“Advanced Placement” Doesn’t Equal Higher College Grades, Study Finds

Vol. 14 No. 2

academicleadership eletter Vol15 No2 APstudents

Many schools—public, charter, and private alike—offer The College Board’s “rigorous” Advanced Placement (AP) program to their most driven pupils. Students take these courses for the educational challenge and (they hope) the “advanced” standing they’ll receive from secondary institutions in the form of college credits. However, a new study has recently shed doubts on whether these AP programs mean greater success for students at the collegiate level.

Gregory Ferenstein, a reporter specializing in technology and its impact on society, and research-economist Brad Hershbrein at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research joined forces to review the transcripts of some 25,000 students from 1988 onward to evaluate the true impact of AP and other “advanced,” rigorous programs on students’ college careers. The pair discovered that when variables like socioeconomic status, gender, and race were controlled, high school classes had little to no impact on a student’s performance in college.

That is to say, an AP Computer Science student and a regular high school graduate could expect to receive the same grade when enrolled in an identical college class.

Of course, this speaks to performance in the equivalent freshmen and introductory coursework in college, compared to the high school curriculum. This study did not look at whether a student’s accelerated curriculum in college—i.e., skipping that freshman course to proceed to the secondary level—was beneficial to the student. If it were, then this would mean that “advanced” high school coursework could serve as an effective substitute for the freshman year of college, rather than indicate a better or higher level of performance as a freshman.

According to The Atlantic, economist Hershbein “insists that he and Ferenstein aren’t arguing against sophisticated subject matter for kids who are ready to handle it. But the duo warn that the push to get more students into advanced classes is no definitive way to make sure students are prepared for college; it could ultimately harm kids who haven’t been adequately prepared for the material.”

Rather, the research pair insist that if the goal of high schools is to prepare their students for higher education, they should “focus less on specific content and more on critical thinking and reasoning,” since most students will forget specifics after taking the exam but retain the broader, general concepts.

Ultimately, this study seems to imply that a focus on greater foundational skills—rather than specialist subject knowledge—is a better way to prepare students for higher education and professional careers.

How does your school prepare its students for the rigors of higher education and professional life? Does your curriculum still offer Advanced Placement courses? Let us know in the comment section below!

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Trustees Vol. 14 No. 1 Student College and Career Readiness
The Source for Private School News Vol. 13 No. 9 Written by the Victors: AP History Exam Overhaul and Curriculum Responses

Additional ISM resources for Gold Members:
I&P Vol. 39 No. 12 The Rhetoric of Rigor
Vol. 41 No. 11 The Rhetoric of Rigor II: Stress, Schedules, and Fun
I&P Vol. 36 No. 1 Advancement Placement: A Critical Study
I&P Vol. 40 No. 13 The Strategic Academic Plan

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