Are AP classes and tests worth investment? No, says DeKalb school board member.

Why do kids contend their AP or IB exams have material they never covered in class?

The DeKalb school board recently approved paying up to $310,000 so students taking AP classes can also take the standardized exam related to the college-level course. Board member Stan Jester questions that investment.

He’s not alone. Some studies suggest the AP program has been oversold and its benefits exaggerated.

One of the nation’s most elite prep schools, Choate Rosemary Hall, plans to stop offering AP classes. In an email to parents, Choate said, “Over the last several years, we have had many conversations in our community about the role of Advanced Placement courses in our curriculum. These conversations stemmed initially from a sentiment expressed by Choate students that AP courses were not serving their needs optimally and that their teachers of current AP courses could do a better job if freed from the limits of the AP Program.”

AP courses are college-level courses created by the College Board and offered in high school. Students have the option of taking a standardized test at the end of the course, which is graded on a 1 to 5 scale. Students can earn college credit from scoring a 3, 4, or 5.

The Georgia Department of Education encourages students to take AP classes and last week released new College Board data showing a slight improvement in AP test scores.

“Georgia’s class of 2016 recorded an excellent performance on their AP exams, and Georgia’s teachers and schools continued to expand access to this valuable program to more students,” said School Superintendent Richard Woods. “The AP program allows us to expand access to high-quality, relevant coursework for Georgia’s students. I’m pleased to see that access expanding to more students, and proud that Georgia remains among the top-tier for AP performance in the United States.”

The fee for an AP exam is $93. Some districts assume the cost; many do not. The state of Georgia covers the cost for one AP exam for low-income students. By annual board vote, DeKalb has paid for one test per student regardless of income since 2013 so low-income students in the county get two tests underwritten. (The district had paid for AP tests earlier but that had apparently ceased during the recession.)

The DeKalb administration’s rationale has been the research showing students who successfully complete an AP course are more likely to graduate high school and college.

But Jester contends students who choose AP may be intrinsically more motivated. He asks whether AP enrollment is a true surrogate measure of quality and whether pushing more DeKalb students into AP courses is an effective academic strategy, especially given performance on the tests in some county high schools.

“At best, it is giving people a false sense of progress and success at their school. At worst, it undermines instruction in both AP and non-AP classes,” he says. “There is also the opportunity cost. This money could be redeployed to another use that did produce an increase in student success in some way. What is absolutely, specifically clear right now is that the AP exam pass rates at many schools in DeKalb are a robust indicator that something isn’t working well with the district’s emphasis on AP courses and their exams.”

Jester looked at AP exam results for the last seven years:

There are 6 schools that have pass rates percentages of under 10% — Cedar Grove, Columbia, MLK, McNair, Redan, and Towers.

There are 8 schools that have pass rate percentages between 10-25% — Arabia Mountain, Clarkston, Lithonia, Miller Grove, Stephenson, Stone Mountain, and Tucker).

There are 2 schools that have pass rates of 26%-43% — Cross Keys and Southwest DeKalb).

There are 6 schools that perform at or above the average pass rate (44%) for the school district — Chamblee, DECA, DeKalb School of the Arts, Druid Hills, Dunwoody, and Lakeside.

Jester notes troubling trends at Redan High School:

Towers has a 24% decrease in the number of students taking the AP exam and a 2% increase in the number of students that pass the test. Clarkston should be relatively proud of itself, AP exam participation has gone from 193 to 238 students and from 10% to 11% passing rate. Redan embodies epic failure. Redan had a 25% decrease in the number of students taking the AP exam and went from 15% to 5% of the students passing it.

The College Board, which owns the AP curriculum and administers the tests, has its own research showing the classes help students excel in college. Those findings have been challenged by independent reviews.

