Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Trust but verify AP courses 

Another excellent Jay Matthews column, this time covering carefully a study on whether advanced placement (AP) high school courses help students succeed in college. The answer is not terribly surprising. From the study,

AP is increasingly emphasized as a factor in admissions, particularly at selective colleges and universities. But while student performance on AP examinations is strongly related to college performance, merely taking AP or other honors-level courses in high school is not a valid indicator of the likelihood that students will perform well in college.

That is, if you don't verify that a course has truly prepared someone for college, it's not likely that the course has transmitted something that is in fact preparatory.

Most AP courses include the best students, and students will be counseled into those classes, so there is the real possibility of there being a third factor that moves both success on AP exams and success in college. Matthews makes an excellent point about whether we could in fact generalize anything about the usefulness of AP (or International Baccalaureate or IB) courses for students of more modest talent levels.

...we cannot learn much from this study about the effect of AP and IB on the chances of average or below-average high school students graduating from college because there are almost no such students in the Geiser-Santelices sample. UC campuses accept only the top 12 percent of California high school graduates, the A and high-B students who are not the least bit average. Those students have already gotten, in many cases, good doses of the college trauma necessary for them to graduate when they get to the university of their choice, and many are skilled and motivated enough to get through college even without that extra high school preparation.

But as Geiser and Santelices make clear, there are an enormous number of average students who are not in their study, but who want to go to college, need that high school preparation and are, nonetheless, denied even a taste of those challenging courses. The study looked at the 117,650 college-bound seniors who took the SAT I test in California in 2002 and found that 54.9 percent of them, a total of 64,577 kids eager to get to college and graduate, had been given no AP, IB or honors courses -- that's right, zero, nada, none -- either because such courses were not offered by their
poverty-stricken high schools or because they were tracked out of such courses by their clueless high schools. Mike Riley, superintendent of the Bellevue, Wash., schools, called this fact "perhaps the most significant in the study. Kids heading to college without a college-prep high school program are headed for failure."

If I had a dollar for every time I had a student in my principles of economics course who said "I cannot understand why I am getting a C- with you, because I got nothing but A's and B's in high school," I could retire today. What predicts success at any school isn't grades but verified performance in classes that are preparatory for college work. My son got great grades in high school math but he was not tracked into AP courses and thus was not prepared for college algebra. It was a shock to him to find out he wasn't prepared.

In California, where the study was done, grades in AP carry an extra point in determining GPA, so that on a nominally 4-point scale the average score of an admitted freshman to Berkeley was 4.31. That may need to be re-adjusted in light of this study.

For those interested locally, SCSU has the policy of accepting AP for college credit if one takes a 3 or better on the AP standardized test. So we do verify for use in college credits, but we do not adjust GPAs. Admission is on the basis of either class rank (top 50% are eligible) or scoring 25 on the ACT or 1140 on the SAT.