March 17, 2010

Advanced Placement: taking classes v. passing tests

The growth over the years of Advanced Placement testing allowing high school students to earn college credit has been one of the better things to happen to American education. For example, getting credit for intro college courses while in high school can help students avoid spending 4.5 or 5.0 years in college (which had become traditional at University of California campuses in the 1980s due to shortages of seats in required classes), which is a lot more expensive these days than 4.0 years.

Unfortunately, as with most things involving schooling, discussion of Advanced Placement (AP) is beset with confusion. The most common problem is the recurrent confusion between taking AP classes and passing AP tests. The conventional wisdom assumes that the former more or less equates to the latter, so if we just get enough poor and minority students to take classes called "AP" then our problems our solved. But that's clearly not true.

Huge numbers of kids take courses in high school each year labeled "AP" and then bomb the national AP test in May. In polar contrast, other kids pass AP tests without taking AP classes, or even any classes at all in the subject. (My kid, for example, received 9 hours of college credit, more than half a semester, through AP testing for subjects he never even took in high school: World History and Comparative Government. He simply piggybacked off courses he did take, European History and US History and U.S. Government, with some home reading to fill in the gaps, such as memorizing the Chinese dynasties.)

A new book of social science research sounds like it can help clear up some of the confusion. (Of course, that assumes that people want to become less confused, which is a very risky assumption in anything having to do with American schooling.)

Education Week reports:

At a time of mushrooming interest in Advanced Placement tests, a new book assembles studies on how capable the program is of meeting the increasingly diverse expectations held up for it.

“The AP program is not going to solve all the problems of American education,” said Philip M. Sadler, one of the editors of AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program, being published this month by Harvard Education Press. “I think AP is really good for some things and not very good for other things,” said Mr. Sadler, a senior lecturer in astronomy at Harvard University, “and people should be aware of what its strengths and weaknesses are.”

Despite quibbles with some of the studies in the book, officials from the College Board, the New York City-based group that runs the program, called the new volume a “landmark collection” in an area where scholarship is badly needed.

“The College Board has long lamented the fact that, except for the grants our organization distributes to fund AP-focused research, there has seemed to be little interest among independent researchers in AP,” Trevor Packer, the board’s vice president for Advanced Placement programs, wrote in an e-mail message.

Growing out of a symposium held at Harvard in 2007, the book focuses on AP science courses in particular and offers evidence on whether they give students an academic edge in college or persuade them to earn degrees in science-related fields.

One big example of the confusion between the value of taking AP classes and passing AP tests is that college admissions people tend to treat AP totally backward. At least in public discussions of how they weigh applications, they give more weight to you taking classes designated by your high school to be "AP" than to you getting good scores on the national AP tests.

In calculating high school GPA, they give an extra GPA point to any high class that claims to be AP (thus an "A" in Advanced Placement Psychology is worth a 5 instead of a 4), which is why, say, Berkeley students enter college with high school GPAs that sound hallucinatory (e.g., 4.47!) to older generations who didn't benefit from this gimmick.

But, admissions offices are reluctant to publicly admit that they give much weight to actually passing the national AP exams, even though those are very good predictors of whether you have the smarts and self-discipline to do well in college. Unlike high school GPA, AP tests are both nationally standard and they are more challenging than the vast majority of high school classes. Unlike the SAT, you can't be a smart slack-off and ace them. So, they function well as an acid test that this kid is college material.
In their chapter, for instance, researchers Chrys Dougherty and Lynne T. Mellor of the National Center for Educational Achievement, in Austin, Texas, draw on five years of data collected when Texas’ efforts to expand access to college-preparation courses were getting under way. They found that, once differences in students’ backgrounds were accounted for, AP students were no more likely to graduate from college than non-AP students. But the opposite was true for AP students who both took and passed AP exams.

College admissions offices, however, tend to argue that directly weighing scores on AP tests would discriminate against students at schools that don't offer AP classes. That's true, but less true than giving an extra GPA point to kids in classes labeled AP.

This book offers a new rule of thumb:
Based on that calculation, he figures that students who take honors courses ought to receive an extra half-point on a grade-point-average scale of 1 to 4, while AP courses ought to be worth an extra point, and an extra 2 points if students pass the exam.

“I think it’s the only article I’ve seen that provides evidence for how to calculate high school GPAs,” Mr. Sadler said of his study. “Everywhere else, they just use a rule of thumb.”

