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Advanced Placement as the new college entrance exam

Colby College, ME
Colby College, ME
Nancy Griesemer

While the SAT steadily loses money and market share to the ACT as “industry standard” for college entrance exams, one bright spot in the College Board’s bottom line is the popularity of its Advanced Placement (AP) program among high schools and students anxious impress the most selective colleges in the country.

On its website, Stanford specifically recommends the self-reporting of AP scores as "recommended by not required."
Nancy Griesemer

Thanks to masterful marketing, together with a total hands-off approach to school/school district implementation and use of both classes and scores, the College Board has squarely placed the AP program at the center of the college admissions “arms race.” And it’s producing some solid revenue, as high schools add more AP courses and students sign up to take exams originally conceived as vehicles for conferring advanced credit at the postsecondary level.

In its brief historical overview of the Advanced Placement program, the College Board suggests that the impetus for the creation of the program came from educators recommending that “secondary schools and colleges work together to avoid repetition in course work at the high school college levels and to allow motivated students to work at their capabilities and advance as quickly as possible.”

But as the program has evolved in recent years and some colleges have stepped back from offering credit for passing AP exams, the College Board re-branded slightly to place more emphasis on the former rather than the latter part of the original AP mission.

In other words, instead of pushing students forward to complete college faster (an expensive proposition for institutions losing tuition revenue from early graduates), the AP has become the “gold standard” for proving academic excellence in high school and for measuring college readiness.

And colleges are buying into the game—lock, stock, and barrel.

At the core of what colleges say they care most about—GPA and course rigor—the AP insinuates itself in both grading and curriculum in many high schools. Colleges look closely at GPA’s which are fed both by inconsistently applied weighting practices providing solid bump-ups for students taking AP classes and/or exams as well as individual school-based policies linking grades to test scores—most frequently (although not always) resulting in an upward push for students scoring at the highest levels.

With regard to curriculum, colleges use AP’s as a measure of course rigor. In schools where these classes are offered, high-achieving students are expected to go to the top of their programs and put together a healthy roster of AP classes across the disciplines. More is almost always better than less in this arena.

And of course, the Jay Mathews Washington POST ranking of high schools based on number of AP (and IB) classes offered, how many students take the exams and how well they do, feeds this frenzy by suggesting to school administrators that AP’s need to be increased—sometimes in place of more appropriate honors classes—and students need to be pushed into taking these classes earlier in their secondary school careers.

These practices sometimes result in dismally low scores which students are loath to report on college applications. Yet, if the AP course appears on a transcript, most application readers will expect to see a self-reported score on the application. Absent a score, the assumption will be that the student received a score of 1 or 2 out of a possible 5, with 3 labeled “passing.” And this is almost always the case, although many students hate to report a 3 out of concerns that the college will not look favorably on them.

Outside of the classroom and in a measure of self-motivation as well as academic excellence, colleges reinforce the message by appearing to reward students who appear to go beyond course offerings at their schools by studying for and taking AP exams on their own. As a result, a cottage industry of online classes and specialized tutors has developed targeted to preparing students to take AP exams without going through the rigor of taking the AP class. And colleges seem to really like this.

To further underscore the influence of the AP program in college admissions, a number of “test-flexible” colleges officially allow AP scores to substitute for the ACT or the SAT. Used together with Subject Test scores (another College Board product), a handful of colleges are drifting toward using AP’s as college entrance exams.

None of this has much to do with getting advanced course credit from colleges, but it has everything to do with providing the College Board with a steady stream of income as the SAT teeters. If the SAT is unable to get back up on its feet with a revised test, watch for the College Board to shift gears and place increased emphasis on the role AP classes and exams can play in the admissions process.

In fact, the College Board is already positioning AP to take on the International Baccalaureate (IB) program by offering AP Seminar and AP Research through a new AP Capstone diploma program. If successful, the College Board will have addressed criticisms of Advanced Placement for falling short on teaching research and writing skills—strengths of IB.

So as colleges complain about the value of AP courses as credit-earners and consequently withhold credit for successful completion of classes and/or passing exams, the AP program is gaining traction as a key component in college admissions.

And the College Board is banking on it.