Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Do AP exams prepare kids for college? Should colleges "count" them?

The concept of Advanced Placement classes and tests is a good one. Some high school students are ready for college-level work. However, there's little that's standardized across high schools. Advanced level classes with standardized syllabi and exams can give high school students a way to show colleges what they know, and hopefully place out of entry-level classes as well.

However, this ideal isn't always achieved in practice. An article in the Deseret News looks at some colleges shying away from accepting high scores on AP exams as evidence that a student has done the equivalent of college level work. Some let students get elective credit, but not credit for the classes themselves (which might help you graduate early if you major in that particular subject).

There are various ways to look at this. Cynical sorts might note that colleges often get paid by the credit hour, so not giving credit for courses is one way to ensure students don't get too much of a break on tuition.

But there are other factors at play too. For starters, different universities have different expectations, even in entry-level courses. I earned a 5 on the AP Chemistry exam my senior year of high school, so Princeton allowed me to place into organic chemistry. Let's just say it was not my most shining academic moment of college. There are various reasons for that (I took it as a "freshman seminar" which meant instead of 3 1-hour lectures, I got 1 3-hour lecture -- which I just couldn't focus for) but it's also quite possible that Princeton's general chemistry class was more advanced than the AP version. Likewise, my 5 on the BC Calculus exam allowed me to place into a math class that was over my head. I passed it and orgo, but I'm pretty sure I was not as well prepared as I could be.

Second, it's really hard to standardize. The exam helps on this quite a bit. A school can call a class "AP Physics" but if most students score 1s or 2s on the exam, then it's pretty clear it's not covering what it's supposed to cover, and colleges will not view those students as prepared. There is some accountability, though I'm not sure how many schools do anything about it. Nonetheless, it's possible that a student in a generally poor quality class could score a 3 or possibly even a 4 on a fluke (or if he/she crammed before with some independent study). Over time, if colleges see enough of this, it starts to water down the AP concept.

The Deseret News story covers some of this. As more and more students have AP classes on their transcripts, it becomes less of a marker for selective colleges. Though I do think that the advice one person gives in the article -- that getting a low grade can be a black mark, and may not be worth it -- must be taken with a grain of salt. If you're applying to selective colleges, you need to be taking the most rigorous classes your high school offers -- and getting good grades in them. This is not a question of choosing one or the other.

Have your children gotten credit for AP exams?


Gail Post, Ph.D. said...

I think one of the issues is that at highly selective colleges, MOST incoming students have taken a fair number of AP classes, with high scores. If the schools gave course credit to all of these students, then it would be routine for students to get course credit. The issue of placing out of classes is an interesting one that you raise, though. Your experience at Princeton was probably quite different than it would have been at a less demanding school. Most students need guidance about whether to use their AP credits to place out of a class or not

Kristi Lea said...

My children are elementary school age.

My personal experience with AP exams is a little out-dated but hopefully still relevant(exactly 20 years out-dated, as it happens...reunion is coming up next month...)

I believe I took 3 AP classes in high school (which were the sum total of all AP classes offered by my high school), and received 4's and 5's. When I arrived at college (Washington University in St Louis), I got a mix of credit and advanced placement for my efforts.

For the English composition class, I got placed into an advanced, required, freshman composition class, but got no course credit. From comparing notes with friends, I was never sure that the "advanced" label on my comp class was actually more "advanced" than the regular required freshman comp class.

For the calculus, I got placed into the 2nd semester calculus class. I received 1st semester credit (3 credits) upon completing the 2nd semester.

For biology, I got 6 credits of 100-level elective biology credit. That credit would have added nothing towards a biology major, but was definitely credit towards graduation.

I was able to take a placement exam on campus for Spanish, which put me into a 300-level Spanish composition class (I did a lot of writing that semester, in two languages..the Spanish one was much better structured, if memory holds), and also gave me 6 credits of lower-level Spanish credit.

