve observed in a lot of cases is AP programs being helicopter-dropped in with the hope that the high standards themselves would generate results.”

Perhaps surprisingly, those concerns are shared by the not-for-profit College Board, which runs the AP program and has benefited from its growth (collecting $353 million in revenue from its college readiness programs, including AP exam fees, in 2009).

“Schools that are using AP in a very deliberate way to change the culture, there’s something very powerful there,” said Senior Vice President Trevor Packer. But as a shortcut to avoid the hard foundational work students need, AP might be a waste—or worse, a diversion. (The test fee is $87, though the College Board discounts that to $53 for low-income students, who with government grants often have no cost at all.)

“The last thing we want is (schools) spending money on test fees if that’s all they’re spending money on,” Packer said.

The AP program dates to the 1950s, but has grown rapidly in recent years to 34 subjects, from art history to Japanese. High-achieving students and parents have driven some of the growth, but mostly it’s educators and policy makers. The six states now requiring high schools to offer AP include several that have struggled the most with educational achievement—Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. (The others are Indiana and Connecticut. A half-dozen additional states require schools to offer either AP or other rigorous classes such as dual-enrollment or International Baccalaureate.)

States also encourage AP in other ways. Indiana, for instance, gives schools bonuses for AP performance, and factors AP into the state’s accountability formula and performance goals. Florida pays bonuses to teachers for each student earning a qualifying score. Seven states require public colleges to award credit or placement based on AP exam scores. Students, meanwhile, usually get extra weighting on their GPAs and improved chances for admission to selective colleges.

Increasingly common are school districts like East Noble in Kendallville, Ind., where the high school now offers 11 AP classes, up from three a few years ago. The district’s pass rate on statewide tests ranks just above the bottom quarter in Indiana, state figures show. Superintendent Ann Linson started pushing AP when she was the high school principal, dropping a requirement that AP enrollees come from the top 25 percent of students.

“I was really put out by that,” she said. “I believe every student should have the ability to be part of a more challenging course.” Last year, about 42 percent of East Noble graduates took an AP exam, roughly double the percentage three years before. But the 14 percent of graduates who earned a passing score (close to the state average) was about the same as before. Indiana’s statewide goal is 25 percent of graduates earning AP credit.

“If a student pushes themselves at a higher level, even if they receive a C or D, it’s going to better prepare them for life after school,” Linson said.

Why has AP become a gold standard? One reason is schools can slap the label “honors” on any class, but AP requires outside validation, said David Conley, a University of Oregon professor and CEO of the Educational Policy Improvement Center. To offer official AP courses, teachers and principals must develop a curriculum that the College Board attests meets standards set by college faculty (Conley’s group does that validation work for the College Board). Many AP teachers also undergo special training.

Also, Conley says, the seemingly endless battery of state-level tests that have emerged over the last two decades focus on setting a “floor”—minimum skills for all students. AP lets schools and policy makers talk about raising the “ceiling,” elevating students beyond the bare minimum and pushing them toward college.

One other possible factor: For years, Newsweek magazine used a school’s number of AP tests per graduate as the sole factor for inclusion on its annual list of “Best American High Schools.” (That list’s inventor, Jay Mathews, moved it to the Washington Post in 2011. Newsweek developed a new list with a formula where AP factors into three categories totaling 40 percent).

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