The state of secondary education in the United States was forever changed in the 1950s by the introduction of the Advanced Placement Program. The program, organized by the Committee on Admission with Advanced Standing, was a way of connecting colleges with high-performing high school students who would be taking courses considered “college-level” and thus granted credit for the subject which would allow them to opt out of taking the course in college. The image of the APP provided by this perspective is that the program would expose elite, bright students by the numbers they receive on their tests. Further research shows, however, that there may be something more about Advanced Placement that provokes admissions directors to pay closer attention the students who take the courses offered. The main question is this: what was it about the APP that caused colleges and universities in the United States to consider the students who participate the receivers of a “quality education”?
Research shows that it is not only high scores on end of the year AP tests which play a role in the college admission process. It is the element of academic elevation, taking on tougher a curriculum, and showing an ambition to test oneself with a college-level course which contribute to the overall image of a prospective applicant, as much as their 4 or 5 attached to their applications. Because secondary schools do not require students to take part in AP courses, students are confronted with a choice typically by the end of their sophomore years in high school: to elect to take a class in theory taught at a college level and risk receiving a grade which might not reflect their academic talent, or continue on a straight path and take the course taught at the high school level and receive a grade which they can be happy with. In the end, is an A in a non-AP course reflective of genius, or merely a signal that you are academically where you are supposed to be, and not exceptional? Though it is unfair to compare an A in a non-AP course to a B in an AP course, research indicates that students who elect to take AP courses signal that they are willing to test themselves and learn at a higher level than what the straight path offers. The College Board’s Advanced Placement Program, built to “develop high school course descriptions and assessments that colleges would find rigorous enough to use as a basis for granting credit” (College Board: “A Brief History of the Advanced Placement Program”), gives students a platform to bring themselves to college with more than just high AP scores. It is this reality which prompted the state of California to come under a highly publicized lawsuit at the end of the twentieth century, which will be analyzed further.
Dr. Frank H. Bowles, the president of the College Entrance Examination Board (now known as The College Board) in the year 1960, was right in assuming that the APP would become vital to college admissions programs throughout the country. Four decades after the introduction of the APP, in the years 2002 and 2003, research reflected heavily the idea that having taken an AP course was a signal of academic potential as much as one’s score on the AP test itself. Nevertheless, this reality was indicated as early as 1990 by the The National Research Council. The Council published in that year a book-length analysis of Biology Education in American high schools titled, Fulfilling the Promise: Biology Education in the Nation’s Schools, in which they concluded that one factor in the success of AP Biology is the probability that it helps students in the college admissions process:
“The presence of AP biology provides an incentive for students with an interest in science and might serve as a device to recruit students to other science courses. And AP courses probably also help individual students in admission to college” (Committee on High-School Biology Education, National Research Council).
Twelve years later the Council published a more comprehensive report in which this probability manifested into a concrete reality. In 2002, a year in which 913,251 students took AP exams, the NRC conducted a survey with hundreds of colleges and universities regarding AP and Honors Programs. It was in this study where it is revealed that schools in fact do look deeper into the APP than initially thought:
“The survey revealed that, regardless of their specific goals, the most important priority for admission officers at selective schools is to admit students who can take advantage of the academic strengths of the institution as well as contribute to the education of their peers. Because past performance is deemed a strong predictor of future performance, admission officers carefully review applicants’ transcripts to determine how well and to what extent the applicants have taken advantage of the school- and community- based opportunities available to them in high school. Admission personnel generally view the presence of AP or IB courses on a transcript as an indicator of the applicant’s willingness to confront academic challenges” (Learning and Understanding: Improving Advanced Study of Mathematics and Science in U.S. High Schools, National Research Council).
This study lies as the foundation for the idea that students who take AP courses, regardless to a certain extent of how they perform in the courses, are generally looked upon more favorably than students who don’t challenge themselves and take standard-level courses. This survey concluded that in choosing to AP courses at their respective high schools, a student is choosing to “take advantage of the academic strengths of the institution” and showing “willingness to confront academic challenges.” This idea seemingly has prompted students to lean towards taking AP classes so that admissions officers would look more favorably upon them than students without AP classes on their transcripts, at least according to Dr. Susan P. Santoli’s 2002 study of the Advanced Placement Program titled “Is There an Advanced Placement Advantage?” Dr. Santoli, who at the time of publication was Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of South Alabama, indicates that the AP name does in fact strengthen a student’s chances of being admitted to college on behalf of the courses’ “informal standards”:
“Besides more challenging classes and better teachers, an obvious reason to take AP classes is the college factor — admission to college, or testing out of college courses. A transcript with AP courses on it strengthens the chances for college admission (Casserly; Willingham and Morris; Dillon, 1986; Lawrence, 1996; Lord; Hebel, 1999)… Although the AP courses terminate in national exams in May of each year, information from colleges consistently revealed that it was not the AP exam grade that was important to them, but the course itself. Although the format of the course is up to the individual schools, there are informal standards that supposedly underlie the courses. The College Board supplies course guidelines, organizes conferences and workshops, publishes sample exams and syllabi, allows teachers to have essay portions of their exams returned, analyzes each component of the exam by student, and regularly reviews exams and course offerings (Lawrence; Casserly; Morris and Willingham; Prescott). Of major significance to colleges are the skills taught and the structure of the courses (Henry, 1990; Prescott). ‘It’s like an academic green light to assume that a certain level of preparation has been achieved,’ according to a Sweet Briar College admissions director (Lawrence, 1996, p. 2)” (Santoli, 26-27).