In this study — “Advanced Placement Exam Scores as a Predictor of Performance in Introductory College Biology, Chemistry and Physics Courses” – researchers from Harvard and the University of Virginia conclude:

We find that the students in our sample who reported AP exam scores of 3 or higher earned college grades that were higher than the student average. However, many AP 5 students performed at levels below the College Board’s claims of excellence even after taking a semester of the college science. While 73% of AP 4 students earned college science grades above the College Board’s stated “mid-level B performance in college,” about half of the AP 5 students missed the A level performance cited by the College Board

Based on our analysis, it appears that about half of the advantage attributed to AP experience can be accounted for by variables representing the academic abilities and experiences possessed by AP students prior to, or independent of, their AP course experiences. Students’ backgrounds, particularly their mathematical and verbal skills, appear to contribute mightily to their performance in college science courses. While the AP examination program is an elaborate system, with its professional development program rivaling its assessment program in size and productivity, the Advanced Placement exams themselves appear to fall short of the predictive validity claimed by the College Board. Based on the findings from our study, AP exams scores of 3 do not appear to warrant the granting of college credit over those students who take an AP course in high school, but do not take the exam. In addition, we found that an AP exam score of 1 or 2 offered little evidence of any benefit derived from the AP coursework experienced by the students in high school. In addition, students passing an AP exam might well consider retaking introductory courses in college to more completely master the content, as many colleges and universities already require.

Advanced Placement has become one of the most highly respected “brand-names” in secondary/postsecondary education. However, our study has found indications that the AP program, while certainly of value to many students, may lack some of the evidence necessary to support its claim of academic rigor equal to that of introductory college and university courses in science. While this current study certainly suffers from limitations, as do all research studies, what is clear from our findings is that the claims of the College Board regarding the interpretation and validity of AP exam scores are problematic. Our findings indicate the need for further investigations of greater size, scope, and intensity, especially given the potential being ascribed to the Advanced Placement program as part of the cure for what ails American science education.

After her review of 20 studies on AP courses, Stanford education expert Denise Pope was asked whether kids were wasting their time taking the classes. Here is her response:

If you are truly interested in the subject, there’s a good teacher and you’re surrounded by other motivated students, then you’re probably going to have a good experience from taking a more advanced class. But if you’re pushed into it without good preparation and without a safety net in place at the school to help you if you get in over your head, then it may be more harmful than helpful.

Colleges don’t always accept the courses for college credit, many students end up repeating the course in college anyway, and you can run the risk of memorizing material for a test versus delving into a subject and exploring it in an enriching way. Sometimes an honors course at a high school is actually a better option for rigorous and engaging learning.

Here is a link to a good discussion of the decision by a top-ranked New York school system to move away from AP.

What has been your experience with AP classes and tests?

Reader Comments 0

82 comments
Donna Li
Donna Li

At the price of exams (~$100 per) maybe there is a better way to spend those resources?

Tcope
Tcope

It seems that many public students switch to AP classes to get away from the problems in the normal classes. Many high end private schools offer little to no AP classes, as all of their classwork is at least as rigorous as the AP classes taught in public schools. I would like to hear more about grade inflation as it relates to college admission in Georgia.

apteacher
apteacher

I have been teaching AP for over 25 years in rural North Georgia and over the course of my career have taught every level of math from 8th grade math to Calculus.  Are AP classes worth the investment?  Based on my experience and the college/career success of my students and of my own children, I would respond with an emphatic "yes!".  It is good practice for teachers and school administrators to monitor student success on AP exams.  However, if exam results are not meeting expectations, the best response would be to examine the root cause, not to question the value of AP courses for students.  Success in AP courses, as in other college-level courses, requires a strong foundation in prerequisite skills.  An examination of middle school and high school courses that precede an AP course would reveal whether students have opportunities to engage in rigorous coursework prior to their AP experience.  If the instruction of an AP course needs strengthening, invest in professional development and encourage networking with other schools within the district or with neighboring districts.  Often an AP teacher is the only teacher in the building that is teaching a specific course and has no one to turn to for assistance with curriculum or assessment development.  The College Board provides a wealth of free resources for teachers, and the GaDOE College Readiness staff can assist teachers in connecting with an experienced mentor.  The professional development that I have received as an AP teacher has helped me become a better teacher for all of my students.  


