University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Do AP Classes Help Students to be College Ready?

In The View from the OEP on November 18, 2020 at 12:30 pm

The Advanced Placement (AP) program is a nationwide curriculum offering that provides high school students the opportunity to access rigorous, college-level content. Students enrolled in AP may earn college credits for their performance on standardized end-of-course exams.

In recent years AP has come to be seen as a tool to help close achievement gaps in both access to higher education and student outcomes of traditionally underserved students. Since 2008, every Arkansas district has been required to offer AP coursework in the four core disciplines: math, English, science and social studies (“four core”).

Here at OEP we love that Arkansas is supporting AP course availability for all students, but we wondered if increased access to AP was helping our students be ready for college, and if all student groups were benefiting equally.

We use ACT to measure college readiness, as it is used in Arkansas to determine eligibility for a number of scholarship programs and whether students are required to participate in college remediation courses. Our sample includes over 75,000 11th graders from 2016-2018 since 2016 was the first year that Arkansas offered the ACT at no cost to 11th graders during the school day.

You can read the full paper here, and a shorter policy brief here, but we cover the key findings below.

Who Participates in Advanced Placement?

About thirty-four percent of 11th grade students in the study enrolled in at least one core content AP course between 9th and 11th grade, but students who take AP courses are noticeably different relative to their peers who never take AP (Table 1). For example, AP-Takers are more likely to be White and/or qualify for gifted and talented services and have high prior achievement as early as seventh grade. AP-Takers in Arkansas are also substantially more likely to be female. Students who do not enroll in AP are more likely to be Black or Hispanic, English Language Learners, or qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch.

AP-TakersAP Non-Takers
% Female6046
% White7064
% Hispanic911
% Black1722
% Other Races54
% Gifted & Talented215
% English Language Learner27
% Free/Reduced Lunch4159
7th Grade Math Z-score0.68-0.15
7th Grade RLA Z-score0.64-0.15
Table 1. Characteristics of AP-Takers and Non-Takers, 11th Graders, 2016-2018

AP participation, overall and by demographic subgroup, varies significantly across different regions of Arkansas. Table 2 shows that Southeast Arkansas has the highest AP participation rate at 39%, while in Northeast Arkansas only 28% of students enroll in AP. On average, there is a 4.6 point difference on the ACT between AP-Takers and Non-Takers, but this too varies by region.

% Taking AP343328353639
Mean ACT (AP-Takers)22.022.722.222.220.619.7
Mean ACT (Non-Takers)17.418.517.116.916.215.7
Table 2. 11th Grade AP Course Taking and Composite Scores, By Region, 2016-2018

AP students do not appear to be representative of the overall population within each region. This suggests access to AP coursework may be subject to selection mechanisms such as peer, parent, and teacher influence or school requirements that provide entry barriers. These findings have implications for policymakers wishing to leverage Advanced Placement coursework to improve student outcomes for students from historically underserved backgrounds.

Do AP Students Score Better on the ACT?

Yes. Students who choose to take at least one AP course between 9th and 11th grade earn higher ACT composite scores relative to their peers. After controlling for demographic characteristics and prior achievement, we find that on average, the difference in ACT score for a student who takes AP is two points higher than a Non-AP Taker (Figure 1). Interestingly, this result is clustered around the 19-point cut score required for students to opt out of remedial math and English courses during their freshman year of college in Arkansas.

There is also evidence that race and socioeconomic status moderates the size of the association between AP course-taking and ACT outcomes (Figure 1). Subgroups from racially diverse or economically disadvantaged backgrounds both score lower on the ACT, on average, and experience smaller increases in ACT composite score when taking AP courses, compared to their economically advantaged, White peers.

Figure 1. Mean ACT Composite Score for AP-Takers and Non-Takers, 2016-2018

It is important to recognize that AP coursework may not be the mechanism that causes students to score higher on the ACT exam. For example, students who select into AP classes may also be more motivated to complete ACT preparation courses, influencing their achievement outcomes.

What Are the Implications?

Students who select into AP score above the remediation threshold while those who do not take AP courses score below the 19 point cutoff, although the overall association between AP course-taking and ACT scores differs for demographic subgroups. The exception is Black students, where even AP-Takers fail to cross the remediation threshold with an average composite score of approximately 18.5, despite the fact that Black AP-Takers score 1.25 points higher than their Black Non-AP peers.

The finding that AP-Takers tend to score above the 19 point remediation cut score and Non-AP Takers generally score below could be a function of two mechanisms:

  1. The difference in ACT composite score for the two groups results from taking an AP course. In this scenario, AP coursework improves student outcomes through some unknown mechanism such as peer effect, teacher quality, or the AP curriculum itself, OR
  2. Students self-select into, or out of, AP based on their self-perceived college readiness or college-going aspirations. The difference in scores, therefore, may simply be capturing the effect of motivation or parental or teacher influence, none of which have been studied by existing research.

This story is interesting to consider, given that Arkansas policies are seeking increased participation in Advanced Placement. It is possible that these policies may end up “pushing” students into AP who are not ready, either academically or socio-emotionally.

Regardless of the mechanism or the consequences, the question remains whether students induced to take AP will experience the hypothesized benefits of the coursework. Existing research is unable to determine whether AP courses cause students to score higher on the ACT, but future research on such topics would be beneficial in understanding how to best prepare students for the rigors of college.

As Advanced Placement programs continue to expand it is important to understand whether the courses actually benefit all students in the way AP advocates claim it will. Our research, albeit on a specific group of Arkansas students, shows that there seems to be a difference in college readiness for students who take AP compared to students who opt out of these more rigorous classes. While we cannot claim that AP classes cause students to score higher on the ACT, it seems there is certainly a tangible benefit for students who engage in these rigorous learning experiences.

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