FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - Where Should We Go With Advanced Placement?

Fall 2001



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Where Should We Go With Advanced Placement?

W. Lichten


Self-evaluations of educational programs are not always reliable. AP, a program which has a major impact on United States high school curricula, lacks appraisal. AP targets have grown from a small ivy-league elite to a much wider population. AP has not successfully served this broader group. In the College Board's words, "AP courses provide an opportunity for students to complete college?level studies while still in secondary school and to receive advanced placement, credit, or both, in col-lege..are intended for students who have...the skills and motivation to complete college-level course work during their high school studies...? Furthermore, ? There is a strong and consistent relationship between PSAT/NMSQT scores and AP examination grades...PSAT/NMSQT exams can also be very useful for high schools in identifying... students who may be successful in AP..."

The College Board's 1-5 qualification scale, with 2 "possibly qualified"and 3 "qualified" no longer holds, as many colleges now require a 4. Figure 1 shows the PSAT-pass relation for two AP scores, 3 and 4 in for the calculus AB test, widely taken by students headed for calculus-based physics. Parenthetically, AP has little direct effect on U.S. college physics. Algebra based Physics B usually does not qualify. Calculus based Physics C qualifies, but the numbers are small (ca. 15,000 for Mechanics and half as much for Electricity and Magnetism). However, over 150,000 AP calculus exams are taken annually, comparable to introductory calculus-based physics enrollments. I have found that math background is the best predictor of success in physics courses The average college-bound student (PSAT ~ 50) has a poor chance of success for a passing grade of 3 and even less for a score of 4. Until recently, "curving" (Lurie, 2000) concealed the AP scale's slide, which is linked to college grade inflation.

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Figure 1

The Equity-Excellence" Dilemma.

At first, only a few very able students took AP tests. To widen AP access, the College Board admitted less skilled persons, which lowered the success rate. The College Board then had Hobson's choice: 1. meet college standards and preserve excellence, or 2. curve the exam grades to encourage more participation and equity. The first choice, undesirable for the College Board, limits program size. The second choice, undesirable for colleges, lowers quality. Figure 2 shows outcomes in the Calculus AB exam. Practically all students with top PSAT scores, the group AP originally served, qualify. For less able students, the percentage yield of qualifying exams drops. The overall pass rate is less than 50% (Lichten, 2000). The College Board plans to double the number of exams by the year 2010. To do so, it must recruit AP test takers largely from the vast middle and bottom of the distribution. The failure rate would go even higher. The value added by this expansion would be very low.


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Figure 2

The Place of AP

Today AP is "standard" at highly selective colleges (Russo, 2000), where practically everyone arrives with several 4s and 5s. But for most students with 1s, 2s, and 3s, the AP calculus AB test serves for placement (standard vs. remedial) rather than as advanced placement. Correspondingly, in some high schools there are two tracks: advanced placement and remedial. In nonselective, inner-city, predominantly minority high schools failure in AP is the rule rather than the exception. In fact, it is not unusual in such schools for the entire class to fail the AP exam, a heavy price for increased access. ". . . a clever teacher sets a student's work, and the expectations for it, at a level where some modicum of legitimate success is possible... at an arm's length from the student, but no further.". . . Theodore Sizer

A Feasible High School Curriculum

Three quarters of U.S. high school graduates enter college, but many arrive unprepared. Nearly half take a remedial course, one-third fail to make it into the sophomore class, and less than half graduate. A major reason for this weak performance is the high school curriculum.(Adelman, 1999). Adelman found that the best graduation predictor is the highest level of math completed by the student. The median high school graduate is between geometry and algebra 2 (Table I column 2). Imagine raising the academic level by moving each student up to the next math stage. According to Table I, if students went from the pre-calculus level to calculus, the gain in BA degrees awarded would be 0.3% of the graduates. A move from algebra 2 to Trigonometry would increase graduation by 6.4%, a twenty times larger effect. Less advanced programs than AP are more likely to reach and benefit the bulk of high school students.

Table I. College outcomes for high school graduates with varying degrees of math education to four-year colleges and projected outcome upon raising the level of math education by one rung on the ladder. Modified from Table 6 of Adelman (1999).

Highest Math Studied in HS % of All HS Grads in This Group % of HS Grads in This Group Who Earn BA Projected Gain in % BAs by Shifting Group up 1 Rung
Calculus 6.4 79.8  
Pre-calc 5.9 74.3 0.3
Trig 11.3 62.2 1.4
Algebra 2 28.3 39.5 6.4
Geometry 17 23.1 2.8
Algebra 1 20 7.8 3.1
Pre-Algebra 11.1 2.3 0.6

Summary, Conclusions, Recommendations

AP is now standard college preparation that works for gifted students. It does not work for average and below average students. AP could better reach these students by introducing new tracks in its program. AP has a faulty scale, and needs quality controls, outside monitoring and policy guidance.


Adelman, C. (1999). Answers in the Toolbox. Washington: U.S. Department of Education.

Lichten, W. (2000). Whither Advanced Placement? http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n29.html

Lurie, M. N. (2000). AP U.S. History: Beneficial or Problematic? The History Teacher 33, No. 4, August. pp. 521-525.

Russo, F. (2000). Beyond Advanced Placement. http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0015/russo.shtm

Text of an invited paper given by W. Lichten, Yale University, New Haven CT 06520-8120, at the April Meeting of the American Physical Society, Washington, DC, April 28-May 1, 2001, in the session entitled Whither Advanced Placement?

W. Lichten is at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale University