Nan Austin

Toasting a test: Study ties the AP edge to end of course exam

Testing has gotten a bad rap lately, but a study released Monday documented a benefit.

Researchers challenged prevailing wisdom that Advanced Placement courses are better than regular high school courses. They are, it turns out – but only if students take the AP test.

What the study authors found was a significant boost in scores on the pre-college ACT test by students who took the AP end-of-course test. Students who did not take the AP test scored the same on the ACT test as teens who took standard high school courses. The difference held regardless of how well the student did on the AP test.

“Results indicate that merely enrolling in an AP course produces very little benefit for students. Students who take and pass the AP exam, however, obtain higher ACT scores, even after controlling for a wide variety of academic, socioeconomic and demographic variables,” researchers concluded.

The study is “The Impact of Participation in the Advanced Placement Program on Students’ College Admissions Test Scores” by Russell T. Warne, Ross Larsen, Braydon Anderson and Alyce J. Odasso of Utah Valley . The Journal of Educational Research published the study, which is free online as an open access article.

End-of-course AP tests have a passing score of 3, 4 or 5, which can translate to college credit. Colleges vary in what credit they grant for which scores. California State University campuses generally grant college credit for a score of 3 or above. AP tests cost money, but there are waivers for low-income students and fee help from the state and some districts.

The College Board created the AP system of standardized, college-level high school courses in 1952. By 2009, the study notes, 59 percent of all high schools had these courses and 36 percent of all high school students had successfully completed at least one AP course.

A fundamental redesign is slated for next year in AP art history, AP European history and AP research, with upgrades for calculus, computer science and world history coming in 2016-17. The new courses will follow the lead of Common Core, asking students to develop greater reasoning and communication skills. Exams will look at conceptual understanding as well as reciting the facts.

The AP courses my kids took were tougher than most of the college courses I remember. My teens liked AP because they moved faster than standard courses, had more interesting discussions and – mom’s gut read – there was a sense of pride in being among the college-bound and brainy.

Whether or not the AP curriculum is superior, there are built-in advantages. The courses are generally taught by the most educated and experienced teachers. They have smaller class sizes, filled by more focused students, and have fewer discipline problems.

All of those tend to suggest kids will get more out of the course, which makes it doubly hard to see why it is the test at the end that matters.

The study does not speculate why kids who take the test learn more than those who do not. But intuitively, it seems likely that students going for the college credit take the course more seriously and study more purposefully.

That sense of having a shot at something, a brass ring only those who practice can grab, makes a difference, and it is what is missing from state testing.

The last two years have been blessedly devoid of principals shaving their heads, sitting on dunk tanks or offering other circus-style rewards to their kids for hitting a test score. What the principals say, off the record, is that it was a way to get kids revved up about a test that does not affect their grade.

Since the test is usually in March or April, and the dunking is in August or September, it is a little tough to draw a line from the promise to higher scores. But the need to have kids do their best work is real if the test is meant to document what is or is not working. Maybe earning credits toward a special graduation cap or cord would bring the focus back to each kid reaching for his or her own brass ring.

In a hopeful sign in the meantime, most schools are working to give them more interesting discussions, what feels like a faster pace, and a sense of pride in being one of the college-bound and brainy.