Studies Find Benefits to Advanced Placement Courses

Jay Mathews
January 29, 2007

In the midst of a national debate over whether Advanced Placement courses place too much pressure on U.S. high school students, a team of Texas researchers has concluded that the difficult courses and three-hour exams are worth it.

In the largest study ever of the impact of AP on college success, which looked at 222,289 students from all backgrounds attending a wide range of Texas universities, the researchers said they found "strong evidence of benefits to students who participate in both AP courses and exams in terms of higher GPAs, credit hours earned and four-year graduation rates."

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Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews writes a weekly column for, Class Struggle, which runs on Tuesdays.

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A separate University of Texas study of 24,941 students said those who used their AP credits to take more advanced courses in college had better grades in those courses than similar students who first took college introductory courses instead of AP in 10 subjects.

"Both of these papers are home runs. They definitely settle a lot," said Joseph Hawkins, an AP expert and senior study director for the private research firm Westat in Rockville.

The new studies run counter to an unpublished Harvard University and University of Virginia study that casts doubt on the worth of AP science courses and contradict some critics who say that high school courses, even with an AP label, cannot match the depth of college introductory courses.

The new studies constitute the largest mass of new data on AP since participation in the College Board program began to skyrocket a decade ago. The College Board, which paid for both studies, is expected to announce next week that nearly 2.3 million AP tests for 37 courses were given in 2006, a 200 percent increase since 1995. Some college admissions experts speculate that the college-level exams, written and graded by independent experts, will eventually supplant the SAT and ACT as the country's most important tests.

Selective colleges have made enrollment in AP or its less popular counterpart, International Baccalaureate, virtual requirements for admission. Teenagers in many high schools, particularly in the Washington suburbs, compete with one another to take the most AP or IB courses and tests. Yet some researchers have argued that the courses do not prepare students as well for college as AP advocates say.

The larger Texas study confirms two other studies in the past three years that good grades on the three-hour AP exams correlate with better grades and graduation rates in college, and it goes further by saying that students with similar SAT or ACT scores and economic backgrounds do better in college if they have taken the AP courses and exams. Some Washington area school systems say the exams are a vital part of the AP experience and require that AP students take them, but most U.S. systems make the tests optional.

Independent experts on AP called the Texas data impressive but said they would like a closer look at successful AP students. University of California researcher Saul Geiser said more research is needed on whether student motivation and academic preparation could account for the differences in college outcomes..

The larger Texas study also found that even a score of 2 out of a possible 5 points on an AP exam correlates with better college performance than that achieved by students who did not take AP or who skipped the AP exam; however, colleges usually give credit only for scores of 3 or above. Chrys Dougherty, director of research at the National Center for Educational Accountability in Austin, said, "We would expect the group that chooses to skip the exam to have a disproportionate number of students who didn't get a strong AP curriculum in the first place."

The larger of the two studies, by University of Texas at Austin researchers Linda Hargrove and Barbara Dodd and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board researcher Donn Godin, also concluded that AP students do better in college than similar students who have taken college courses in high school. This finding confirms the view of several selective college admissions deans that the local college offerings, called dual enrollment courses, are often not as challenging as AP. But it is not likely to be welcomed by the thousands of high school educators who prefer dual enrollment courses to AP and IB.

The smaller of the two studies, by University of Texas at Austin researchers Leslie Keng and Dodd, produced results different from a widely reported study, also unpublished, by Harvard researcher Philip M. Sadler and University of Virginia researcher Robert H. Tai. Sadler and Tai, surveying 8,594 students at 63 colleges, said students who took AP science courses in high school did not do significantly better than non-AP students when they took science courses in college.

Several selective colleges, citing similar concerns about the rigor of AP courses and exams, have refused to let students with passing AP grades get college credit and jump to the next level. But at the University of Texas at Austin, AP students did better in the next level courses than non-AP students who took university introductory courses. University of Texas students can receive credit for introductory biology, calculus and English classes with AP exam grades of 3 and above. Credit for introductory courses in chemistry, macroeconomics and U.S. history goes to those with AP exam grades of 4 or 5.

In general, Keng and Dodd said, students who earned AP credit "outperformed students in the other groups across all 10 AP exams investigated." They said the result was particularly noteworthy because the AP students were not being compared to lower-performing students but those who had about the same class rank and SAT or ACT scores as they did in high school.

Sadler said, "I remain unconvinced that the study controlled for enough variables to rule out alternative hypotheses," such as previous preparation and parental education, for the AP students' performance.