Advanced Placement Credit

ARTICLE: “AP classes’ draw extends beyond extra grade points.” By Jay Mathews Washington Post, 31 May 2010.

Disclaimer reminder: This is a personal web site and the opinions expressed are mine and mine alone. The opinion in this post does not necessarily reflect the opinion of my employer.

Kristin Klopfenstein is an associate professor of economics at Texas Christian University who is currently doing some work for the Texas Schools Project. The bottom line of her work is that although she thought giving students extra credit for Advanced Placement courses would entice students to take the classes, the data show this is not the case.

As pointed out in the article, today it is fairly common for some schools to give extra credit for AP courses. Not all schools do this and not all schools that do give extra credit, give the same extra credit. A common type of extra credit is adding one point to the class grade for grades of C or better. In other words while a C in a regular course would earn 2 points, it would be given 3 points if it were AP. Similarly an A would earn 5 points instead of the typical 4. This is why some students report GPAs of 4.5 out of 4. That bothers me on principle alone and I rank right up there with athletes who “give 110%”. The math just doesn’t support it.

In addition to the math not supporting extra credit, the fact that there is no common way of weighting AP courses makes it even more difficult to justify the practice. Are students at a school that does not weight AP courses dumber than those at schools that do weight the grades? Are those who do not receive weighted AP grades challenged more than those who do? It is difficult to tell and so I do not support grade weighting for these and other reasons.

I took an Advanced Placement course way back when and enjoyed it immensely. I actually wanted to take two AP classes and was selected to take both chemistry and history but they both ended up being taught at the same time. I chose chemistry. I say selected because in my high school you did not simply register for an AP classes, you had to be invited to take it. My high school was a little different. First, it was back in the day when students were tracked–some were on the college prep track, others were on the vo-tech track. Most, if not all, of my teachers actually had bachelor’s degrees in the area they were teaching and a master’s degree in education. In other words, my chemistry teacher had a BS in chemistry, not a BS in science education.

When we were selected for an AP course we were informed that the courses would be taught at the college level and we would be expected to work at the college level. We were offered NO incentive to the classes nor were we ever promised good grades. I, like my classmates, took the AP courses because we wanted to get a head start on college and we wanted an intellectual challenge.

I think that a student who is taking an AP course should be taught at a college level, should perform at a college level, and should be evaluated at a college level. Artificially adding points to a grade does not reflect that the student is performing at the college level. In fact, I would argue, having to add points says that the course is not being evaluated at the college level.

My chemistry class was told that we would be taught at a college level and that we would be expected to perform at a college level. When we got our first nine weeks report cards we are all surprised to find that we had earned a grade of F in the class. Our teacher told us that we were being taught at a college level but that we were not performing at a college level. He also reminded us that we were hand-picked to take the course and were some of the smartest students at the school and earning an F would help us build character. We complained, we argued, but we eventually sucked it up, kicked up our performance in class a notch or five, and he made it up to us in the end. I, and I think most of my classmates, realized when we entered college that we had, in fact, not been performing at the college level.

I do understand the reasons schools give for artificially adding points to AP courses. They don’t want their best and brightest to be penalized with lower grades in tougher courses. They fear it will result in lost scholarships or denied admissions. And, to be honest, it some cases that may be true. However, what is done for those who are given extra credit for AP classes? Many high schools have also changed their grading scale from a 7-point scale to a 10-point scale in order to raise GPAs for scholarship purposes. This is a cat and mouse game so colleges then modify their scholarship requirements in recognition that an A this year may not be what it was last year.

When I look at a student I look at a student. I seldom take a GPA for granted. I do look at the courses taken and make some mental adjustments (in the positive direction) for those who took AP courses, honors courses, or just chose to take a more rigorous route through high school. I know that there were other students in my high school who had better grades than I had but they had nowhere near the challenging courses I took. Looking back on it from thirty-something years out I think I, and my AP classmates, were indeed the more successful.

The study by Klopfenstein shows that weighting AP courses is not necessary. I agree and wish schools would stop the practice. Let’s get back to evaluating courses as they should be evaluated. If a student earns a B in an AP course in high school then they should earn a B in the same college course. Students who take AP and honors courses should be the best students at their school, they should be capable of performing at the college level, and they should be evaluated and rewarded accordingly. Doing so would result in fewer disappointed students when they realize that in college, they are not given extra credit for the most difficult courses. The grades I earned in thermodynamics and physical chemistry carried the same amount of weight as the grades I earned in general psychology and introduction to sociology but the workload and expectations were vastly different.

In reviewing Dr. Klopfenstein’s CV I note that there are several publications on this topic slated to be published this year. I will certainly be interested in looking at those publications.

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