An interesting critique of the College Board’s AP test report

10 Mar

Moi wrote in Who should take AP classes?

AP is a program designed by the College Board, the same organization that designs and administers college entrance exams like the SAT and ACTAP consists of more than 30 courses and exams, which cover a variety of subject areas. The College Board describes the value of AP.

Receive recognition by more than 90 percent of colleges in the United States and colleges in more than 60 other countries, which grant credit, advanced placement or both on the basis of AP Exam grades.

In other words, AP is designed to boast the chances of students in gaining admittance to colleges, especially those colleges who are known to be highly selective. AP Program

 AASU Research

This research seems to say that a highly motivated person will succeed in college whether they have taken AP coursework or not. But, all things being equal, the AP program appears to help children in later academic work. The rigorous curriculum is given as the explanation for later student achievement.

A paper in the Southern Economic Journal by Klopfenstein and others looks at the link between AP coursework and college success.

Our research finds no conclusive evidence that, for the average student, AP experience has a causal impact on early college success. Our findings support a clear distinction between courses that are “college preparatory” and those that are “college level.” The former type of course emphasizes the development of skills needed to succeed in college, such as note taking, study skills, and intellectual discipline; the latter type assumes that such skills are already in place. At-risk high school students particularly benefit from skills-based instruction, including “how to study, how to approach academic tasks, what criteria will be applied, and how to evaluate their own and others’ work,” where writing and revising are ongoing…. It is important to recognize that prediction and causality are not the same, and that the practice of placing extraordinary weight on AP participation in the college admissions process absent evidence of human capital gains from program participation distorts incentives. Our research finds that AP course-taking alone may be predictive of college success, a finding that is consistent with College Board research by Dodd et al. (2007) but casts doubt on the notion that AP participation imparts a positive causal impact on college performance for the typical student. …

This report seems to conclude that the reason AP students are successful is that they are highly motivated to succeed and achieve. Southern Economic Journal

For a good overview of why students take AP courses, see Grace Chen’s article, How AP Classes Benefit a Public School Student’s Future

AP courses tend to attract students who are preparing for college and are very goal oriented. So, what if a student either doesn’t want to go to college or may want a career, should they take AP courses? Since the average person, according to Career Information Online will have three to five careers over the course of a life time, the best advice to everyone is prepare for any eventuality. Even if students don’t attend college after high school, they may attend later as part of a career change. Many former automobile workers are now getting college degrees in nursing and other fields, for example. The College Board releases an annual report about the AP test.

Here is a portion of the College Board press release about The 9th Annual AP Report to the Nation:

Class of 2012 Advanced Placement® Results Announced

While Participation and Performance Increased Compared to the Class of 2011, Many High School Students with Potential for Success in College-Level AP® Courses Still Lack Access


NEW YORK — Ensuring that all academically prepared high school students have access to rigorous college-level course work that will enable them to persist in and graduate from college is critical for the United States to remain competitive in a global economy — particularly in crucial STEM-related disciplines. Educators are increasingly adopting the rigorous standards found within the Advanced Placement Program® (AP®) to help the nation’s high school students develop the critical thinking, reasoning and communication skills that are essential for college success.

Data released today by the College Board as part of The 9th Annual AP Report to the Nation revealed that more high school graduates are participating — and succeeding — in college-level AP courses and exams than ever before. Succeeding in AP is defined as achieving a score of 3 or higher on the five-point AP Exam scale, which is the score needed for credit, advanced placement or both at the majority of colleges and universities.

By exposing students to college-level work while still in high school, Advanced Placement dramatically improves college completion rates,” said David Coleman, President of the College Board. “Today we applaud those educators who have worked tirelessly to bring the power of AP to more communities and more students than ever before. But we must not forget the hundreds of thousands of students with the potential to succeed in Advanced Placement who don’t even have access to its coursework.  If we hope to achieve our long-term college completion goals, we must ensure that every student has access to a rigorous education.”

Among the class of 2012:

  • The number of high school graduates taking AP Exams increased to 954,070, (32.4%), up from 904,794 (30.2%) among the class of 2011 and 471,404 (18.0%) in 2002 among the class of 2002.
  • The number of high school graduates scoring a 3 or higher increased to 573,472 (19.5%), up from 541,000 (18.1%) among the class of 2011 and 305,098 (11.6%) among the class of 2002.

Current research on AP course work confirms AP’s comparability to introductory college courses in content, skills and learning outcomes. Research consistently shows that students earning placement into advanced course work based on AP Exam scores perform as well as — or better than — students who have completed the introductory course at a college or university. In fact, students who succeed on an AP Exam during high school typically experience greater overall academic success in college, and are more likely than their non-AP peers to graduate from college and to graduate on time, experiencing lower college costs than the majority of American college students.

However, this is not the full story. Data from The 9th Annual AP Report to the Nation also indicate that hundreds of thousands of academically prepared students with the potential to succeed in AP — including a disproportionately large percentage of underserved minority students — are graduating from high school without having participated in AP.

