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Welcomed at Florida colleges, AP credit re-examined in Ivy League


When Park Vista High School teacher Glen Marr welcomes students to his Advanced Placement Calculus class, he tells them that if they apply themselves, succeeding in this course will save them at least $1,000 in the cost of taking the course, buying the book and taking the exams in college.

“Some of the students we have graduating are starting as a sophomore or even a junior based on these AP credits,” Marr said.

Indeed when the College Board recently released data on the last class of AP enrollees, Florida’s education leaders were able to boast that the Advanced Placement exams had created up to $122 million in savings for the students who passed the tests and their families.

The state ranked No. 1 in participation on the Advanced Placement exams, fourth in the percent of high school graduates who have taken and passed at least one AP course and third in the country for improved scores over the past decade.

Those scores will be welcome at Florida’s public universities, which by law must reward students who pass an AP exam with college credit and/or advanced standing to skip through to the next level course.

But there’s no guarantee that same payoff awaits at some of the nation’s most elite institutions.

Harvard, Dartmouth, Duke and the University of Pennsylvania are among those that have changed or are reconsidering their policies when it comes to the value they place on an AP test score.

The folks in Dartmouth College’s psychology department were the first to raise flags.

“The psychology department got more and more suspicious about how good an indicator a 5 on the AP psych exam was for academic success,” Hakan Tell, a classics professor who heads Dartmouth’s Committee on Instruction, told The New York Times.

It experimented by offering credit to incoming students if they first passed a short version of the Psych 1 final. Of more than 100 students who had earned a top score of 5 on the AP exam, 90 percent failed.

The school also followed those who failed and enrolled in Psych 1 anyway. Tell told the Times that students who had the AP course under their belts did not do discernibly better than those who hadn’t taken it.

In 2014, Dartmouth stopped giving students the AP credit toward graduation.

More recently, The Wall Street Journal reports that the biology and chemistry departments at the University of Pennsylvania established new guidelines for awarding credit after they determined that “students who used their AP scores to skip introductory courses fared worse in upper-division classes than those who took the full sequence at Penn because they weren’t as well-prepared.”

Still, other University of Pennsylvania departments, including French and physics, continue to give credit or advanced standing based on a student’s AP score.

“Colleges have been giving less and less credit for AP, IB and AICE,” said Boca Raton-based educational consultant Judi Robinovitz, including the International Baccalaureate and University of Cambridge’s Advanced International Certificate of Education in her assessment.

“Colleges are not looking at this as a way for kids to save money and sort of jump ahead and be with them only three years instead of four,” said Robinovitz, who advises students throughout Palm Beach County and the nation through her Score at the Top Learning Centers & Schools.

She says she sees this reluctance to recognize AP success in graduate school, particularly, for example, medical school. “Those schools don’t want to see those AP credits; they want to see you take the course in college. They see it as much more indicative of what you’ll see in medical school.”

That said, she steers all the students she advises to some sort of college-level course be they offered by AP, IB or AICE.

“They have more reading, more writing, more deep thinking and analysis. I’m a huge proponent of kids taking these courses even though the college they go to may give them only advanced standing,” Robinovitz said.

Marr, the calculus teacher, agreed.

“The biggest difference between a regular course and AP is definitely the rigor of the material and also the pace,” he said.

Marr’s heard from his Calculus 2 graduates who had to take the course again at college that they breezed through the class with his notes. “At least for them, it was an easy A.”

College Board has long touted research that confirms Marr’s take.

Among the findings it reports: Student who take AP exams are more likely to enroll in a four-year college and once they’re enrolled they’re more likely to stay for a second year.

Students who pass, earning a 3 on their AP exams, have higher GPAs in their first year of college, and even when they get only a 2 on that exam they’re more likely to do better in college than similar students who didn’t’ take an AP exam.

Palm Beach County schools, like others across the country, are making pushes to get more students, particularly poor and minority students, enrolled in AP and other college-level courses in high school. This year, the district expanded its use of another College Board product, the PSAT, to 8th-and 9th-graders in order to better spot students who score well and could succeed in the more challenging course work, but may not otherwise be tapped by their teachers to enroll.

In addition to giving students more opportunities, the schools and teachers also benefit from a state program that pays out cash for students who pass these courses or earn special IB or AICE diplomas.

The landscape has changed dramatically from when Robert Tai sought to take an Advanced Placement physics course more than 30 years ago as a junior at Pahokee High. He was simply looking for the next challenging science course — not a break on college tuition, not to speed through his freshman year at the University of Florida.

He’d burned through every advanced science class at the school. The AP course – which at the time turned out to be Tai, the textbook, and a biology teacher to supervise — served him well. He knew the material when he saw it again in college.

So it surprised even Tai, when in 2006 as an associate professor at the University of Virginia, his work landed him among a small cadre of researchers to cast a critical spotlight on the real value of AP courses.

The researchers found that of those students who scored 5’s, 25 percent were getting a C or worse in the college course. Only half the students were getting A’s.

“If you were to ask the College Board, ‘What is the 4 equivalent to, they’d say that’s about a B.’ There were students who got a 4 and they got C’s; that’s what the professors reported to us. This is the second time they were going through the material, so you’re telling me the second time they went through the material they got a lower grade? That surprised me,” Tai said.

Tai notes that investigation is now more than a decade old – when, according to College Board, enrollment in its courses was about half of what it is now.

Even for a published critic of the course, Tai recognizes its advantages. “It provides teachers a very clear approach to curriculum. AP courses are not automatically better than others out there. They’re designed to be more advanced. They tend to be the next level in terms of depth.”

Now the parent of a 14-year-old daughter, Tai knows what his advice would be. “I would say take the AP course.”



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