By Leslie Harris O’Hanlon
Enrollment in advanced placement courses has skyrocketed in recent years, and there are many reasons for this spike. Students often believe taking AP courses will give them an edge in getting into college, help them do better once there, and save them money by not having to take those classes again. And many believe AP programs enrich students’ lives because they’re taking part in a rigorous program of learning.
But a recent study found that research doesn’t unequivocally support those beliefs.
“The research is mixed,” said Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, a non-profit organization at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. “There isn’t any clear research for any of those claims.”
Pope is author of the white paper “The Advanced Placement Program: Living Up to Its Promise?” for which she reviewed more than 20 studies about AP programs and examined the research Challenge Success has conducted on the subject.
The College Board launched its AP program in 1955 as a way to make college-level courses available to high school students. While AP programs have their strengths, they also have their drawbacks, Pope said. For example, while some studies show that students who take AP courses perform better in their college courses, the performance of such students may not be solely based on the fact that they took an AP course. Students who take AP courses often are a self-selecting group, and it may be that their personal characteristics allow for better college performance, regardless of having AP program experience or passing AP exams. What’s more, students who are enrolled in AP programs often attend better resourced schools in higher income communities, and these students generally perform better in college.
“It is true that students who take AP courses are more likely to succeed in college. But when you look deeper into the research, it’s really hard to establish causation,” Pope said.
Though it’s a widely held belief that AP courses enrich a student’s education because the courses are rigorous, course quality varies, Pope said, depending on how it’s taught. Furthermore, AP courses don’t always teach critical thinking skills or allow students to explore topics more deeply. Instead, they often turn into a race to cover a wide expanse of information, some say.
[RELATED: Is It Time to Reconsider AP Classes?]
“AP courses sometimes focus on memorization of large amounts of content and are less focused on deep understanding of that content,” Pope said. “Teachers with less experience will sometimes resort to more lecturing and count that as coverage and not build in important project based learning or labs.”
In fact some private and public schools have done away with their AP programs in favor of their own homegrown honors classes that allow students to dive into a topic more deeply. Such schools include Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, New York, The Urban School in San Francisco, Scarsdale High in upstate New York and Riverdale Country Day School in New York City.
“I think it’s sort of an impoverished view of expecting kids to learn a bunch of stuff and parrot it back to you, and that’s the end of it,” said Dominic Rudolph, head of school at Riverdale Country in a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival last year. “These kids have to be better critical thinkers. They have to be better communicators.”
Another problem Pope noted about AP courses is that they can put a lot of stress on students who struggle to keep up.
“Some high-achieving kids are taking several AP classes at once, more than the typical load a college student takes, in order to play the game and to get into a highly selective college,” she said. “That is causing some high stress and a very large homework load for these kids. It can also lead to less sleep and more anxiety.”
If those students don’t do well in the AP course, they could wind up with a poor grade on their transcript. To avoid all this, students may need to have access to tutoring if they struggle, Pope said, so parents and students’ need to know what they’re taking on when they enroll in an AP course.
“You have to have a safety net in place when kids struggle in the class rather than them getting a D or an F on their transcript,” Pope said. “There needs to be a lot of education on what it means to take one of these classes before you sign up.”
Some schools have an AP information night where teachers explain how much homework is involved, how much work students will do in class, and other requirements, and parents and students are required to attend these sessions. If students want to move out of an AP class, they should be able to do so with ease.
“It’s hard to do, but schools should try to schedule a non-AP section of a class at the same time as the AP class,” Pope said. “So, if you are in an AP U.S. history class, and the reading load is crushing you, rather than being stuck with that class for the semester, you can move into the non AP section that is scheduled at the same time.”
The College Board is revamping some of its AP courses, which Pope supports. Some of the changes, according to the College Board website, include greater emphasis on discipline-specific critical thinking, inquiry, reasoning, and communication skills and rigorous, research-based curricula, modeled on introductory college courses that strike a balance between breadth of content coverage and depth of understanding. Pope said the courses also need to be more consistent and teachers should receive professional development on how to best teach AP classes.
Schools should make their AP programs open to everyone, not just to students with the highest grades, Pope said, as long as AP programs are part of a broad reform effort to improve education in the early grades as well.
“It’s about making sure early on that kids can read at a certain level before going on to a college level course,” Pope said. “They need to know how to take notes, answer questions and have basic study skills in place. We need to teach those skills to kids starting in the early years.”
Despite its problems, AP courses offer a good opportunity for many students to have access to a challenging curriculum, Pope said.
“I’ve received a lot of feedback since I published this paper from people saying, ‘If I didn’t have three AP classes in my rural high school, I would have been bored to death in high school,” she said. “Even with all of its flaws, it’s still better than what some high schools might otherwise offer.”