Liberal Education

Posing Tougher Questions about the Advanced Placement Program

The College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) program began in the middle of the twentieth century through the convergence of two separate but parallel efforts, both funded by the Ford Foundation, to find a means to enhance the educational experience of high-achieving high school students. Until very recently, the AP program has been above reproach; it has enjoyed a strong reputation as the most rigorous means of accelerating the learning of precocious high school students. Over the past decade, however, the explosive 10 percent annual growth in the number of students participating in the program has raised questions about its role in education (Lichten 2000). Few doubt the integrity of the program itself, but doubts have been raised about how the AP label and examination scores are being used (Geiser and Santelices 1999).

The profile of the AP program was raised significantly in 2006, when President Bush singled it out in his State of the Union address as an important mechanism for reinvig­orating the growth of the U.S. science and technology workforce (National Science Board 2008). The role of the AP program in the president’s American Competitiveness Initiative is to increase the number of high school graduates entering the “science pipeline,” the academic and professional pathway leading to work at the cutting edge of science and technology. The $122 million initiative is aimed, in part, at broadening the accessibility of the AP program for underserved and underrepresented groups across the United States.

In the news media, coverage of the AP program is often muddled by discussions that interweave college admissions decisions with the granting of college coursework credit. In my view, there are actually three groupings for Advanced Placement issues: high school AP courses and their role in college admissions, AP exams and college course credit, and issues of access and equity.

AP courses and college admissions

What do high school students taking AP courses experience? What content is included in the courses? For the first time since the inception of the AP program, the College Board conducted a worldwide audit of AP course syllabi in 2007–8. This effort involved 839 college professors who reviewed more than 134,000 syllabi from more than 14,000 high schools. On average, each professor reviewed 160 high school course syllabi.

Yet while syllabi may indicate what content is taught, they offer little or no evidence of how content is taught. When considering the quality of courses, content is only part of the question. Other factors of comparable or even greater importance include the instructional approach; the knowledge, background, and skill of the teacher; and the methods of assessment. A review of syllabi simply ensures that, for each course approved by the College Board, the expectations of content knowledge coverage are clear. Other than the AP examination scores from the students themselves, there is no means of gauging the quality of these courses. In short, the worldwide audit amounted to little more than a cursory review of a list of topics potentially included in an AP course, with no documented connection to actual instruction. This is comparable to using a list of available medical equipment and supplies to judge the quality of a doctor’s visit; simply because they are listed does not guarantee that they are used well or effectively.

The AP exams have traditionally been optional, due in part to the fee (currently $84). Despite the fact that the College Board and various states have offered substantial subsidies, the exams remain optional for the vast majority of high school AP courses. If high school students do not intend to use AP credit, taking the AP exams may seem like an ineffective use of time and money. In some instances, however, high school AP teachers do recommend that students take the exams for the sake of experience.

In addition, the scores from AP exams administered in April and May are reported during the summer months. Clearly, unless the exams are taken the year before graduation, the scores are unlikely to play a role in college admissions decisions. In order to make the scores available for use in the college admissions process, students would need to take AP courses in the junior year of high school. Indeed, some high-achieving students begin taking AP courses as early as the sophomore year. This acceleration of AP program participation ignores the importance of life experiences in helping students process and interpret course content, which is an essential part of learning for life.

At highly selective institutions, the fact that an applicant has taken AP courses—regardless of his or her examination scores—is often used in ranking students for admissions purposes. Yet research suggests that, while AP examination scores are strongly correlated with college performance, merely taking AP courses in high school is not a good indicator of college performance. One such study conducted among students in California universities by Geiser and Santelices (1999) drew a direct and forceful response from the College Board, which called into question its methodology and conclusions (Camara and Michealides 2005). However, in a more specific study of AP science grades as a predictor of introductory college science performance, my colleague Philip Sadler and I (2007a) reached conclusions very similar to those of Geiser and Santelices.

The AP program was not originally intended for use in the college admissions process. For those students targeted by the original program, college admission was a foregone conclusion. Decades later, however, the circumstances and the program both have changed. It would be naive to expect college admissions officers to overlook or ignore the tendency of high-achieving students to seek out these courses in high school. And indeed, the fervency of its response to the research findings of Geiser and Santelices seems to indicate that the College Board supports the use of AP course-taking as an indicator of academic capacity and achievement. Certainly, additional research is needed to determine the appropriateness of considering AP course-taking when ranking students for admissions purposes.

