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Are AP courses worth the effort? An interview with Stanford education expert Denise Pope

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, explains the findings of a new paper that reviews the data on Advanced Placement courses and offers suggestions to students and parents.

L.A. Cicero Denise Pope portrait

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, examines the value of Advanced Placement courses for high school students.

Every May students nationwide take Advanced Placement exams in what is widely viewed as a big step toward enhancing their chances of being admitted to a top-ranked college.

But do AP courses – often considered the gold standard of secondary education – improve learning at high schools, and how do they influence students' college paths?

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, examined those questions in a new research paper that reviews more than 20 studies on AP courses.

While the findings aren't black and white, they suggest that educators, parents and students should think carefully about such classes.

The new paper investigates whether these courses – by providing a standardized curriculum for all schools, rich and poor, urban and rural – serve to level the playing field. It also considers whether an emphasis on AP courses improves schools overall, and whether they give students an edge in being admitted to college.

The AP program began in 1955, and there are courses in more than two dozen subjects. The College Board, the group that brings students the SATs, administers the program.

Pope is co-founder of Challenge Success – a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Graduate School of Education – that conducts research and works with schools and parents to improve students' educational experiences.

Pope discussed her review of the research with the Stanford News Service.

What prompted you to look into the APs?

At Challenge Success, we work with many schools, public and private, helping them increase student engagement and learning. We've noticed some of the private schools dropping AP courses and even some public schools. They say they are a real cause of stress for the kids. And at some public schools, we were hearing that there was de facto tracking happening where advanced students were ending up on a track that put them mostly in AP classes and lower level students on a track of mostly remedial classes. There were two tracks and limited options for average students. So between those two concerns we said, "Gosh, we really need to look into the research on the AP and is it really all it's cracked up to be."

Is it all that it's cracked up to be?

That, of course, depends.

To the claim that they help students in college, it is true that students who take AP courses are more likely to succeed in college. But when you look deeper into the research, it's really hard to establish causation. It could just be that kids who take APs are kids who come from better high schools or high schools that better prepare them for college work, or they have better teachers or they're naturally more motivated. Very few studies use methods where they take these factors into account.

How do AP courses affect the quality of the school as a whole?

If you look at some programs, especially ones where AP students and non-AP students are in the same class but the AP students have extra coursework, the school can benefit. But if you look at others, where AP students are basically in a school within a school – all of the high achievers in one place – then you're not mixing it up with different kids. You're not allowing students to learn from everyone, you're isolating and giving, likely, better resources to a fewer number of students. AP classes will be smaller, for example, and they are often staffed by more experienced teachers. You could actually be creating more disparities in that kind of situation.

And what about students? Can taking AP coursework level the playing field for students of different social and economic backgrounds?

If you're in a rural school or a poor urban school, the argument is that at least having the common curriculum and rigor usually associated with an AP class helps to level the playing field.

There are some programs that are actually doing a really nice job using the APs as part of a comprehensive school improvement plan with more professional development for teachers and better services for students. But in many places, where they just plop in the AP program, it may not be helping at all. There's no indication that this is leveling the playing field in those communities.

The College Board approves the curriculum and there's the common test at the end, but everything else is optional. Teachers can go to the College Board's website and can sign up for professional development and learn ways to help underserved kids get better prepared. But there's nothing that mandates schools to do this. So if there aren't well-trained teachers and the students haven't been prepared well for the course, then kids won't really benefit from the program.

Are kids wasting their time with APs?

If you are truly interested in the subject, there's a good teacher and you're surrounded by other motivated students, then you're probably going to have a good experience from taking a more advanced class. But if you're pushed into it without good preparation and without a safety net in place at the school to help you if you get in over your head, then it may be more harmful than helpful.

Colleges don't always accept the courses for college credit, many students end up repeating the course in college anyway, and you can run the risk of memorizing material for a test versus delving into a subject and exploring it in an enriching way. Sometimes an honors course at a high school is actually a better option for rigorous and engaging learning.

Frankly, many high-achieving high school students are really stressed out. They have a lot to do between extracurricular activities and homework and also trying to get the sleep they need. They need to be prepared for what an AP course involves. The extra tests, extra homework, on top of an already demanding schedule, can be brutal. And a very low grade on your transcript from an AP course may hurt you more in the long run than not taking an AP in that subject at all.

Media Contact

Denise Pope, Challenge Success: dpope@stanford.edu

Brooke Donald, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, brooke.donald@stanford.edu