So in all, the AP classes (plus placement exam) were helpful. I earned a total of 15 "free" credits, which is a semester's worth of classes (and even 20 years ago, that was worth ~$8k in tuition).

Even if I hadn't gotten advanced placement or course credit, I would have benefitted from having the high school teachers teach some of the AP content. I got way more direct interaction, assistance, etc from the high school teachers, especially in calculus, than I ever got from a college professor (or the assorted grad student teaching assistants). Part of the college experience is learning to teach yourself and not to rely on being spoon-fed every bit of information. However, those AP classes were a nice bridge--they offered the higher difficulty of material while still having the benefit of a high-school teaching methodology.

I will be encouraging my kids to take as many of these as makes sense when they are old enough.

La Qu said...

at Bard the kids get "credit" for the class but it does not 'count' toward distribution requirements ... i think it's a shame as for many gifted kids they have such diverse interests those distribution requirements make it hard on them.

and ap classes can (and often are) harder then community college classes which most colleges take and count

Nother Barb said...

My older son took only one AP class, got 5 on the exam, and State University gave him credit hours for it. State U also has placement exams every semester for courses so you can place out of a class, but they aren't credit.

2 and 3 years ago we were in full college-search mode, and the highly selective schools were very explicit about wanting to see APs in your transcript, and lots of 'em. They varied as to whether they gave credit for the test. What they want to see is students taking the highest level courses possible (as well as leadership in clubs and teams, employment or regular, responsible volunteer work, and so on). So, APs becoming less of a credit tool, and more of a competitive edge. That's why I'm going along with younger son taking 2 APs this fall as a sophomore; he will likely want to attend a more selective school than his brother.

As to whether APs are harder than CC classes, well, the students in our public high school find the CC classes a breeze, if they'd done the college prep-level classes, let alone the honors and AP.

Anonymous said...

A good example of whether colleges should count AP credits or not is Caltech, where students are not granted credit for AP classes/exams nor are granted credit for courses taken at other universities (including peer universities like Harvard and MIT). This is because the level and range of material covered in even the most introductory courses far exceeds those of especially AP courses. One perfect example of this is Ma 1a (Calculus of One and Several Variables), otherwise known as the first math class all freshman take at Caltech. Despite sharing "calculus" in the title with AP calculus, the course material is entirely proof-based (whereas AP calculus entirely focuses on simple practical applications) and the sole text for the course is Calculus, Volume 1 by Tom Apostol (well recognized as an extremely comprehensive text on proof-based calculus that is an important reference for mathematicians in many graduate programs). Similar arguments can be made about the rigor of freshman physics, chemistry, and biology courses, all of which are required for all Caltech students as part of the core curriculum.

Rather than granting credit for AP exams or using AP exams for course placement, Caltech has its own placement exam system for students who feel more advanced than the required introductory courses. Having taken both AP exams and the Caltech placement exams, I can attest that the placement exams are far more comprehensive and difficult than AP exams, and the number of incoming Caltech freshman that place out of any courses is on average less than 10 in an incoming class of approximately 250.

Though I do agree with the Caltech policy of not granting credit or placement for AP exams in cases that the level of material in all courses at the university far exceeds the level of material tested on AP exams, I recognize that other universities may 1. not have the luxury of individually providing incoming students with placement exams to determine their level of preparedness for the material in introductory college coursework due to size or lack of resources and/or 2. offer introductory coursework that is of a similar level to the material tested on AP exams. In the first case, universities may do better to use AP exam performance in place of placement exams instead of granting credit to students who might struggle without taking the introductory courses they placed out of with AP exams. In the second case though, students would likely be unable to gain additional knowledge from the intro courses they would take in college and should be able to receive college credit for their AP exams.

(post continued below)

Anonymous said...