The élan of Advanced Placement comes from its long history as a rigorous academic approach to offering an accelerated curriculum to precocious high school students. In instances where these students have sought such a curriculum, they certainly do not seem to have diminished their readiness to succeed in college. It remains to be seen how beneficial the program is when its “accelerated” curriculum goes in search of academically precocious students.

AP exams and college course credit

At its inception, the Advanced Placement program involved only a small number of students. Although it has now expanded to many times its original size, the AP program remained relatively small until the 1990s, when the number of participating high schools grew by 40 percent (Klopfenstein 2004). This unprecedented expansion was coupled with significant growth in the number of topics offered. The current AP program includes thirty-seven examinations in twenty-two different disciplines, ranging from art history to statistics. An ambitious student in the right high school, with enough AP credits, has a reasonable chance to attain second-year (sophomore) status before even setting foot on a college campus. More commonly, students enter with qualifying scores on a more modest number of AP examinations. Yet the financial cost of granting even these credits is highly relevant to colleges, students, and their families.

College is about much more than the simple accrual of credits, however. The role of a college education in expanding the minds and the perspectives of students is fundamental, and this personal growth may come from a variety of sources—including introductory-level courses, which are the only types of courses affected by the Advanced Placement program. Given the limited number of textbooks used across hundreds of colleges, it is arguable that introductory-level course content would not vary greatly from college to college. But there are professors teaching introductory courses who offer something unique and immensely valuable. They possess extraordinarily deep and complex knowledge, a remarkable capacity to engage their students, and access to resources that only a college can offer.

An important related point to consider is the breadth and depth of knowledge measured by an AP examination, which lasts about three hours. While a multiple-choice section is included to assess the breadth of a student’s knowledge, the more in-depth free-response questions are necessarily limited to a smaller number and, therefore, cover only a few topics. The problem with any standardized test, not just the AP exams, is that it can only be expected to measure students’ command of the topics included on the test. In contrast, college courses are, typically, much more comprehensive with respect to the content included on quizzes, examinations, and assignments. As a result, AP exams rely on limited information when gauging the understanding of individual students. Our own survey research found that, among students reporting AP examination scores of 5 who take the same course in college, only about half ended up earning an “A” (Sadler and Tai 2007b).

That said, as standardized tests, the AP exams are the best that can reasonably be expected. In the end, students, their parents, and colleges must consider both educational as well as fiscal realities when determining the role these exams should play in a college career. We are currently under the influence of a culture of acceleration. We are awed by kindergarteners reading at high school levels, but we should also consider whether they understand the meanings of the words they read. We see students being required to choose majors in high school, but can we reasonably expect fourteen-year-olds to make informed choices about concentrations of study? Students who score well on AP exams should not necessarily choose to take the AP credit and skip the course in college.

Access and equity

Apart from the issues related to college admissions and credit, issues of access and equity permeate the discussion of the AP program. These issues are central to Geiser and Santelices’s argument against the use of AP course-taking in admissions decisions. The academic ability of students from schools or districts that either do not offer AP courses or lack qualified teachers for them is systematically undervalued.

With its $122 million federal commitment both to propagate AP courses in science and mathematics and to bolster the teaching force, the American Competitiveness Initiative may indicate some progress toward achieving educational equity. The federal commitment does not extend to earlier years of schooling, however. It is precisely this lack of a comprehensive commitment to educational equity that may prove to be the fatal flaw in this approach. Offering AP courses to students whose previous educational experiences are otherwise underfunded might, in the end, amount to little more than tying a bow on a flawed system of funding for K–12 public education.

Notwithstanding the successes of Jaime Escalante, the teacher depicted in the film Stand and Deliver, and his colleagues Ben Jimenez and Angelo Villavicencio, would we expect students from underfunded public schools to be able to make up enough ground to take advantage of an AP program? One critical point Escalante makes is that the film does not adequately depict the actual amount of time and effort required for his work at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. The fact remains that, even with highly qualified teachers, the task is Herculean and involves a series of courses culminating in a capstone AP course. It is very likely that, rather than teaching the high-level science and mathematics required to pass the AP exams, the new teachers hired through the American Competitiveness Initiative would find themselves focusing on remediation.

