Advanced Placement: For students in low-performing schools, added rigor is critical

Last week, students across the country got the results of their Advanced Placement tests. Many of these students hope to save money by “testing out” of lower level college classes. But there’s a bigger benefit to AP courses than cost savings. Specifically–the classroom rigor that AP classes provide is something that both colleges and scholarship providers look at when they review applications.

As Sue Newbry Haynie points out in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “The best standard for preparation for college is a good working knowledge of the subject matter earned in challenging courses during high school.”

Haynie goes on to give a good synopsis of where AP began and what benefits it offers today:

 The Advanced Placement Program began in 1955 as an attempt by a group of high school and university instructors to bring more rigor into high school courses. The group wanted a test at the end of the course to prove what the students had learned.

The program has continued improving and expanding. High school and university instructors cooperate to write curriculum for new courses, review course material, train new instructors and grade exams.

The obvious benefits for a Clark County student taking an AP course are a better teacher, more committed students in the class and a mathematical boost to the student’s GPA. 

AP critiques miss the mark for students in underperforming schools

Not everyone agrees with this take on AP’s benefits. Patrick Crowley, a Long Island high school student and Newsday Opinion intern, encapsulates a standard critique in a recent op-ed about whether or not AP classes are all they’re cracked up to be.

Other than looking good on a transcript, AP classes come with few benefits. Colleges are becoming more stringent on what grades are worthy of their credit. A 3 or lower gets you credit virtually nowhere. Some schools, like Brown and Dartmouth, are no longer accepting AP credit at all.

What we’ve learned from 10 years’ of data

We disagree with Mr. Crowley, and believe that credit or not, AP courses are worth it for most students. Our Dell Scholars Program supports low-income, first-generation students from first semester through graduation. Ten years’ worth of data from that program tell us that, for these students,  AP matters—a lot. We have tracked how well students perform in college and what indicators we should evaluate when we select scholars. What do those indicators point to? Successful completion of rigorous curriculum programs like AP is a good indicator of whether any given student will obtain a bachelor’s degree.

Granted that the students we work with often come from low-performing schools and/or low-income backgrounds where college completion rates are historically low. But what we have seen is that students who take the most rigorous courses available—in many cases Advanced Placement courses—are better prepped to successfully complete college-level course work.  The AP curriculum may appear overly rigid in a school that’s rich with resources. But in many schools, AP’s rigor is the best shot students have to take a rigorous course load that prepares them for college.

Our nation’s schools too often fail to prepare kids with the skills they need to compete in college. We hope that, whether students get college credit or not, they’ll take advantage of proven programs that give them an edge on grabbing the educational brass ring: A college degree.

Read the original stories in the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Newsday.