Give AP Credit Where Credit Is Due

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

February 25, 2013

A few years ago, I chaired a group of high-school and college English teachers charged by the College Board with reviewing and revising the standards for its "AP English Literature and Composition" course, one of 34 Advanced Placement offerings for secondary-school students who want to take advanced classes.

Ours was a deliberate, two-year process. For instance, we examined the results of a curriculum survey of college English departments that asked about the contents and skills taught in their first-year English-literature courses. If enough colleges regarded something as important—say, the ability to analyze metaphors in a poem—we incorporated it into the standards.

Other fields do the same. Maureen A. McCarthy, a professor of psychology at Kennesaw State University, co-chairs the AP Psychology Development Committee, which uses a curriculum survey that includes questions about preferred textbooks in introductory college classes. For the test, she told me, "Each item is carefully analyzed to ensure that the content is representative of the curriculum, and we verify that the content is present in multiple texts."

The responsibility of these committees is to align the AP curriculum with courses offered by departments at selective institutions. That's why it was a surprise when Dartmouth College decided recently to terminate its policy of giving credit to students who performed well on AP examinations in several subject areas.

Yes, every year a few colleges make adjustments to their AP policies, and as AP enrollments have exploded (an annual growth rate of 9 percent for 20 years), people have wondered if the quality of courses has become inconsistent and whether they really qualify students to bypass first-year college offerings. The College Board has responded with procedures such as those I've noted, as well as with studies of the effect of taking AP courses on different student populations. All of that forms a continuing process of feedback and monitoring. The Dartmouth decision is noteworthy, however, because of its bluntness—and a finding by its psychology department. Widely reported in the news media, both have the potential to affect far more students than just those in Hanover, N.H.

Dartmouth's existing policy accepts scores of 5 (the top) and sometimes 4 in 15 disciplines (although not for either AP English course, in literature or language). A Web page at the undergraduate dean's office summarizes the common rationale for giving AP credit: "Dartmouth recognizes that some students complete college-level work before matriculating, and there is every desire to see that you do not repeat material that you have previously mastered and remain consistently challenged."

Although Dartmouth will still allow students to "place out" of introductory courses, another Web page at the admissions office states bluntly how things have changed: "Beginning with the entering Class of 2018, Dartmouth will no longer grant course credit for AP or IB examinations." The International Baccalaureate is a prekindergarten-to-12th-grade curriculum that is offered at the high-school level by 777 schools in the United States.

The first news announcement, an Associated Press story picked up by dozens of outlets, singled out the results of a psychology test as Exhibit A in the decision. They are, indeed, startling. The department of psychological and brain sciences administered a test based upon its "Introductory Psychology" course to students who had earned a 5 on the "AP Psychology" exam, a score the College Board terms "extremely well qualified." Over a three-year period, 208 students took the exam, and 188 of them failed! Hakan Tell, a classics scholar and chairman of the Committee on Instruction, pointed to the outcome as evidence that AP courses are not "equivalent to a college-level course."

Critics responded swiftly. Trevor Packer, the College Board's senior vice president for AP, objected at the Teaching High School Psychology blog that the exam didn't account for "time and order effects"—material forgotten by test takers who had completed the AP course two years earlier, or the broad range of knowledge taught in AP courses but not tested by Dartmouth's exam. Jay Mathews, an education reporter at The Washington Post, noted a 2007 College Board study that followed students at 27 selective colleges, including Dartmouth, and determined that those who had scored 3 or higher on AP exams performed better at the next level than did students who had taken the colleges' own introductory courses.

The chair of Dartmouth's department, Jay G. Hull, joined the debate at the high-school-psychology blog with an informative response. He stated upfront that the exam wasn't a "scientific study," nor was it intended to affect AP policies in other fields. He acknowledged, too, that Dartmouth's intro course uses "a high-level textbook," while most AP courses use "a general-level textbook," adding that the department leans toward a neuroscience approach that some AP courses don't emphasize.

We may ask, then, whether the fail rate stems not from the inferior rigor of AP but from different conceptions of introductory coursework.

The debate over the study, however, missed the point. In spite of news-media reports, it had little influence on Dartmouth's decision.

In an e-mail, Catherine Cramer, last year's chair of the instruction committee, stated that many members regarded the results of the study of psychology students as "dwarfed by the broader educational issue." Faculty members have debated AP credit at length before, she said, and some departments have disallowed it for years. The deciding factor was this: "The practice of encouraging our best-prepared students to have the least engagement with our high-level curriculum seemed to many of us to do them a serious disservice."

Dartmouth is evidently fielding questions about its announcement because it has followed up with another news release from the dean of the faculty. It, too, now emphasizes faculty-student engagement: "Ultimately the decision to modify the policy was made to require our students to take full advantage of the faculty expertise and unique academic resources that characterize a Dartmouth educational experience."

Anyone who has been on an academic committee knows how hard it is to understand why people vote the way they do. The reasons varied, no doubt, as did the intensities with which each person endorsed the "disservice" point, and we can only speculate, realizing that, at bottom, it's none of our business.

We may ask, though, about the impact of refusing to give AP credit upon enrollments and test scores in high-school AP courses­—or other advanced offerings­. What's the incentive for 16-year-olds to take a course with a stiffer workload, competitive fellow students, and the chance of a lower grade?

College credit means savings in time and money once they matriculate. Take it away, and students may wonder about the advantages. Yes, AP courses accustom them to college-level labor, and admissions offices favor AP as a sign that an applicant seeks a school's best resources (this is Dartmouth's policy). But those are somewhat fuzzy promises to a high-school junior.

Given the high remediation and dropout rates among first-year students at American colleges, along with disappointing scores on 12th-grade exams across disciplines given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, we should encourage more AP enrollment, not less.

The College Board feels pressure to bring AP to underserved minority and low-­income students as a matter of equity, and those groups especially need more college-readiness training.

For all students, AP not only immerses them more deeply in a subject, but it marks an experiential change, explicitly pointing them toward college and raising academics to a new level of seriousness too often absent from their social lives. The Dartmouth faculty may be right to eliminate AP credit to set its own standards for first-year courses. But one hopes that other colleges will consider the impact at the secondary level before taking the same step.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University. He has worked on high-school English standards and curricula for the College Board, National Governors Association, and other national organizations.