Stanford University report: Advanced placement may not be the cure for education ills

30 Apr


Moi wrote about doubts concerning the rush toward advanced placement classes in An interesting critique of the College Board’s AP test report:


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.


A Stanford University report challenges some of the basic assumptions about advanced placement classes.



Valerie Strauss posts in the Washington Post article, AP program isn’t all it’s cracked up to be — study:



A new study from Stanford University that reviews research on the Advanced Placement program of college-level high school courses concludes that the common wisdom about AP — including about how much benefit students get from it  — is not accurate.


The white paper challenges these four basic common assumptions about AP:


  • The AP program  gives students several advantages in terms of college

  • The AP program helps to narrow achievement gaps

  • AP programs enrich students’ high school experiences

  • Schools with AP programs are better than schools without AP programs


The review of existing research on the AP program was undertaken by Denise Pope with Madeline Levine, both co-founders of Challenge Success, a research-based organization at Stanford University that develops holistic curriculum, conferences and other programs for parents, schools and students.  Pope is also a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.


The report, “The Advanced Placement Program: Living Up to Its Promise?” makes the following suggestions for teachers and students:



Suggestions for Students


Before enrolling in an AP class, carefully consider your reasons for doing so. There are several good reasons to take an AP course: you are passionate about the subject; you want to be in a small rigorous class with motivated, engaged students and a highly knowledgeable, prepared teacher; and you are willing and prepared to put in the extra time and effort.



Don’t take AP courses just to get into college. While many elite colleges will expect applicants to have enrolled in rigorous and challenging courses, particularly in subject areas of interest to the student, AP enrollment alone will not guarantee your college admission. Moreover, taking AP courses and doing poorly because you are taking them for the wrong reasons or are not interested in the subject or are in over your head or are spread too thin will not reflect well upon you, nor will taking AP courses that cause undue stress, limit your ability to participate in other meaningful activities, or impact your ability to get enough sleep each night. It’s best to enroll in AP courses only in areas that are of real interest to you and in which you are prepared and able to work hard.



Do your homework ahead of time. Know that not all AP courses are the same, even within the same subject. In spite of the common curriculum, courses vary between schools and between teachers. Avail yourself of older or experienced students, guidance counselors, information nights, and teacher expertise. Gather as much information from them as possible so that you have realistic expectations about the course content, expectations, quality, and workload.


 Understand how colleges award credit for AP courses. Policies for awarding credit vary between colleges and universities and even within universities, between departments. Some colleges may award college credit for passing scores (though what constitutes a passing score varies between institutions); others may not award credit but will allow students to forego prerequisite courses; while others still may not even allow students to opt out of introductory level courses. Furthermore, many students feel that it is valuable to repeat coursework in college even if they took the equivalent AP courses in high school and earned passing scores on their AP exams.



If you are enrolled in an AP course and it is not going well, get help. Perhaps you’ve just hit a difficult topic and you need a little extra support, or perhaps you are in over your head and need to find a way to get out of the course. Talk with your teachers, guidance counselors, and principals. They will be able to help you formulate the best strategy.



If you are deeply interested in a subject but do not have AP courses available to you, explore other avenues. Look into your school’s honors courses or find out if you can enroll in a course at a local college. If you take a rigorous, advanced course and are then interested in taking the AP exam, you may. Students can take AP exams even when they aren’t enrolled in an official AP course.



If you are interested in taking the AP exam but cannot afford it, do not be deterred. Financial assistance is available. Visit the College Board website.


Suggestions for Educators


If you are considering implementing an AP program in your school, consider the level of readiness and preparation of all involved. Do students and teachers have the background and support necessary to succeed? Are students in an AP program likely to thrive without the program being too big of a drain on the non-AP students? Take a hard look at the potential costs: teachers will require ongoing professional development, non-AP students will likely be in larger classes, non-AP course offerings might be reduced, and non-AP students may have less access to the best teachers in the school. Think carefully about whether it might be a better allocation of resources to invest in improving all existing classes and working with teachers to differentiate instruction for all learners.



Know that in places where the AP program is being effectively used as a tool for school reform and increasing student achievement, the AP is but one part of a larger reform effort. Effective programs such as the National Math + Science Initiative not only provide access to and encourage enrollment in AP courses, they provide many supports such as funding, teacher training, and student tutoring, which are all crucial to the program’s success.