(continued from post directly above)

On the topic of whether AP exams prepare kids for college, I would wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that AP exams provide more preparation to HS students than typical non-AP courses. However, I think it is important to draw a distinction between AP exams and AP courses - AP exams, after all, are standardized tests, meaning that students can get high scores because of their familiarity with the exam format rather than with the exam material. I will amend what I said previously about AP exams providing good preparation for college; instead, a strong AP course combined with high scores on AP exams provide kids decent preparation for college. In high school (a few years back), I had the privilege of having a very good teacher for AP Calculus BC, which for me made a far more significant impact on my success at Caltech than did a 5 on the AP Calc BC exam, although the experience of taking the AP exam was certainly something that I think also helped prepare me for longer college exams (which in my case sometimes lasted 30+ hours because of Caltech's unlimited time take-home policy on a select number of exams).

To make a long post short, I agree that kids should certainly be encouraged to take AP courses, if not for any other reason but exposure to more advanced material. AP courses, while not perfect, provide students with a far better foundation to prepare for college coursework than do honors HS classes or courses at mediocre community colleges. That being said, however, colleges should take care in determining the overlap between introductory material in their courses and AP course material when deciding whether or not to grant college credit for AP classes/exams.

Kim Moldofsky said...

I'm torn about AP courses. When I was in high school in the mid-1980s, AP classes were for elite students in their junior or seniors years. More recently, my older son took two AP classes as a freshman, two more as a sophomore, and will be taking four as a junior. In some ways, AP is the new honors. Indeed, this year the high school stopped offering honors physics and has replaced it with AP Physics 1. Also, I'm told that our school gets dinged on state rankings because not enough students take advantage of the school's robust AP offerings. Therefore, the school is on a kick to encourage EVERY student to take at least one AP class in the course of their four years. Indeed, I heard the superintendent say that she believes every student can successfully manage an AP class. I disagree and am concerned about how encouraging students who are not prepared for the rigor impact the ones are are.

Our school administrators also likes to reassure parents the hundreds of dollars we might spend on AP testing over the course of high school could pay off in thousands of dollars saved on tuition. If my son chooses and gains entry to a top school like CalTech, all that money would have been wasted in one sense. But I suppose in another sense good grades and scores in those AP classes might have helped in gain admission in the first place.

Like I said, I'm torn. I'll get back to you in two years, when I know where he's going to college and how the credits translate.

In the meantime, here are two interesting reads on the topic.

Anonymous said...

Bottom line (literally)- AP classes are lot about the College Board making money. I think they can be more rigorous, so for G/T kids, that can be good. And certainly selective universities want to see them on the transcript even though many will not take them or will not give credit.

Lgm said...

AP is the new honors. The honors level classes have been dropped.

I beleive state colleges should 'count' them, and mine does. I also beleive the (NY)Regents need to plan for gifted students' education, and give them appropriate instruction each year without requiring them to go to college at 16. Many of the Regent's courses are just too easy for a gifted child...they can easily take them as middle schoolers..however only those in affluent areas have that opportunity. I'd like to see all compelled children placed at their instructional level in the state system, whether that is a DE, AP or Regent's course.

Anonymous said...

I took APs in the early 80s (2 junior year, 3 senior year). I was at a pretty good school (NoVA) and the teachers were great, the courses were cool and the external testing was first class to focus the content and drive a standard.

Went to the Naval Academy and they are open to challenging (validating) any course other than the freshman leadership course and the senior law course. They routinely have a small but significant minority of students coming from prep schools or after a year or two of ug elsewhere. So it just makes sense. You got academic credit, but no GPA benefit. And you still had to be there 4 years and take a full load coursewise. In some cases they would just accept the AP exam, in others they wanted to check with their own validation. But that was fine.

For the person who struggled with orgo, that is just a hard course and a step change for anyone. 3 hour lecture is insane, too.

I do see how APs might be compressed a little lower into HS, but would worry about 9th graders (even top tier) being really capable of AP Bio or World Civ or the like. If it culls some of the crap out like "Earth Science" that would be a benefit though.