I recall, however, a University of California study that recommended reducing the the AP GPA bonus from 1.0 to 0.5 points.

The study also found that exam failure rates were disproportionately high among African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students, the disadvantaged groups the policy aimed to help, and that many such students had to take remedial courses in college.

States and districts have tried to increase access to AP by providing subsidies to cover students’ exam fees. But Ms. Klopfenstein argues that, given her findings on the amount of time it takes AP students to earn a degree, such policies are not cost-effective.

I've looked at a ton of AP data, and it's really obvious who is taking fewer than the optimal number of AP tests: Red State white kids. But nobody is supposed to be looking out publicly for the welfare of white kids, so you only hear about how more NAMs need to take the AP tests, even though their returns on taking them in terms of passing are much more diminishing.

A couple of things are going on in why Red State white kids tend to be oblivious to AP: First, AP is administered by the College Board, which is affiliated with ETS in Princeton, NJ, where the SAT comes from, so AP is bigger in SAT states than in ACT states. The ACT college aptitude test is developed in Iowa and is most popular in the middle of the country, so Red State kids tend to take the ACT and Blue State kids the SAT, and there is a spillover effect in terms of marketing AP tests: people who live in SAT states take more APs than people in ACT states.

Second, the people who are crazy about the AP are the Asians, who take about three times more per capita than whites, so whites who live near a lot of Asians tend to pick up AP Fever from them.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Jokah Macpherson said...

The one benefit of AP classes is that they can function as a de facto tracking mechanism, although as you point out, there are some kids who take them that probably shouldn't, decreasing the effect.

TGGP said...

I also got credit for taking A.P tests without taking their associated courses. It meant wasting less time at college.

Sheila Tone said...

In the late 1980s when I applied to college, the AP grade inflation turned schools like UCLA into the equivalent of Ivy Leagues for people from schools *without* AP classes. And at least back then, it was mostly the rich schools that had the AP classes. I was pissed when I discovered how many rich white kids with mere B-plus averages got into the more desirable UC schools. It was hardly competitive at all, as long as they went to the right school. Meanwhile, in the non-AP schools students usually had to count on affirmative action, if they were eligible for it.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had maxed out the AP tests in high school. Someone in the high 1400s or 1500 range will pretty much get 5s on all they attempt. Did six (five in my senior year) with no problems and could have saved a lot of money given that I paid for my own college tuition. But the counselors told everyone to not attempt too many APs. Sigh.

Carolyn said...

I enjoyed my AP courses in high school and think AP courses are good to get bs liberal arts requirements out of the way but I'd be leery about using them to take the place of hardcore science classes like biology, chemistry, and physics (the engineering major version not the football player version). I don't think the average high school teacher or lab facilities can equal the education you'd receive at a decent college. I don't see why kids don't skip APs altogether and just take courses at a local community college.

OneSTDV said...

Other than tracking, I think the AP fever is stupid. What exactly is the rush? Almost no one actually graduates in 3 years due to taking AP courses.

That means you've got 4 years. That's plenty of time to take a full courseload. No need to overburden one's self before that.

Though all STEm majors should complete at least one year of Calc before college. Other than that, it's really best to leave college work for college.

agnostic said...

It's just another form of grade inflation. For all anyone knows, the courses labeled AP and honors (or even regular) are about the same. The only way to distinguish if the B earned in the AP class shows harder worker, more smarts, etc., than the B in the honors / regular class is to see what the AP person got on the AP test. If they got a 3 or less, that B is an inflated C or below.

Why does grade inflation take place? Because colleges who want sub-standard students demand it. It allows them to take in more students, hence more profits for them through tuition, grants, etc. And it gives them plausible deniability -- the cover-their-ass factor:

"Hey, those kids had 2.5 GPAs and 1000 SATs -- how were *we* supposed to know they'd flunk out / not earn enough to repay loans / default on loans?"

Top-tier schools can't take in sub-standard students or their brand will be ruined. It's those a few rungs below, the majority of whose students aren't college material, who demand grade inflation. That's why letter grade inflation, grade inflation by re-labeling an honors / regular class as "AP," and re-centering the SAT, only started once sub-standard students were pushed into college.

It's exactly analogous to the grade inflation that ratings agencies gave to garbage mortgage-backed securities. These were demanded by the banks who bought them -- it allowed them to manage more assets, and therefore get bigger salaries / bonuses, while having their asses covered in case of default. "Hey, they were rated AAA -- how were *we* supposed to know they were junk?"