A Right to Rigor: Fulfilling Student Potential

All students who are academically prepared for the intellectual demands of college-level AP course work during high school — no matter their location, background or socioeconomic status — have a right to fulfill that potential.

Among the class of 2012, more than 300,000 students identified as having a high likelihood of success in AP did not take any recommended AP Exam. Such “AP potential” is defined as a 60 percent or greater probability of scoring a 3 or higher on an AP Exam based on a student’s performance on specific sections of the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT®). These data revealed significant inequities in AP participation along racial/ethnic lines, with underserved minority students who demonstrated readiness for AP much less likely than their similarly prepared white and Asian/Asian American/Pacific Islander peers to experience AP course work.

Among the contributing factors, a significant cause for this disparity is the lower availability of a variety of AP courses in schools with higher numbers of low-income and traditionally underserved minority students….

Collaborating to Promote STEM Education

While the challenge to improve equity and access applies to all AP courses, its importance is amplified among the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. Research shows that students who took college-level AP math or science exams during high school were more likely than non-AP students to earn degrees in physical science, engineering and life science disciplines — the fields leading to some of the careers essential for the nation’s future prosperity.

In the last decade, the number of students graduating from high school having taken an AP math or science exam has nearly doubled, from 250,465 in the class of 2002 to 497,924 in the class of 2012 (see Figure 8). However, among students with comparable levels of readiness for AP STEM course work, participation rates vary significantly by race/ethnicity and gender. Six in 10 Asian/Asian American/Pacific Islander students with a 60 percent or higher likelihood of succeeding on an AP mathematics exam took the exam, compared to 4 in 10 white students, 3 in 10 black/African American students, 3 in 10 Hispanic/Latino students, and 2 in 10 American Indian/Alaska Native students. In most AP STEM subjects, female students participate at lower rates than male students….

In December 2012, the College Board announced the creation of the AP STEM Access program — made possible through a $5 million Global Impact Award from Google to — to increase the number of traditionally underrepresented minority and female high school students who participate in AP STEM courses. Through this program, 800 public high schools across the country are being invited to start new AP math and science courses, with an emphasis on encouraging traditionally underrepresented minority and female students who demonstrate academic potential to enroll and explore these areas of study and related careers.

Supporting 3 Goals Critical to College Readiness

At its core, AP is a collaboration among college faculty and administrators, states, districts, schools, and teachers working together to provide academically ready students with the access to the rigor they deserve. The 9th Annual AP Report to the Nation shows that success stories exist and can be brought to scale. Three critical areas for addressing challenges to access are increasing rigor, promoting equity, and developing critical knowledge and skills.

1.      Increasing Rigor

In order for more students to succeed in college, they need preparation for and access to demanding college-level work while still in high school. Since 2002, there has been a 7.9 point increase in the percentage of U.S. public high school graduates scoring a 3 or higher on an AP Exam. Among the class of 2012, 19.5 percent of U.S. public high school graduates scored a 3 or higher on an AP Exam during high school, with 17 states exceeding the national average. Once again, Maryland led all other states in the percentage of its public high school graduates scoring a 3 or higher on an AP Exam.

Top 10 States in Percentage of 2012 Public High School Graduates Succeeding on AP Exam

  1. Maryland (29.6%)
  2. New York (28.0%)
  3. Massachusetts (27.9%)
  4. Florida (27.3%)
  5. Virginia (27.2%)
  6. Connecticut (26.9%)
  7. Maine (24.8%)
  8. California (24.7%)
  9. Colorado (24.2%)
  10. Vermont (22.8%)

2.      Promoting Equity

The AP Program is committed to increasing student diversity in AP classrooms, while simultaneously increasing AP success, to ensure that the demographics of both AP participation and success reflect the demographics of the overall student population. Though challenges remain, progress is being made to close equity gaps in AP participation and success among underserved minority and low-income students. Consider the following:

  • 30 states made progress over the past year in closing both AP participation and success gaps among black/African American students (see Figure 6a).
  • 17 states and the District of Columbia made progress over the past year in closing both AP participation and success gaps among Hispanic/Latino students (see Figure 6b).
  • Low-income graduates accounted for 26.6% of those who took at least one AP Exam in the class of 2012, compared to 11.5% of AP Exam takers in the class of 2003.
  • More than 250,000 low-income graduates in the class of 2012 took at least one AP Exam during high school, more than four times as many low-income graduates who took an AP Exam in the class of 2003.

3.      Developing Critical Knowledge and Skills

AP courses are designed by college and university faculty based on well-defined goals for student learning that give specially trained AP teachers a clear understanding of what students should know and be able to do by the end of the course. AP students develop their knowledge of key concepts and skills at the heart of comparable introductory college courses, including critical analysis and writing skills. Figures 8 and 9 of the report (pages 26–27) show the participation, success and score distributions among the class of 2012 across the three AP discipline groupings: math and science; English, history and social science; and arts and world languages.

