A Brief History of Advanced Placement Exams

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In 2013, more than 2.2 million students sharpened their No. 2 pencils and sat for an Advanced Placement exam—and if growth trends are any indication, even more will do so this year. [PDF] But with eyes on their futures (and noses deep in their textbooks), today's students don't think of the decades of test-takers who came before them. While current college admissions pressures have put increased importance on the AP program in recent years, the College Board has been torturing—uh, enriching—students since 1955.

So, who started the AP program? How has it changed since the 1950s? And—the million dollar question—is it effective? Read closely—there will be a quiz.

Bridging the Gap

Following World War II, American educators sought a way to bridge the widening gap between secondary and higher education. [PDF] The Ford Foundation created the Fund for the Advancement of Education, which supported two studies dedicated to figuring out how, exactly, to make that happen.

According to the College Board, the first study was conducted by educators from three prep schools—Andover, Exeter, and Lawrenceville—and three colleges—Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. The study urged high schools and colleges to view themselves as "two halves of a common enterprise" and recommended that "secondary schools recruit imaginative teachers, that they encourage high school seniors to engage in independent study and college-level work, and that achievement exams be used to allow students to enter college with advanced standing" (namely, some completed scholarship). Sound familiar?

In the second study, the Committee on Admission with Advanced Standing worked to develop college-level curricula that students could jump into during their final year (or years) in high school. Their challenge lay in creating high school courses and accompanying assessment tests that colleges would deem rigorous enough to be worthy of credit toward a degree. Both studies made one thing very clear: high schools and colleges needed to work together in order to avoid coursework repetition and to provide motivated students with a challenging curriculum that will allow them to transition easily to college.

In 1952, a pilot program consisting of advanced courses in 11 subject areas was launched. And in the 1955-56 school year, the College Board (a "mission-driven not-for-profit organization" founded in 1900) took over the program's administration, renaming it the College Board Advanced Placement Program.

The AP Program Grows

That first year, 104 high schools and 130 colleges participated in the College Board's AP program, with 1229 students taking 2199 exams across the 11 disciplines. In the following decades, the College Board worked to expand its program. In the 1960s, they focused on training high school teachers in the new curricula. And in the 1980s and 1990s, the College Board worked to get more minority and low-income students in AP classes. Their efforts must have worked, because more and more students across all income levels took AP classes every year. [PDF]

By the 2012-2013 school year, 18,920 high schools and 4027 colleges participated in the AP program. And the number of students ballooned to 2,218,578 taking a total of 3,938,100 tests across 34 subjects. That's 33.2 percent of high school students, as compared to 18.9 percent in 2003.

The Ford Foundation and the College Board set out to create a curriculum that would make the transition from high school to college easier for students, and, more than five decades later, they've established a monstrosity of an institution. But they did achieve their original goals?

The College Board, for one, seems to think so. In the 2007 study "AP Students in College: An Analysis of Five-Year Trends," [PDF] Rick Morgan and John Karic found that students who scored a 3 or higher on their AP tests achieved better grades in intermediate college courses than students who had taken an introductory course but did not participate in the AP program in high school. And students who scored 5s on their AP exams did much better than their non-AP-taking peers. Morgan and Karic also found that AP students graduate earlier than non-AP students.

Similar studies, however, have proved less conclusive. In "The Relationship Between AP Exam Performance and College Outcomes" (2009), Krista Mattern, Emily Shaw, and Xinhui Xiong had similar results to Morgan and Karic, but also found that, when controlling for both SAT scores and high school GPAs, AP students did not earn higher first year GPAs than students who did not take AP exams. They chalk this up to one of two things: Either high achieving students (quantified by SAT scores and high school GPAs) will get good grades in college regardless of AP participation, or non-AP students enroll in less rigorous college courses (which are easier to get good grades in).

"In sum, these results suggest that participation in an AP Exam may better prepare students for the more rigorous academic demands of college-level work," Mattern, Shaw, and Xiong conclude. "Nevertheless, it is possible that other factors beyond prior academic performance contribute to the group differences." [PDF]

The AP Program Today

While it's obvious the AP program's popularity—meaning its participation stats—has grown exponentially since its inception, critical reception of the program varies. Educators, parents, and students (much like the program's founders and the aforementioned researchers) ask whether "teaching to an exam" is an effective mode of education. Therefore, in an attempt to stay ahead of the criticism, the College Board constantly reevaluates and changes its offerings.

The AP courses and exams are developed by committees of college faculty members and AP teachers. Keeping in mind the findings of the founders' initial studies, the high school and college faculty work together to define scope and expectations of the courses, the curriculum framework, and the knowledge and skills students will need to acquire in order to score well on the exam. And if a course or exam needs revision, the committees work backwards from their achievement goals (what do we want our students to take away from this?) to make changes.

With tests available in 34 subject areas in the 2013-2014 school year—and two new Physics exams planned for next year and changes to the Art History and European History exams set to roll out in 2015-2016—the AP program's offering has tripled since the 1952 pilot program. And seeing as enrollment has doubled in the past 10 years, it seems safe to say that your children's children (and their children, and their children) will be loading their high school schedules with AP classes. 

Because nothing says "I'm ready for college" like a year or two's worth of Red Bull- and candy-fueled cram sessions.

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May 13, 2014 - 8:00am
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