What is different about teaching AP?  Students have to "own" the content and develop a deep understanding of the subject - they cannot depend on rote memory.  After many years of working with students from a wide range of social and academic backgrounds, I believe the "AP experience" has as much value for some students as the "AP credit" has for others.  AP curricula and AP exams are developed in collaboration with college faculty, many of whom are from top tier colleges, and the exams provide a nationally standardized measure of student competency with the content.  We consistently hear from our students that their experiences in their AP courses were instrumental in their success in college and in their career choices.

willteach4shoes
willteach4shoes

I have taught AP English for 12 of my 25 years teaching and been an AP Reader for 5 years, and I can tell you with great confidence that AP students are far better prepared for college and rigorous academic course work than those who never have the AP experience at all. While most students who take AP classes may indeed be more motivated or better prepared, that is not always the case. The emails I get from former students are quite often from the latter group, and they always attest to how well prepared they are for their college English and other classes and how much more confident they feel compared with their classmates, which they attribute to their AP experience. Many of those Dekalb students who aren't doing well on the AP exam are still benefiting enormously from the opportunity for rigorous course work they would likely not have encountered otherwise, regardless of their scores. I applaud Dekalb for earmarking funds to help offset the cost of exams for their students and encouraging more kids to take AP classes with their nationally recognized, outstanding curriculums. Those students will benefit in so many more ways than can be measured by one test.

Dawn Moss

Lawrenceville

Jeanne Lurie
Jeanne Lurie

Lots of good information about how states with strong results (eg Massachusetts) support low income AP students.

penjamo99
penjamo99

I am an AP Spanish teacher and I can attest that the majority of my students in the metro-area are not classified as gifted and certainly would not be honors students either. AP has allowed them to develop their writing, speaking and analytic skills in a subject matter that they enjoy. Although writing skills on the AP Spanish test are completed in Spanish, they are nonetheless skills that can be developed in my classes and used in others. The development of these skills is essential for a post HS career whether it be in college or not.  


Jeanne Lurie
Jeanne Lurie

State of Washington has a different take on the AP issue with plenty of corporate support for low income test takers.

redweather
redweather

Schools have the option of adding a half grade extra weight to DE grades. Not all schools do. Walton, for example, does not.

class80olddog
class80olddog

http://ugaadmissions.blogspot.com/2013/11/calculating-uga-gpa.html  - Here is my proof, Beachbound2020, now where is your "proof".  Maureen, you disappoint me for not knowing this simple fact about UGA or at least giving a non-committal answer until you researched it.  To say that "you think they treat all courses the same" is generating fake news.  The FACT is that UGA does NOT give extra points for Dual Enrollment courses like they do for AP and IB courses.  I found that out the hard way through actual experience.

ErnestB
ErnestB

@class80olddog


I was referring to DeKalb County School District.  That's why I asked if Stan could validate.  I can't speak to whether UGA or any other college/university recognizes the value point for DE classes.  For certain, the credits will transfer to any college/university in the State of Georgia.

class80olddog
class80olddog

"I believe they began providing the 'value point' for DE classes a few years ago. "  May I ask you WHO is providing an extra "value point" for DE, because it for sure is not UGA.  Unfortunately UGA DOES look at GPA as a very major part of their decision, especially early decision.  Their AVERAGE GPA is 3.98.  To me that says that at least half had some AP classes thrown in there, maybe more than half.  If you want to get into a competitive program such as UGA or Tech, my recommendation is that you take every available AP class you can, and do well in it.  If you live in a rural area where the school does not offer very many AP classes, you may be screwed. Right, wascatlady?

ErnestB
ErnestB

@MaureenDowney @class80olddog


Speaking from a DeKalb perspective, I believe they began providing the 'value point' for DE classes a few years ago.  I recall a mother advocating for that with the rationalization that a class taught by a college professor should provide more weight when looking at the final GPA for the student.  Perhaps Stan could comment on this if he recalls.


IMO, the value point primarily matters if the student is trying to be the Sal or Val for their HS graduating class.  Every class and grade matters.  As Maureen indicated, I would assume the colleges/universities would look at the full body of the class workload taken by the student, especially rigorous course and not focus as much on the GPA, partly due to grade inflation.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@class80olddog The question was not what they give points for; the question is how they regard these courses for admission. And, if you listen to the recorded interviews with the UGA admissions folks, you will see this repeated: We want to see students taking the most rigorous content possible in their school. That rigor can be through AP IB or dual enrollment. What UGA told me -- and you can listen to the interviews -- is they want kids who chose to stretch themselves. I can assure you no college is going to discount a student who took college math at GSU or Tech, which some kids do.