If you are assessing an existing AP program in your school, pay attention to how many students are passing the AP exams. As noted in one study above, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing if some students are earning scores of 1 or 2 on AP exams. Perhaps these students were still exposed to a level of rigor that they might otherwise not have been, or perhaps the program is new and the kinks are still getting worked out. We suggest if the majority of AP students are not able to earn passing grades on the exams, check both the rigor level of the course and whether the teachers and students are prepared for this type of course and assessment. Make sure that the course curriculum is adequate for cultivating a deep understanding of the subject matter. It might be that the curriculum is not well aligned with the test or with the needs of your students.



Invite students (and their parents) interested in AP courses to attend an AP information session that provides an overview of your school’s AP program, course requirements and expectations, and a discussion of the commitment involved. Teachers from each department should be available to answer questions and provide information including course syllabi, sample assignments, and any expectations for summer work. In an effort to make sure students have given serious and realistic thought to their obligations and time management, consider also requiring students to get permission/signatures from parents, counselors, and teachers for each AP course in which they wish to enroll. Download our free scheduling tool to help facilitate better course scheduling and time management.



Establish an open enrollment policy, and make AP classes available to all students who have an interest in taking them, not just top-tier students. Students can benefit from the AP for various reasons including their passion for a topic, the need for a challenge, or the exposure to what it means to do college-level coursework. However, along with open enrollment, consider creating a safety net for students in serious academic trouble who may need to be re-assigned mid-semester, so that they have an option other than failure. Some schools have had success when they combine AP and non-AP sections together in one classroom, where AP students do supplemental reading, research, and writing and meet a few additional times to prepare for the test. This way all students may benefit from increased rigor and better teaching.            


© 2013 Challenge Success


For Further Information


Challenge Success offers parenting classes and professional


development workshops specifically on improving curriculum and assessment, as well as other issues that concern parents and schools. Please consider making a donation to Challenge Success to support our work so that we can continue to keep you informed on improving school practices. For more information please visit us at our website.


Assuming your school has an effective process for course enrollment that includes consultation with teachers and guidance counselors, and assuming you also have a safety net in place that allows for course re-assignment midstream if students need to transfer out of AP courses, don’t cap or limit the number of AP classes in which students are permitted to enroll. We have found that there is no magic number or formula for determining the optimal number of AP courses for students. As mentioned above, our research shows that stress levels in students are not necessarily correlated to the number of AP classes they take. Some students will be able to handle a few AP courses at once and the homework load that accompanies them; while others will be unduly stressed by taking only one AP course (Challenge Success, 2011). Rarely do we see students who can handle 4 or 5 AP courses at once who are still able to participate in extracurricular activities and get the sleep they need, but setting general caps may not work as well as helping each student find the right courses and challenge levels that will allow for optimal learning.



Don’t confuse AP rigor with load. We have seen several successful teachers who can curb the homework load in their AP courses without sacrificing test scores. Just because a course is rigorous and offers college-level work, does not mean that students need to complete hours and hours of homework each night to succeed. Students may benefit more from fewer assignments and a focus on deep understanding of concepts learned in class. Some teachers offer an AP course over two years instead of one, in order to make the load more manageable for students. For more on how to make homework more effective and meaningful, see our Challenge Success white paper, “Changing the conversation about homework from quantity and achievement to quality and engagement.”



Whatever your school decides about its AP policies and offerings, make sure that the School Profile that accompanies every college application accurately reflects your school’s policies and most current offerings so that colleges will know how to interpret a student’s choices.




“The Advanced Placement Program:
Living Up to Its Promise?”

Download it for Free.



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 compromise 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?




Poor people and school choice: The Cristo Rey work/school model


Study: What skills are needed for ’21st-century learning?’


Critical thinking is an essential trait of an educated person


Borrowing from work: Schools teach career mapping




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3 Responses to “Stanford University report: Advanced placement may not be the cure for education ills”

  1. interesting research paper topics October 18, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

    There’s definately a lot to find out about this issue.
    I really like all the points you made.


  1. drwilda - June 5, 2013

    […] Stanford University report: Advanced placement may not be the cure for education ills                                                                  … […]

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

    […] Stanford University report: Advanced placement may not be the cure for education ills… […]

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