AP Course and Exam Redesign

College faculty have played an integral role in the AP Program’s comprehensive course redesign to ensure that each Advanced Placement course and exam deepens the focus on critical thinking and reflects the most recent developments in each discipline. The involvement of university professors ensures that AP courses and exams are directly aligned with the same content and skills learned in introductory college courses.

With agreement among colleges and universities regarding the knowledge and skills that students need to cultivate through AP course work in order to qualify for credit and placement, the AP course redesign is enabling AP teachers and students time to explore key concepts in greater depth by reducing the amount of content coverage required….

The 9th Annual AP Report to the Nation is available at

Follow Trevor Packer on Twitter: @AP_Trevor

About the College Board

The College Board is a mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity. Founded in 1900, the College Board was created to expand access to higher education. Today, the membership association is made up of over 6,000 of the world’s leading educational institutions and is dedicated to promoting excellence and equity in education. Each year, the College Board helps more than seven million students prepare for a successful transition to college through programs and services in college readiness and college success — including the SAT® and the Advanced Placement Program®. The organization also serves the education community through research and advocacy on behalf of students, educators and schools. For further information, visit

Media Inquiries:
College Board Communications

Jack Schneider has an interesting critique of the report at the Washington Post’s blog, The Answer Sheet.

In the article, What the AP program can’t do, Schneider opines:

To many in the world of education reform, the latest AP Report to the Nation—released recently by the College Board—is cause for celebration on two fronts. The first achievement has to do with equity.  During the program’s early history in the 1960s, Advanced Placement courses were generally populated by white students.  Even as recently as the mid-1990s, 80 percent of AP exams were taken by whites or Asians.  Today, however, roughly a third of students participating in the program are non-Asian students of color.  And that number is growing every year.

The second achievement has to do with teaching and learning.  By the twenty-first century, AP was being assailed by its critics for failing to evolve.  While college professors increasingly guided students through closer examinations of subjects with an orientation toward critical thinking and hands-on work, the AP Program continued to emphasize survey-style coverage and content memorization.  This latest report, however, details a course and exam redesign that brings AP back in line with “current practices in college instruction.”  And according to the College Board, changes in all subject areas will be substantial.

Both of these developments are the result of hard work, financial commitment (the Department of Education alone has spent a quarter of a billion dollars on its AP Incentive Program), and concerted efforts by all parties involved to promote the twin aims of equity and excellence.

The problem, however, is that AP can do very little to actually realize those aims….

Consider the effort to promote equity through AP.  For decades, reformers tried to use the program as a lever for giving under-served students a college admissions edge.  After all, in the last decades of the twentieth century, colleges and universities looked favorably on students with AP courses on their transcripts.  But most AP courses were taught at private and suburban schools.  Consequently, reformers sought to extend the AP Program, believing they could level the playing field by providing equal access to an elite brand.  Yet, as I have written elsewhere, the expansion of the AP Program failed to promote real parity between the educational haves and have-nots.  Because once the AP Program reached a critical mass, it lost its functionality as a mark of distinction.  Soon, scores of colleges and universities (Dartmouth being the latest) revised their policies around awarding credit for AP coursework or favoring it in admissions reviews.  And ultimately, elite suburban and private schools began to drop the program, calling it outdated, overly-restrictive, and too oriented toward multiple choice tests.  Thus, while students at Garfield High in East Los Angeles were for a short time doing the same work as students at Andover, the aim of equity proved a noble and elusive dream.

Moi wrote in The International Baccalaureate program and vocational students:

There is an “arms race” going on in American Education. More people are asking whether college is the right choice for many. The U.S. has de-emphasized high quality vocational and technical training in the rush to increase the number of students who proceed to college in pursuit of a B.A. Often a graduate degree  follows. The Harvard paper, Pathways to Prosperity argues for more high quality vocational and technical opportunities:

The implication of this work is that a focus on college readiness alone does not equip young people with all of

the skills and abilities they will need in the workplace, or to successfully complete the transition from adolescence

to adulthood. This was highlighted in a 2008 report published by Child Trends, which compared research on the competencies required for college readiness, workplace readiness and healthy youth development. The report found significant overlaps. High personal expectations, self-management, critical thinking, and academic achievement are viewed as highly important for success in all three areas. But the report also uncovered some striking differences. For instance: while career planning, previous work experience, decision making, listening skills, integrity, and creativity are all considered vital in the workplace, they hardly figure in college readiness.

There is a reluctance to promote vocational opportunities in the U.S. because the is a fear of tracking individuals into vocational training and denying certain groups access to a college education. The comprise could be a combination of both quality technical training with a solid academic foundation. Individuals may have a series of careers over the course of a career and a solid foundation which provides a degree of flexibility is desired for survival in the future. See, Why go to college?

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2 Responses to “An interesting critique of the College Board’s AP test report”


  1. drwilda - June 5, 2013

    […] An interesting critique of the College Board’s AP test report […]

  2. Cambridge International Exams trying to make inroads into AP and International Baccalaureate turf | drwilda - December 11, 2013

    […] An interesting critique of the College Board’s AP test report […]

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