Stop Letting High-School Courses Count for College Credit

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

January 01, 2012

It has been 25 years since I ended administrative service to return to the joys of full-time teaching and research in a science department at a major research university. One of the assets I brought back to my department was a thorough familiarity and appreciation of the teaching and research done by colleagues in the humanities and social sciences. When advising our undergraduate science majors on how to complete their general-education requirements, I felt particularly useful. I could recommend courses across the disciplines taught by professors I knew well.

Those days are gone. We still have outstanding instructors in the departments outside those required for our major, and we still have multicourse breadth requirements. What has changed is that so many students (and the very best ones, in particular) arrive with these requirements already fulfilled. Transcripts show no ambiguity about it: "General Education requirements satisfied by Advanced Placement (AP) in X, Y, and Z." Discussions with faculty across the country have revealed this to be a nearly universal pattern.

As students, parents, and high-school advisers know, "good students" should strive to take as many AP courses as they can manage, and then pass the placement exams with grades of 4 or 5. This will impress college-admission committees and remove the need to ever experience that ma­terial at an introductory level in college. Moreover, the financial benefits can amount to a semester or more of tuition saved. And the emotional benefits are well known. The sense of being pre-certified with elite status adds to self-esteem—a fact central to those who so successfully market the term "advanced placement."

But while all of this is going on, does anyone ever ask if it makes sense from an educational perspective? Do we really feel that the best students in a given discipline have no need to experience courses in nonrelated fields? Is this the best way to prepare America's educated citizenry? It is accepted as reality by university administrators, with only an occasional faculty voice raised in doubt that an AP course is truly equivalent to an introductory course taught at the collegiate level.

Advanced Placement courses are taken by students 15 to 18 years old. At those stages in their education, students focus on remembering facts and, under the best possible situations, learning the methods of assembling and evaluating those facts. For high-school students who do well in, say, AP physics, that would be a terrific start to being a physics major. They could enroll in the highest introductory-level freshman physics course offered. The original goal of the AP concept would have worked.

For students not majoring in science, however, that same success has quite a different consequence. Lost to these nonscience students is an exposure to cutting-edge science and the methods of science taught by professors active on a daily basis in their exploration of nature. In how many AP classes in high school does the physics instructor say, "At the last American Physical Society meeting, one of my students presented a paper on this very topic"? Or, in an astronomy class, "My upcoming observations using the Hubble Space Telescope will address this dark-energy issue"? Identical scenarios exist, of course, for science and engineering students who miss out on university-level introductions to the humanities and social sciences taught by active scholars in those areas.

The end result is that in many introductory college courses, the top students are simply not in the classrooms. For them, faculty-student interactions are not possible and the overall value of a university education is diminished. All of these aspects of educational disservice are due to the existence of the AP system.

The solution is simple: All the things a student accomplishes in high school—grades, extracurricular activities, sports, volunteering—are application credentials for college. There should be no carry-over of high-school accomplishments into the collegiate transcript. When accepted to a college, the student accepts that institution's definition of what a college education will comprise; curricular content is the prerogative of the faculty, and only the faculty.

The United States, quite appropriately, does not have a Ministry of Education that decides the rules of baccalaureate education. Why then do we allow the College Board to decide what constitutes general education for our graduates? The practice is irresponsible and should be ended.

In talking over this idea with my own advisees (science and nonscience), I have not found a single student who thought I was on to something good. Their responses were uniform: "You have no idea how hard those courses were, how hard I had to work, how hard those exams were. Taking away credit for them would be awful!"

Working hard—even very hard—in high school, with success demonstrably achieved is, somehow, not enough for students or their parents. Having your college-admissions dossier note­worthy for its Advanced Placement achievements is not enough. Graduating with honors because of AP courses is not enough. Students and parents want those successes to count for more. A sports analogy would be for a baseball player to say, "If I hit a home run that travels more than 450 feet, it should count for a run in this inning and for a run in the next inning."

Offering credit beyond the accomplishment itself (simply because it was not easy to do) is a terrible lesson to give to students. I believe this notion of value-added has led to another version of getting more bang for the buck: the fantastic pressure put on students to get more than "just a bachelor's degree" for their four years of tuition. Double-majors, multiple minors, and combined bachelor's/master's degree programs are becoming so mandatory for the best students that enrichment courses are simply not an option. Is that really the optimal way to achieve an educated citizenry?

All of this is not to say that demanding courses in high school should be abolished; they should always be encouraged. And I endorse Advanced Placement in college (or equivalency exams) for courses that certify skill building, such as calculus or foreign language. For all other cases, students with AP credits could be offered "honors course" versions of required general-education courses, instead of exemptions from them.

Ultimately, colleges should be developing ways to have general-education goals met not at the onset of college, when incoming freshmen have the mind-set of ninth-semester high-school students, but in upper-class years when students have more of a foundation upon which to experience and to contribute to the breadth of their own education.

Michael Mendillo is a professor of astronomy at Boston University.