To AP® or Not to AP®…What does the Research Say?

What does the research really say about taking an AP® class?

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of “rumors”, “here-say”, “anecdotal info”, &”verbal discussion” of the benefits of AP® based on information or studies from years ago. I’ve heard that just taking an AP® course helps in college and/or taking the exam (no matter if you pass) and I’ve wondered “Is that true or still true?” What does the AP® research say?

Some more questions: Aren’t the kids who take and/or pass AP® already the kids who would succeed in college no matter if they took AP? So, is it AP® that makes a difference or just being a smart kid? Where’s the controlled study? (by the way, this is a hard one to get an answer to).  What about dual enrollment?

I searched databases and the internet and found these resources. You can click on the underlined title to get to the actual study or resource. Below each title, I pulled out some quotes and added my thoughts.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and any other studies you’ve come across.

Here’s my take away from these articles:

1.  AP® is a good thing for students and give them an edge in college.
2.  Students must do well on the AP® Exam (some studies show a 2 or better, some show a 3 or better) to get this edge
3.  Students must ready for AP, not just enrolled, because its “good for them” or “good for the school”, but truly ready for the rigor. (This being said, this is not an excuse for gatekeeping–there are lots of kids who are not typical honors kids, but who are ready for AP® as they get to be upperclassmen)
4. AP® saves kids money.  My own son will save thousands as he enters college
5.  AP® is better than dual enrollment for completing college

Here’s the research about AP

Are AP® Students More Likely to Graduate from College on Time?

This study shows that a score of 2 or better leads to higher success rates in college. A score of 1 does not help. (page 7 Table 1)

“We cannot be sure whether this positive relationship is linked to the notion that an AP® student would be more likely to enter college with more college credits and is therefore more likely to graduate in four years or whether the positive relationship could be linked to the notion that AP® students have been exposed to college-level work and are therefore more comfortable with managing this work; perhaps it is a combination of the two or another alternate explanation.” (page 22)

“The current study found a positive relationship between both AP® Exam participation and performance and graduation within four years. This relationship held, even after controlling for relevant student and institutional factors associated with graduation rates. Given the financial burden associated with extending the time to graduate, this study provides support for the AP® Program as an educational opportunity that may aid in timely completion of college. In particular, it may be worthwhile to explore the policy implications of these findings to work toward decreasing the time to college graduation and decrease student debt in a meaningful and large-scale way” (page 24)

Basically, we don’t have a controlled study to show that these kids who take AP® would already be successful in college, but at least they’re saving a lot of money on tuition.

Should AP® Be Plan A?

“Studies that simply establish that students who are involved with the AP® program in high school perform better in college do not necessarily provide proof that the AP® program caused the students to be successful in college.” Students who have the motivation and study habits to take AP® classes in the first place have those same attributes upon reaching college, argues the report, “[s]o how can we know if it was the program that caused these students to do better in college?”

Advanced Placement® Exam-Taking and Performance: Relationships with First-Year Subject Area College Grades

This study finds that students need a 3 or better to be statistically better in college.

Assessment of Advanced Placement Participation and University Academic success in the First semester: Controlling for Selected High School Academic Abilities

Here’s one that accounts for accounts for similar academic ability (SAT and class rank) and found that kids who earn AP® credit (passing with a 3,4,5) do better in college than kids who do not take AP.  It does not measure just taking the course (AP® participation or earning a 1 or 2)

Harvard FICSS  

This group at Harvard measures the factors that influence college success in science.

“Students with passing AP® exam scores (3 or above) do not earn high enough grades after retaking introductory college science courses to assume prior mastery. AP® students who do not earn passing scores (2 or less) appear to have gained no advantage from their year of AP® study. While students who take AP® science, on average, do better in college than those who take less rigorous courses, half of this performance difference is accounted for by demographic variables and prior coursework in high school.”  (from website)

AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program

Same authors as the Harvard FICSS study

Passing an AP® exam does increase college success rates (honors Physics and honors Chem also).

But, it is not a way to close the achievement gap for poor and ethnic students.  It is a waste of resources to just drop students into AP® classes which they are not ready for. Students who are not ready to succeed are more likely to fail.

A Comparison of the College Outcomes of AP® and Dual Enrollment Students | In Progress

Both AP® and Dual Enrollment (DE) increase college enrollment with DE being higher. As time goes on, however, college persistence and graduation rates are much higher with AP.



One thought on “To AP® or Not to AP®…What does the Research Say?

Comments are closed.