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Do AP classes live up to their promise?

Stanford researcher says high schools should not limit number students can take

Though skeptical of the unequivocal value of Advanced Placement courses, a Stanford University researcher says high schools with well-supported AP programs should not cap or limit the number of AP classes in which students are permitted to enroll.

Stress levels in students are not necessarily correlated to the number of AP classes they take, says Denise Clark Pope, a senior lecturer in the Graduate School of Education. Pope also is cofounder of the Stanford-based Challenge Success, which believes society has become too focused on grades and test scores, undermining authentic engagement and resilience in teens.

Advocating an open-enrollment policy for AP classes, Pope also cautions that a well-supported program should include thorough consultation with teachers and guidance counselors before students sign up, as well as a "safety net" allowing for course reassignment midstream should a student need to transfer out.

Students should not sign up for AP courses "just to get into college," but only if they feel passionate about a subject and are willing to put in extra time and effort, she said.

Pope's observations came in her review of more than 20 research studies on the College Board's 58-year-old AP program, whose enrollment ballooned nearly 50 percent from 2004 to 2009 reaching 1.6 million students.

She said she undertook the literature review after noting that some schools have dropped the AP program and becoming concerned that AP classes have caused a ramping up of student stress levels.

Her conclusions were mixed.

"In the best of circumstances, the AP program can enrich some students' high school studies and offer opportunities to take challenging college-level courses, with motivated classmates and highly skilled teachers," she said.

"For certain students who would not otherwise have access to these kinds of college-level courses, the AP program may be particularly beneficial.

"However, definitive claims about the AP program and its impact on students and schools are difficult to substantiate."

For example, Pope said more research needs to be done before she could verify the broad claim that taking AP classes makes students more likely to succeed in college.

But she acknowledged that some credible studies "showed positive results of the AP program, especially in the sciences."

Though advising students not to take AP classes in order to better their chances for admission to college, she cites a 2005 study of 539 colleges and universities that found 91 percent of them considered AP experience in the admission process.

"Increasingly, researchers caution universities and policy makers that the practice of using AP experience for the purposes of admission is potentially problematic because ... the research isn't clear on whether AP experience alone increases the probability of college success," she wrote.

Additionally, using APs in admission decisions is "problematic from an equity standpoint" as students from rural, small or lower socioeconomic schools tend to have less access, she said.

"So the claim that taking AP courses boosts a student's chances of college admission needs some qualification: It depends on the college," she said.

Pope cited research indicating that non-AP students sometimes may "pay the price" for AP programs by getting larger classes and lower instructional quality as the best teachers are siphoned off to teach AP students.

"While some students might benefit from an AP program, several researchers note some hidden or opportunity costs involved in administering an AP program," she wrote.

Pope also cautioned AP teachers and schools not to "confuse AP rigor with load.

"We have seen successful teachers who can curb the homework load in their AP courses without sacrificing test scores," she said.

"Just because a course is rigorous and offers college-level work does not mean that students need to complete hours and hours of homework each night to succeed."

She said low-income schools cannot rely on introduction of an AP program by itself to narrow the achievement gap but that such a program must be part of broader support efforts that include extra tutoring for students and professional development for teachers.

Pope's 15-page summary of her literature review, titled "The Advanced Placement Program: Living Up To Its Promise?" can be found on the Challenge/Success website, www.challengesuccess.org/.

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