Further information published in 2003 underlined the importance of the AP program lying in taking the course itself rather than performing well on the AP exam. A report published in June of 2003 by The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, with the University of Virginia and Yale as participating universities, discusses the AP program and the role it plays in the college admission process and has a conclusion similar those of the aforementioned research:
“Publications of the College Board, college and university web pages, and personal advice from other students often cite the potential positive edge to be gained from participation in these programs… “Students improve their chances of being accepted by the college of their choice. College admissions personnel view AP Programs as one indicator of future success at the college level. Participation in AP Programs is, therefore, a great advantage to a student who wishes to attend a highly selective college” (College Entrance Examination Board and Educational Testing Service, 1999b, p. 1). In a Johns Hopkins newsletter designed for pre-college gifted students, students are advised to ‘[t]ake the most advanced courses available—especially in your areas of strength—including honors, Advanced Placement (AP), and/or International Baccalaureate (IB) options’ (Hellerman, 1994a, p. 3). They are also advised that ‘even when an AP score won’t translate into credit you can use, it can still help you in other ways—by impressing admissions officers or convincing professors to let you take more advanced courses’ (Hellerman, 1994b, p. 6). The veracity of these claims is affirmed on college websites and in articles in college admissions journals (Sindelar, 1988)” (Callahan).
In summary, these sources indicate that by the year 2003, the Advanced Placement Program had officially become a marker of a quality education in the eyes of admissions officers, but not on behalf of the reason which Frank H. Bowles had in mind when he advertised the program to a gathering of secondary schools in 1960. Students who take AP courses are ambitious and willing to take full advantage of their school’s academic opportunities, live up to the “informal standards” which the AP Program discretely implies, and indicate future success in college by their choice to take college-level courses before even arriving in college. These are qualities which any student would love to have, and more importantly, which any college admissions officer would love to have as descriptive of their own student body. APs appear as the marker of a “quality education,” therefore, because they give the spotlight to students who challenge themselves academically, where students who take standard courses are forced to find alternative ways to stand out on their transcripts. Because of the potential benefits of taking APs, it is easy to understand why the courses would be in high-demand for students who wish to boost the status of their college applications; and with high demand inevitably rises a group of people who will be unable to participate. The idea that this unfortunate reality was calculated and aimed to affect minorities in low-income schools was the subject of the 1999 lawsuit against the state of California.
“Bias Alleged In Advanced Courses in Calif. Schools” was the headline for Jay Matthews’ 1999 article in The Washington Post covering the lawsuit regarding access to the Advanced Placement Program in California secondary schools. “A California lawsuit yesterday challenged for the first time the relative lack of demanding high school courses available to students in predominantly minority, low-income schools” (Matthews), the article begins before delving into exactly what was at stake in this lawsuit. Essentially, the American Civil Liberties Union recognized an apparent violation of the state constitution in the allegation that fewer AP courses were available in poorer, more minority-populated schools than in affluent white schools. The fear, according to Matthews, was that students would be not only receiving a less comprehensive education, but would also be less likely to be admitted to the University of California without the weight of the AP course on one’s GPA. The suit highlights the case of four students at Inglewood High School in LA, where the student body is 97% African American or Hispanic and only three AP courses, neither of which are in math or science, are offered. This was raised in contrast to Beverly Hills High School, with an 8.8% minority population and 14 AP courses available. In the end, the suit was successful: the Advanced Placement Challenge Grant Program began in February 2000 as detailed by Senate Bill SB 1504 (Escutia). The program provided school districts with funds to instruct teachers on AP curriculum and granted reduced fees for tests to low-income students. This result after a long-fought battle exposes the importance of AP programs to students who intend to attend college, and want AP on their transcript to be more likely to achieve that goal.
The conundrum of the APP likely occupies a lot of space in the minds of high school students who are deciding whether or not to elect AP courses for their next semester. It is often the students who find themselves in the middle of the pack, in terms of how their class year ranks, who find that the choice can be extremely difficult: risk performing poorly in an AP course, when an A is almost guaranteed in the traditional course offered. High performing students will excel in APs, and students who know they don’t perform highly will rarely consider taking an AP. The question that lies at the core of that choice is the one which this data answers: is it worth it to take an AP course? After sifting through national surveys and reports, it seems the answer is a resounding yes, because an ambitious student is one which will always catch the eye of college admissions.