Are We Wrong About the Advantages of Advanced Placement Classes?

A new paper from Stanford University is casting doubt on common assumptions made about Advanced Placement courses offered in high school. Specifically, it appears that the benefits derived by students who take the classes are greatly overstated.

The report demolishes four specific benefits often cited by AP course providers: that they provide a leg up in college, they aid in narrowing achievement gaps, they enrich students’ high school experience and that schools that offer AP classes are, on the whole, superior to the ones that do not.

Although many studies showed that students who take AP classes not only perform better in college but enroll in college in higher numbers than their non-AP-taking peers, the authors raise a challenge that such findings don’t show causality.

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. It should come as no surprise that the same motivated, hardworking, and advanced students who take AP classes in high school are still motivated, hardworking, successful students when they get to the university…

A similar objection is raised about the assumption that the number of AP classes offered is an indicator of school quality. Good students – the ones who graduate and go to college at higher rates – will tend to select a school that offers more opportunities for challenging coursework. However, according to the authors, the presence of an AP program does not alone prove the quality of the school.

… Students who do well on AP exams tend to do better in college and have higher graduation rates, but it is unclear whether this is a direct result of the AP program. Colleges and universities want the best, the brightest, and the hardest -working students, and enrollment in AP courses may signal this. Yet each institution handles the AP experience differently, and increasingly, universities seem to be moving away from awarding credit for AP courses. Moreover, there are pros and cons involved for high schools that offer an AP program. The program might allow certain students opportunities for higher-level work, yet it also can siphon off the best students and teachers and may reduce the quality of education for non-AP students, and in some cases, cause undue stress for students enrolled in the program.

The authors point out that the issue of correlation versus causation is one reason why many of the claims typically made about AP programs and individual courses are so difficult to substantiate. Student performance is used as proof when in reality it is the most accomplished and the most highly motivated students who choose to enroll in AP classes, forming a sample that is far from random.