Fordham report points to possible weaknesses in AP course expansion

While the Ohio House of Representatives is poised to pass a budget bill that would expand Advanced Placement (AP) courses to every high school in the state, a report released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute questions whether the rapid expansion of the popular program will jeopardize its quality.

In the past five years, the number of high school students nationwide taking AP courses has grown by 45 percent (from 1.1 million in 2003 to 1.6 million in 2008). In Ohio, the number of students who took at least one AP exam rose 38 percent during the same period (see here), though Ohio's participation still lags the national average. About 18 percent of 2008 Ohio high school graduates took an AP exam, compared with 25 percent of graduates nationwide.

The Fordham study, Growing Pains in the Advanced Placement Program: Do Tough Trade-offs Lie Ahead?, sought to learn why AP has grown at such a dramatic clip and what impact the growth has had on the program (see here). The research included a national survey (of 1,024 AP teachers) and four focus groups with AP teachers. Among the study's key findings:

  • Ninety percent of AP teachers say the program is growing because students want their college applications to look better.
  • Seventy-five percent believe that high schools are expanding their AP program to improve their school's ranking and reputation in the community.
  • Despite the program's rapid growth, 77 percent of AP teachers rate their own school's program as good or excellent.

But there are warning signs that the quality of the AP program is threatened:

  • Over half of teachers believe that too many students overestimate their abilities and are in over their heads in an AP course.
  • Sixty percent think that many parents push their children into AP classes when they really don't belong there.
  • More than six in ten (63 percent) believe that conducting more screening of student quality to ensure they are ready to do AP-level work before they get into the AP class would improve the program.

AP participation in Ohio could grow significantly under a provision in the pending budget bill. Sub. H.B. 1 calls for a pilot program to offer two AP courses (and one foreign language course) via distance learning technology to every district high school in the state (see here). The pilot program is intended to expand access to AP courses in schools that don't have enough demand, or enough money, to offer the classes.

There is no guarantee, however, that expanding access to AP courses will improve Ohio student performance on AP exams. AP exams are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 3 generally being the minimum score needed to earn credit at a college or university. For Ohio's graduating class of 2008, just 10.8 percent of students earned a 3 or higher on an AP exam. Nationwide, 15.2 percent of students did so.

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