I am assuming your focus is over the use of the term "weights," which a commenter used. I think she/he meant it in terms of how much value UGA sees in a class, not the technical aspect of whether the courses are "weighted" for an extra half point related to GPA.. 

One of the advantages to dual enrollment is that the college credit is not dependent on something beyond the grade a student earns. You only get college credit for the IB/AP typically if you pass the related tests. (The May tests are part of the IB Diploma requirement, and it's the awarding of the diploma that assures the full college credit complement.) I know kids who did great in the AP classes, but did not do well on the AP test, failing to attain the grade needed to get college credit. 


To my point that colleges treat dual enrollment as an indicator of rigor in their admissions decisions, the UGA link you shared makes this point:


The 1.0 added weight is just for AP and/or IB grades, as those are nationally/internationally standardized. We do not add weight for DE grades, but we do look at DE work in our review of an applicant's course rigor.



class80olddog
class80olddog

@MaureenDowney @class80olddog  My comments were solely concerning the extra point added for AP and IB courses.  It does a parent and student a disservice if they believe they will get the same benefit by going the DE route.  Of course, you are correct, DE credits often transfer and are great value once you get in, BUT YOU HAVE TO GET IN FIRST.  That was my experience with my daughter, who exhausted AP classes and took DE, mistakenly thinking UGA would weight them the same, and they didn't.  She was wait-listed, then ultimately was accepted.  She could have graduated in three years (thanks to DE credits) but ultimately graduated in four years with dual degrees.  Sounds like UGA would have missed out on a good student if they had turned her down in favor of another student with higher GPA because of more AP credits.  Perhaps colleges should rethink their program of adding "value points" to AP classes, since I am sure that grade inflation happens in those classes also.

class80olddog
class80olddog

 "I think she/he meant it in terms of how much value UGA sees in a class, not the technical aspect of whether the courses are "weighted" for an extra half point related to GPA"  - This is his/her exact post:  "That is not true and wreckless to give erroneous information.  UGA does weight dual enrollment just like AP courses. I have years of stats to prove it but unfortunately cannot divulge my school."

ErnestB
ErnestB

@class80olddog @MaureenDowney


Congrats on your daughter's accomplishments and subsequent graduation from UGA.  Despite being waitlisted, her patience ultimately paid off.


How comfortable are you in saying she was waitlisted because she to DE courses?  I don't profess to know the acceptance algorithm for UGA but I've met MANY capable and qualified students that got waitlisted also.  I will 'speculate' that some underrepresented students (this can also include those from some counties in South Georgia) may get additional consideration.  My daughter met several from south Georgia that wanted to be a Bulldog since birth yet when they got to the school, recognized they were not as academically prepared as they thought they were. Some realized that was not the best environment for them.  Many left after the 1st and 2nd semesters.  This was my daughter's observation.

Beach Bound2020
Beach Bound2020

@class80olddog I'm with Maureen on this one. Your link dates back to 2013. UGA may not add the same points, but they see it the same. As my screen name indicates, it'll be 2020 before I can state my exact data points, but based on your antiquated citation, I think my data is more accurate. Thank you Maureen for taking time to provide your reply.

Starik
Starik

AP classes, like the IB program are a way for minority students and motivated majority students to escape the disaster that most DeKalb schools have become.  Can't transfer, then get into an island of achievement, or at least a safe place.

Sarah Puckett Burns
Sarah Puckett Burns

Hope Scholarship now requires AP classes. So that requires them on a while other level.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Oldest daughter took one, but too early in her career.  It did, however, give her a chance to get her feet wet in harder-level work.  And it got her out of lump-lump level classes (unmotivated fellow students with poor skills.)  This was in Athens, where student behavior was a pretty serious problem.


Younger daughter took only one also, as a senior.  It was absolutely great for her.  Her high school, in rural North Georgia, offers few AP classes.  She scored a 4 and it was great prep for her to go straight into Calc 2. Student behavior was not an issue.


I think in a competitive high school it might not be such an issue.  And of course there is MOWR now.

Gillispie
Gillispie

In my senior year of high school, I took four AP test - Eur History (4), US History (5), Math AB (5), Phys (4).  Got 24 credit quarter hours from GA Tech for it (got to bypass Calc I & II - Diffy Eq still ate me up when I got to it).  Thirty years ago however. 


