Adding AP Classes in Every High School Not Best Use of Resources, Yale Study Shows

The College Board’s campaign to offer 10 Advanced Placement classes in every high school is misguided because few of the students enrolled in expanded AP programs will receive passing scores on the exam, a Yale study shows.

William Lichten, a fellow at Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies and co-author of the study, said the College Board’s own data show that the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test (PSAT), which high school students take in their third year, is an accurate predictor of how students will perform on the AP tests.

“That means the ability of the students is the most important factor,” Lichten said. “With this in mind, we have found in our study of inner city high schools in Los Angeles and Detroit, particularly in Detroit, that the vast majority of the schools do not have the students who are capable of succeeding in AP exams, although the College Board likes to say that inner city schools can succeed.”

The study is published in the June issue of Educational Psychology Review.

The College Board administers the AP tests, which give college credit to high school students who pass the exams. Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, has initiated a campaign to encourage all 23,000 high schools in the United States to offer AP courses. Last year, 1.2 million AP tests were taken by students.

Donald Green, director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale, said the study illustrates that unless extraordinary teaching efforts are made in these schools, it’s unlikely that very many of the students would achieve passing grades. “That raises the question whether the money to fund these programs might be used more productively for other educational programs,” Green said.

Lichten and co-author Howard Wainer, principal research scientist at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., analyzed the factors responsible for success in the AP program. The first factor they looked at was the relationship between aptitude and achievement, as reflected in PSAT scores and scores on AP tests.

The authors then compared the performance of students at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, La Canada, a school in an upscale Los Angeles suburb, and public schools in Detroit.

“When we take into account the ability of the students as measured by the PSAT, there is very little difference between schools in the inner city of Detroit, which is considered an unsuccessful school system overall, and La Canada,” Lichten said.

Lichten said he and Wainer then compared the AP performance at Renaissance High School in Detroit, where students are admitted by examination, with La Canada. The two compared very favorably.

The authors said the AP results at Garfield High School in Los Angeles contradicted the College Board findings, with a total of 85 students at the inner city school passing the AP calculus exam, but Lichten said there were unusual circumstances at play.

“It only happens once in a while and it is not likely to recur in American education,” Lichten said. “(Math teacher Jaime) Escalante put extraordinary effort into his job.”

Six years after Escalante’s effort, Lichten said, the number of students at Garfield who passed the AP calculus test had shrunk to 19.

(Professor Lichten can be reached at 203-432-3833)

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