Turning to Advanced Placement as a means of achieving educational equity is an approach similar to that taken by proponents of affirmative action. While I believe that affirmative action is better than nothing, a conversation I had with Stanley Aronowitz over a decade ago remains with me. I was a graduate student at the time, and we were discussing a review I had written of one of his many books. During the conversation, he matter-of-factly stated his opposition to affirmative action. Given his national reputation as a leading progressive thinker, the shock value was immense. He reminded me that affirmative action was originally designed as a stopgap measure to avoid the massive federal and state expenditures that were looming in response to vast inequities in educational access due to racist segregation practices. Affirmative action, Aronowitz argued, has distracted the public from addressing the true problem: festering educational inequities.

The possibility that Advanced Placement may also be a stopgap has not gone unnoticed (Dougherty, Mellor, and Jian 2006). There is a very good chance that education will be merely relabeled rather than reformed. We do have the past to learn from, however. And through its examination scores, the AP program does at least offer a means of accountability. But will nonindividually identifiable AP examination scores be disclosed, analyzed, and monitored? And will our leaders take the action necessary to make changes based on the findings?


The topic of Advanced Placement has been muddled by discussion of costs, admissions, and syllabi as well as by a general lack of disclosure and accountability. A potential solution to this current entanglement comes from the AP examination itself. Notwithstanding the need for serious consideration of whether the experience of an AP course and a qualifying AP examination score can replace a college course, all students who wish to receive credit for an AP course should be required to take the AP examination, and the cost should be subsidized. The exam scores—stripped of information that could be used to identify students individually—ought to be publicly reported by school or district. Questions about whether high school grades ought to factor in AP exam scores are moot. Since AP exam scores typically are not reported until many months after the end of the school year, high school grade reports should be based solely on course assignments and classroom performance. The AP exams themselves ought to be used as a summative assessment of the performance of the students as a body.

What, then, should be done with the scores? They should be used to gauge the quality of the educational systems they represent, and high schools that fall short ought to be given greater attention and support. Test scores have traditionally been used as a means of identifying whom to “punish,” an approach that is generally counterproductive. Schools that repeatedly report low AP exam scores offer an important indicator of the general lack of student preparation for the exam. They also indicate which schools need the most help—not criticism, but actual support from the state and federal governments. As mentioned above, President Bush has recommended a $122 million federal commitment to fund AP programs. In order to target the use of these funds effectively, student performance on AP exams must be openly disclosed and made available for independent analysis.

For high school students, the AP program offers a means of distinguishing themselves from the crowd. For college students, it offers a means of moving ahead more quickly or obtaining credits more frugally. For high schools, it offers a degree of prestige. For colleges, it offers a systematic means of identifying high-achieving applicants. For our nation, it offers a means of enhancing the STEM workforce and maintaining our place as a global economic leader. We, as a nation, have certainly heaped a great number of expectations on the AP program, and the College Board has played no small role in this.

We must keep in mind, however, that Advanced Placement is a testing program, albeit a very intense and highly involved one. AP will not make weak students better. And AP will not change the economic fortunes of American science and technology—though it may have a positive influence. In the end, AP is a three-hour standardized test. We must use it as a resource, as a means of gauging our effectiveness as educators. Examinations are best used to tell us what we still need to do better, and AP has the potential to do that at the national level.



Camara, W. J., and M. Michaelides. 2005. AP use in admissions: A response to Geiser and Santelices. New York: The College Board.

Dougherty, C., L. Mellor, and S. Jian. 2006. Orange juice or orange drink? Ensuring that “advanced courses” live up to their labels. Austin, TX: National Center for Educational Accountability.

Geiser, S., and V. Santelices. 2004. The role of Advanced Placement and honors courses in college admissions. Berkeley, CA: Center for Studies in Higher Education,University of California, Berkeley.

Klopfenstein, K. 2004. The Advanced Placment expansion of the 1990s: How did traditionally underserved students fare? Educational Policy Analysis Archives 12 (68),

Lichten, W. 2000. Whither Advanced Placement? Educational Policy Analysis Archives 8 (29),

National Science Board. 2008. Research and development: Essential foundation for U.S. competitiveness in the global economy. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

Sadler, P. M., and R. H. Tai. 2007a. Accounting for advanced high school coursework in college admissions decisions. College and University Journal 82 (2): 7–14.

———. 2007b. Advanced Placement exam scores as a predictor of performance in introductory college biology, chemistry, and physics courses. Science Educator 16 (2): 1–19.

Robert H. Tai is associate professor of science education at the University of Virginia.

To respond to this article, e-mail, with the author’s name on the subject line.

Previous Issues