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.”

  • Sounds pretty good. And every year, millions of high-school students
    enroll in the courses that are offered in 39 different subjects. They do
    so at an annual growth rate almost ten times the yearly percentage
    increase in the number of high school graduates. If there weren’t
    something good about AP, would participation in the AP offerings be so

    • trav45

      Yeah, but there’s a difference between perceived benefits and ACTUAL benefits. Don’t get me wrong, AP does some good things, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of a quality education.

  • Trevor Packer

    While Leslie Harris O’Hanlon’s article “New Report Challenges Beliefs About the Value of AP Classes” covers Denise Pope’s summary of the AP Program, there is
    no recognition that Ms. Pope’s paper contains several inaccuracies about the findings of researchers who have examined the Advanced Placement Program®.

    The College Board agrees that any studies espousing the benefits of AP must rule out alternative explanations for the stronger college success of AP students compared to that of non-AP students. Accordingly, the College Board only supports claims about AP’s relationship to college success when such claims are derived from research that uses experimental design or matched group design to control for differences such as: prior ability, socioeconomic background, gender, racial/ethnic identity, school characteristics, and academic interests. Such methods rule out alternative explanations for performance differences between AP
    examinees and non-AP examinees, isolating, as much as possible, any
    contribution made by strong student performance in advanced courses like AP.

    When researchers have examined whether simply taking an AP course contributes to college success, regardless of the grade the student received in the course or the score earned on the AP Exam, they have found limited evidence that simply taking an AP course improves a student’s success in college. Accordingly, the College Board never makes the claim that simply taking an AP course will lead to increased college success.

    When researchers have examined the college performance of students who learned enough in their AP course to succeed on the AP Exam, and have applied the statistical controls that Ms. Pope and the College Board both recommend in order to isolate and identify AP’s contribution, they have consistently found that students who earn scores of 3 or higher on AP Exams do achieve higher college GPAs and higher on-time graduation rates when compared to matched peer groups.

    Ms. Pope’s confusion of these issues is evident in the way she summarizes the research studies she has reviewed. For example, on page 4 of her paper, she references a 2004 study by Geiser and Santelices (found here: http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/3ft1g8rz) and says that these researchers found “no relationship” between AP and college success. Here is what that the Geiser and Santelices study actually says: “Whereas AP coursework, by itself, contributes almost nothing to the prediction of college performance, AP examination scores are among the very best predictors . . . . Our regression results emphatically support this conclusion.” If you look at pages 17 and 18 of the Geiser and Santelices study, you can see that Ms. Pope is suppressing the evidence that is favorable toward AP, and is misleading her reader by providing quite an incomplete description of this study.

    For students who learn in AP at a level strong enough to succeed on the AP Exam, research consistently demonstrates that among the sort of matched groups that Ms. Pope and the College Board agree are essential to making claims of AP’s benefits, AP students who scored a 3 or higher consistently achieve higher success in college than their matched peers.

  • Cheri

    Schools justify dropping gifted classes in lieu of AP classes, but many gifted students do not have the motivation to live up to the expectations of AP classes. They want to know how and why, not memorize facts you can look up with a tap of the keyboard or spend hours doing homework when they could be saving the world. AP classes should not be a substitute for gifted classes with certified teachers who understand how these kids think.

    • trav45

      Memorize facts? What AP class are you talking about? I’ve taught AP, and I can’t think of one class that was about memorizing facts!

      • School Principal

        My daughter just finished AP European History-totally about memorizing facts! She did well in the class, but it was 90% independent study and spitting out facts from 1200-1990. Wish she hadn’t taken it for the amount of sleep she lost over the year.

      • Mengles

        Wrong. AP Biology is nearly all memorization.

        • Steve Mintner

          I have been an AP Biology teacher since 1990. It has evolved and memorization MIGHT get you a “3” on the exam. To get a “4” or the “5” that only about 6% achieve now (used to be about 20%) you must be able to use critical thinking skills.

  • With so much focus recently on AP exams and their real or imagined benefit, I feel that there has been a lot of emphasis on those courses that require memorization and regurgitation. These articles lament the lack of critical thinking required by AP exams while ignoring the many exams that require ONLY communication and analytical thinking.

    As a teacher of AP French Language and Culture, I hear my students often complain that they *can’t* just memorize a list of facts. Instead, to perform well on the exam, they would need to memorize the entire language, as the exam assesses a student’s ability to comprehend and communicate in French, in both written and spoken formats.

    As far as college benefits go, I keep in touch with my students when they leave my class. The question that I ask them all, after every semester, is about what they did in their French class and how it compared against AP French. By doing so, I can ensure that they are prepared for the exam AND for what comes after.

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  • Rovnmom2

    After visiting colleges with my rising high school senior, I have to say that every admissions officer we spoke to emphasized AP classes as a “strength of schedule” quality. It was upsetting to hear that someone with an excellent GPA was actually at a disadvantage for not having AP courses on their schedule. So although I appreciate the supported ideas of this article, the reality is, you need them.

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  • Athar

    When we have a tendency to graduate this is often typically the time that we half ways that with our friends and every one that’s left with U.S. area unit sensible reminiscences that we are going to keep for the remainder of our lives.Grammar School Photos Collectibles

    • Foulkeblows

      Could you please repost using standard English? Thanks.

      • Mengles

        He’s a spam troll.

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  • Ryan Kim

    The problem I have with AP classes is the homework. I am currently taking 4 AP classes and have an A average on all exams but a C average on homework. AP classes are supposed to be college level course work and *shock* there is no homework in college. I think the reason that teachers give homework is to improve student grades because they score low on tests. I would much appreciate if teachers could respect that homework does not help me learn and that I have a quite different way of learning and I like to do on my own. Teachers give homework and this gets in the way of study’s learning for themselves. Another problem is that students are taking AP classes when they do not have the capability to. In my AP Biology class, most students in the class are in here in the first place because they are too scared to take AP Chemistry or AP Physics whilst too condescending towards AP Environmental Science. Now, 1 month before the AP Biology Exam, we are scrambling to finish over 25 chapters of the textbook because the teacher had to drastically slow down the pace of the course to accommodate struggling students.

    • Mengles

      Actually there is homework in college. Doofus.

    • Steve Mintner

      I teach AP Biology and the only homework I give is reading (a lot of it) and the occasional lab report. You would have to do both of those things in college courses. If you don’t keep up with the reading, you dont make it. In college, the professors will not slow down the pace for those that do not keep up.

  • Selly

    IB courses should have been tested since they do focus on critical thinking, community, and self reflections instead of memorization.

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