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Advanced Placement Courses/Exams

Development of the Advanced Placement program came about because of a perceived need to provide motivated high school students with an opportunity to earn college credit. In 1954 the Educational Testing Service (ETS) was given a contract to develop exams in a group of experimental high schools and to compare the results of the high school students' scores on the exams to those of freshmen in twelve colleges. The resulting favorable comparison gave impetus to an expansion of efforts to further develop additional courses and examinations across the disciplines; this evolved into a program of the College Entrance Examination Board (College Board), with technical aspects of test administration and scoring handled by ETS. Advanced Placement courses are designed to mirror the introductory level college courses offered in the major discipline areas.

The most frequently cited reason for enrollment in AP courses has been the greater rigor and challenge of AP courses compared to traditional high school offerings. Successful candidates also gain the advantage of being allowed to take more advanced courses at the beginning of their college careers and to select more elective courses.

AP courses and examinations, which were initially developed for the highest-achieving 5 percent of high school seniors, were widely available to juniors and seniors (10 to 20 percent of such students in many schools) by the beginning of the twenty-first century, and AP courses in calculus and physics were being taken via computer by students as young as those in eighth grade. In 2000, 768,586 students from 13,253 schools (out of approximately 22,000 high schools nationwide) took 1,272,317 exams. The students had the option of submitting their scores to 3,070 colleges.

Students are not required by the College Board to take an exam if enrolled in an Advanced Placement course. About one-third of students enrolled in the courses take the exam. But individual schools may, and sometimes do, require enrolled students to take the exam. Students may also elect to take an AP exam without enrolling in the course in high school. There is no predetermined number or pattern of courses or exams students must take during their high school careers. Not all high schools offer Advanced Placement courses and some offer only one or two courses. Table 1 lists the Advanced Placement courses and examinations available in 2002.

In addition to creating the examinations used to assess students' mastery of college-level subject matter, the College Board provides schools with course


syllabi, including topical outlines and recommended texts. Examinations are developed in consultation with college faculty and high school teachers who are experienced in Advanced Placement teaching.

Grading of AP examinations is done independently by trained examiners. Exam results are assigned a rating with the College Board between 1 and5. A 3 means the student is qualified to earn college credit and/or advanced placement in "virtually all four year colleges and universities, including the most selective." A 5 is deemed "extremely well qualified." The American Council on Education has also recommended, as a general rule, that colleges and universities award credit for grades of 3 or better on AP examinations. The College Board, however, does not assign college credits. Credits are assigned according to the policy of the college or university to which the student applies for credit. At a particular college, the required score for credit and/or advanced standing is determined by the faculty of that college and may vary from examination to examination. William Lichten reported in 2000 that even though two-thirds of test takers earn a score of 3 or higher, only 49 percent receive college credit based on Advanced Placement exam scores. Lichten further noted that while a majority of colleges still award credit for scores of 3 or higher, many highly selective colleges and universities require at least a 4, and there is an increased tendency for institutions of higher education to require higher scores in some areas (e.g., English literature, foreign language) than in others. Some colleges do not accept credit for advanced placement courses or success on the exam at all, rejecting the assertion that the AP and college courses are equivalent. Information on the level of success required for earning college credit at a specific college or university based on the results of a particular AP exam is provided by the College Board at its website.

There is no fee for enrolling in Advanced Placement courses, but students must pay a fee to take the examination. Twenty-six states use state funds to support AP programs either through subsidizing exam fees, subsidizing the costs of teacher training, providing funds for materials and supplies for AP courses, offering incentives for providing AP courses or hosting training sessions, encouraging universities to accept AP credit, and encouraging the offering of professional development opportunities. Eighteen of these states provide direct assistance to students by paying for exam fees. The federal government has also provided funds to pay either partial or full examination fees for minority and low-income students, and in some cases individual school systems have taken the initiative to pay for the examination.

According to the College Board, college admissions personnel view AP courses as one indicator of future success at the college level. Participation in AP courses, therefore, is considered an advantage to a student who wishes to attend a highly selective college. The importance of AP programs in the college admissions process has even been the basis underlying a lawsuit filed in 1999 in California claiming bias because fewer Advanced Placement programs are offered in schools with higher percentages of minority and low-income students.


COLLEGE ENTRANCE EXAMINATION BOARD AND EDUCATIONAL TESTING SERVICE. 1999. Facts about the Advanced Placement Program, 2000. New York: College Entrance Examination Board and Educational Testing Service.

RAVALGLIA, RAYMOND; DEBARROS, J. ACACIO; and SUPPES, PATRICK. 1995. "Computer-Based Instruction Brings Advanced-Placement Physics to Gifted Students." Computers in Physics 9:380–386.

ROTHCHILD, ERIC. 1995. "Aspiration, Performance, Reward: The Advanced Placement Program at Forty." College Board Review 176–177:24–32.

SINDELAR, NANCY W. 1988. "English Curriculum and Higher Education." Journal of College Admissions (summer):2–5.


COLLEGE BOARD. 2001. "AP Central." <http://apcentral.collegeboard.com >.

LICHTEN, WILLIAM. 2000. "Whither Advanced Placement?" Education Policy Analysis Archives 8 (29). <www.epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n29.html>.

VIADERO, DEBORAH. 2001. "AP Program Assumes Larger Role." Education Week <www.edweek.org/ew/ewstory.cfm?/slug=32ap.h20>.


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