There's a lot of parents who think their kids will be the best just because they go to "the right school"; doesn't work if the parents don't invest their own time with them. That doesn't mean doing homework - that means that we all have to love learning.  Parents have to eat their vegetables too, or it doesn't work.

JohnWChapman
JohnWChapman

@Gillispie Diff Eq at Tech - <shudder> - I was there about 30 years ago as well and the professors apparently liked me so much they made me take it twice.

Milo
Milo

Stop trying to force kids to reach impossible standards. You do more harm than good. 

StanJester
StanJester

ErnestB,  DeKalb Schools has 24 high schools that cover the range of rigorous courses and academic achievement.  "Students will rise to the challenge" ... that's a broad stroke to paint over 100,000 students.  I'm concerned with the students at the 22 failing schools in DeKalb that don't seem to be rising to the challenge.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@ErnestB @StanJester Don't schools also get more money for AP enrollment?


And I believe schools are told to let anyone in the class who wants to be in it (or thinks they do) whether they have the reading/language arts/math/science achievement to handle it.

ErnestB
ErnestB

@StanJester


We share the same concern.  I believe it has been a culture of low expectations that is prevalent at too many of our schools.  I also believe there are some indicators for student success that despite the best efforts of the Board, Superintendent, Principals and Teachers, we lack control over.  I've seen some true miracle workers in school however based on the 'easy' measure of a standardized test score, we don't acknowledge the true growth that has taken place.


Using parental involvement as an indicator, you will see a strong correlation to student success.  There are exceptions however I would not want to be the one to determine whether a student should have access to AP classes/exams simply based on test scores.  Call it 'rose colored glasses' however I still want to believe the best in people, especially our children when given the opportunity.

ErnestB
ErnestB

Stan, do any DeKalb HSs offer honors courses?  I ask because of the comment by Denise Pope of Stanford in the article above.  


My goal is to see more rigorous course offerings as I believe students will rise to the challenge if we have high expectations for them.  It doesn't matter if it is through AP, Honors or Dual Enrollment.


To Maureen's question, my children took a combination of AP courses along with Dual enrollment.  My son took MARTA to Georgia State and my daughter drove to Georgia Perimeter (excuse the old name I am using as I am old).  As a result, those 2 children started college with enough credits to a  sophomore.  This worked well for my family and I am appreciative I had these options.  I recognize that because of where I live, we had greater access to these opportunities that some children lack.  My children also had 'helicopter parents' that supported and sacrificed for them to have these opportunities.

Already_Older
Already_Older

@ErnestB  If you were really old (like me), instead of Georgia Perimeter, you would have called it Dekalb College.

class80olddog
class80olddog

There is an issue when 30% of students in regular classes have a 4.0 GPA. Grade inflation?

Milo
Milo

@class80olddog

Ask them to spell their name after receiving their HS diploma. That's when the real shock occurs. 

StanJester
StanJester

I believe the students working to get into GT and UGA are outside the scope of this article.  I'm concerned that at schools with a lot of economically disadvantaged students, enrollment in AP courses is a proxy for academic success.  However, many of those schools have an AP Exam pass rate of less than 10%.  We are failing those students.

class80olddog
class80olddog

Why would a student who just wants a HS diploma ever take an AP course? An employer will not give them credit for that! Why do schools want to pay for AP tests? Does not make sense

ErnestB
ErnestB

@class80olddog


Its probably fair to say to those seeking higher education after HS are probably the targets for taking AP classes.  Why wouldn't a counselor who understands that a student has demonstrated aptitude for college but may lack role models at home suggest that they take an AP class/exam?


Actually DeKalb has a long history of paying for AP exams.  Unfortunately offering AP classes/exams was concentrated to a few schools which meant many students (mostly in economically disadvantaged areas) did not have access to this additional rigor.

ErnestB
ErnestB

@StanJester


Are we failing students by suggesting they take more rigorous classes and the accompanying exam?  How would we realize untapped potential if we didn't do this?

ErnestB
ErnestB

@MaureenDowney @ErnestB @class80olddog


When Dr. Brown came to DeKalb in 2002, he made the observation that I mentioned above.  He immediately worked to provide greater access to AP classes/exams to those that had been under served with this rigorous offering.