We'll have to wait and see how long it takes until the higher ed bubble pops. The mechanism is clear enough, not a fantasy: more and more dollars get poured into lower and lower quality students, betting that college will help them earn big bucks later. At some point there will be enough morons in college that we'll have a repeat of all those uncreditworthy borrowers defaulting on their mortgages.

Toadal said...

TGGP said...
I also got credit for taking A.P tests without taking their associated courses. It meant wasting less time at college.

And with the number of impacted classes at California and other financially strapped state universities today, students passing AP tests save time and money while reducing frustration and uncertainty.

I know this is only tangentially related to Advanced Placement testing, but the March SAT exam was given last weekend and parents should know the results in two weeks or so.

This month the essay question was on 'Moderation'.

The outcome from frequently taking the exam during student’s junior and senior years is akin to the effects of prayer, either neutral or good. So test early and test often.

bjdouble said...

In Canada (or Ontario) the equivalent of AP is OAC, and the only scores for college is the average of six OAC courses. It's a somewhat effective way to select for college because doing well requires smarts and hard work. Such a policy wouldn't be allowed in the US, but there really aren't any selective Canadian colleges, except maybe for the engineering programs.

guest007 said...

Steve is missing the point on why many Asian and white kids are in AP classes. It is to get away from the black and Hispanic kids who are in the non-tracked classes. Look at the Arlington Virginia School where Arne Duncan sends his children. At Yorktown, Washington-Lee, and especially Wakefield, the white and Asian kids are taking AP classes or the parents have their children in private school. Few white children would last in the non-tracked classes.

IB is even better at tracking than AP because the student starts in Junior High and really needs to take a full load of IB classes.

Curvaceous Carbon-based Life Form said...

"I was pissed when I discovered how many rich white kids with mere B-plus averages got into the more desirable UC schools."

Steve, would you do another blog post about getting into UC schools through the back door by transferring in from CA community colleges?

Steve Sailer said...

Berkeley doesn't take all that many California community college transfers each year, but UCLA usually takes a few thousand, so it's easier to get into UCLA form a junior college than from a high school. I've never read that much about it. The clever Armenian daughter route these days is to take the high school degree exam (not the GRE, the other one in California) after your sophomore year in high school, go to community college from 16-18, then transfer to UCLA and take 2-3 years to graduate with a UCLA degree at 20 or 21.

Anonymous said...

But the counselors told everyone to not attempt too many APs. Sigh.

When I was an undergraduate, all of my math professors tried to dissuade me from taking the graduate courses in mathematics.

F-ing idiots.

What a waste of time college was.

[I honestly can't even remember high school.]

Sideways said...

It's just another form of grade inflation.

Basically this. When I started hearing about this, it was confusing. When (and where) I was in high school, the people who got 2s on AP exams got Cs in classes. Someone who could get a one on an AP test actually taking an AP class was unthinkable. The administrators wouldn't have allowed it.

These courses have to be so much easier than they're supposed to be to make it worth it for average students that it's a complete joke.

Anonymous said...

"Other than tracking, I think the AP fever is stupid. What exactly is the rush? Almost no one actually graduates in 3 years due to taking AP courses.

That means you've got 4 years. That's plenty of time to take a full courseload. No need to overburden one's self before that."

I don't think the ambition to graduate in 3 years is the primary motivator. Rather students want to take classes where they are learning something meaningful, not boring, useless, easy dumbed-down high school classes.

Many colleges will basically take you on your SAT and AP test scores regardless of your age. The high school diploma has become so worthless that colleges will allow high school students concurrent enrollment. Rice allows high school students to take classes before they graduate and so do many other public and private institutions. A growing percentage of Ivy League students are "early enrollment" which means less than four years of high school. UIL and NCAA rules allow high school student athletes to play high school sports while enrolled in university classes and begin their NCAA eligibility after their high school eligibility ends even if they have been in college for several years. Also, as for AP classes, some high schools offer them starting in 10th grade.

Anonymous said...

I took AP English and US History in high school and was never informed that I could take a test for college credit. I still can't figure out how that happened.

When my daughter starts college in the fall, she'll have at least 12 credits thanks to AP. She could have 12 more if she passes the 4 tests she's scheduled for in May. She didn't want to take all 4 until I told her that with a couple of summer classes or CLEP tests, she could be out of there in 3 years. That got her attention.