My recollection is that all AP exams were paid for until the recession of 2008/9.  At that time, it was cut from the budget as it was considered a luxury the district could not afford with the belt tightening in the budget.  It was restored around 2012/13.

StanJester
StanJester

Why would a student who just wants a HS diploma ever take an AP course?

A:  School districts push minorities to take AP classes and exams whether the student is ready for it or not.  The school district gets points in various rating systems and gets all kinds of accolades for minority access to rigorous academic courses.


How would we realize untapped potential if we didn't suggest students take more rigorous classes and the accompanying exam?

A:  The teachers and counselors should be able to identify the students ready for AP courses.


ErnestB
ErnestB

@StanJester


Regarding your first answer above, it sounds like the measure needs to be adjusted.  I am sure you are aware of many quotes about working to the plan.  That is what some school districts are doing.


Yes we want to provide greater access and opportunity however we also need to look at the outcomes and how that can be positively impacted.  Perhaps every student doesn't need to take the AP exam yet would benefit from the class.  There has to be a happy medium we can find.

StanJester
StanJester

The measure needs to be adjusted. - Agreed.  Unfortunately The College Board is driving a lot of this.  They are happy to give awards to the school districts that give them the most money.


Greater Access and Opportunity -  I'm an advocate for creating options

LLLC
LLLC

The Georgia Tech early admission students from Jan '17 have an average of 11 AP classes and the UGA early admission students Nov '16 have an average of 9. Without a change in the college admissions procedures, our high school students feel pressured to take a heavy course load of AP classes to remain competitive in the college admissions process.

JFlem1988
JFlem1988

Choate Rosemary Hall's plan to eliminate AP comes after decades of experience as one of the top elite boarding schools in the country, conversations with admissions directors at top colleges and universities about possibilities, and the proven acceptances and success at the next level of their well tracked alumni base. They attract and support topnotch faculty and nurture established and innovative curricula. Their most affluent students are not seeking the value of college credit, as my son was at UGA, when he arrived as a freshman with 26 hours of credit via AP scores of 3-5 on 6 exams. Choate Rosemary Hall graduates are seeking admissions edge, and the school has climbed a ladder of success, to now offer something better than AP. Let us not consider, that if DCS schools eliminated support for AP, that our situation is remotely similar.  

Another comment
Another comment

The girl across the Hall from me in College went to Choate in Wallingford, Conn. she was the stereotypical lonely Rich girl. Her very wealthy parents ( who actually lived in Wallingford, Conn) basically dumped her at Choate so they were free to socialize and travel internationally. She was a very average student. Wealth and who your parents are is the criteria for getting into Choate.

weetamoe
weetamoe

I would advise dual enrollment.  

Beach Bound2020
Beach Bound2020

@class80olddog That is not true and wreckless to give erroneous information.  UGA does weight dual enrollment just like AP courses. I have years of stats to prove it but unfortunately cannot divulge my school.

Maureen - can you get a UGA rep to verify this?


MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Beach Bound2020 @class80olddog I will ask David Graves, but my understanding from my long interview with him a few months back is that UGA Admissions regards AP, IB and Dual Enrollment equally.



Another comment
Another comment

They did not in 2013! At that time they told me that my Daughter was placed on the waitlist because she only had 4 AP/IB classes when she had the equivalent of 9 with Dual enrollment. 4 AP that included 3 A's and 1 B, then 5 Dual enrollment with two A', two B's and a C+ ( in a Math class). They stated to me on the phone that our admittance averaged 6 AP classes. I countered back she had 9. They accepted a classmate that was also a white female that had the exact same GPA/ ACT score, but had 6 AP/IB classes.

The tale of the two stories, the other girl who they admitted was overwhelmed at Georgia, transferred to Ga Southern after 1 year. She dropped out by Junior year and is now working as a Nanny. My child never made it off the waitlist ( as no one did in 2013), but went to Ga State is in a STEM major and has over a 3.7 GPA. She has never had another C or any grade below a B+ . Is in every honor society there is. Just earned a prestigious externship for the Summer ( that pays and includes tuition reimbursement).

My child now agrees that the dual enrollment classes prepared her for college over the AP/IB.