As for grades correlating with AP scores, I can tell you my kid got 3s in classes where she got Bs, and a 4 in the class where she got a C. Even AP courses have a lot of dumb busywork that counts for your grade yet has nothing to do with your mastery of the material.

James Kabala said...

I think (unless things have changed) an AP A would be weighted by most schools as a 4.33 (or thereabouts depending on the exact system used), not a full 5.

Cal said...

Good summary, Steve.

I have asked Jay Mathews, who helped set off this insanity, to propose that the College Board require a grading policy for their AP classes: A for a 4 or 5, B for a 3, C for a 2 or 1 (or anything else). He refuses, saying that this removes teacher judgment. Well, duh. That's the point.

Someone recently suggested to Jay that his Challenge Index only count students that took the test and passed with a 2 or higher, and I'm going to start pushing that, too. Better yet, he should make it a ratio--students who took the test vs. students who got a 2 or higher (2 is a totally respectable failure).

Something else that no one ever discusses--these tests are expensive. Several states pay for all students to take the test. That's a massive income transfer from the state to the College Board, which profits tremendously from the push to get unqualified kids taking the test in order to qualify for the Challenge Index. No one seems to think about that, and it drives me crazy. The College Board has no incentive to control the student body taking the tests, because they make money on each body.

Oh, and by the way: in suburban schools, kids who get 4s and 5s on APs routinely get Bs in the class. I about tore the heads off of my son's AP English and US History teachers, who both gave him a B in their classes because of some idiotic last term "paper". Many kids in their classes got a 3 or didn't even take the test--but got an A in the class. The discrepancy goes both ways.

The AP science courses are nothing to get worked up about. High schools just don't have the facilities for good labs, and as a result the courses are just pure memorization--difficult but not particularly valuable. Geiser's study found that passing AP science tests did not predict success in science. Passing the AP calculus test was the best predictor of success in science.

You're absolutely right about "Red State whites", but I would go further--white suburban boys are underrepresented as well. Most schools use grades, not ability, as the criteria for getting into AP classes, and that's not a strength of suburban white boys.

Anonymous said...

I took AP Calculus in the 80's and had a 75 average which was a D. Also, the grade was not weighted. At some schools a 75 would be a C and then they would get the added point for a B.

Commodore said...

Just picking a nit, smart slack-offs aren't college material? I'm working on my PhD in Physics (specializing in Optics) now and I haven't found that to be the case. I'll willingly conceed that the AP kids are better human beings than me for working hard, but I'm not sure that makes them better "bets" for a college.

none of the above said...

I suspect the big win here is saving wasted time/energy (smart kids will spend a lot of time in high school bored) and dodging the weed-out classes taught by grad students.

Anonymous said...

"Just picking a nit, smart slack-offs aren't college material?"

Are smart slack-offs born or made?

I never studied much in high school, got a mixed bag of grades but always pulled it out at the end with a solid A on finals. I usually had the highest grade in the class on the final, often stunning the teacher.

If grades were more public, I think my hardcore competitive nature/ego would have prompted me to do better on completing homework/classwork rather than have crappy grades posted for all to see. Since no one could see those grades I was only competing against myself and the material, so the final exam grade was enough to satisfy my ego.

I got a grad degree, so I made it through two college programs, despite some slacker tendencies. Ego and my curious nature beat out my slacker side.

James Kabala said...

Cal: This is probably too late for you or anyone to read this, but the problem with your plan is that AP tests are graded over the summer and the grades are not announced until the fall, while(especially for seniors) most schools would want the final grade for the class registered in the spring.

Anonymous said...

I went to a fancy Northern prep school, and I never heard of AP courses (till I was a grownup) but took three AP tests.

beowulf said...

Late hit I know, but this may be useful to any archeologist who stumbles over the remains of this thread...

There are a handful of accredited colleges that allow you to test out (with AP, CLEP or a school's own exams) of all college classes and earn a bachelors.

A sailor on active duty with the Navy put up a website describing how he picked up an associates and a bachelors in less than year by testing out of classes. It was pretty much free for him since the Pentagon pays the exam costs for servicemen but even for civilians its dirt cheap.

For most employers, military service plus a BA from anywhere is more desirable than a BA alone from all but the most elite schools. That's triple true for anyone who wants a government job.