FAQs AP Research Surveys Publications
AP Class-Taking as a Factor Influencing College Science Success

Q: Why do high school students take Advanced Placement courses?
Advanced Placement (AP) courses in biology, chemistry, and physics are offered in an increasing number of U.S. high schools, enabling students to engage in coursework designed to be the equivalent of introductory college courses. The benefits of AP are many.  A transcript heavy with high grades in AP courses can make a difference with many college admissions departments.  Many high schools recognize the rigor of AP by boosting AP grades by a whole letter grade over regular course grades, raising a student’s grade point average.  Most important, Advanced Placement exams are designed to permit students to “place out of” introductory college courses.  The highest score – a 5 on a 1-5 scale – is often thought of as the equivalent of A in a college course, warranting starting college with a more advanced course and perhaps saving tuition.

Should students skip college introductory courses because of high AP scores?
While students can earn college credit by passing rigorous examinations, many do not earn credit for introductory college coursework either by choice or because of exacting college policies. We use the performance of 937 students who have taken AP coursework out of a total of 8594 students taking introductory college science courses in 63 randomly selected colleges to investigate the equivalence of AP and college courses in science. By controlling for students’ backgrounds and prior coursework in science, we investigate the degree to which AP courses contribute to introductory college course performance. Our findings do not support scoring policies used to assign exam grades by the AP's governing College Board. Students with passing AP exam scores (3 or above) do not earn high enough grades after retaking introductory college science courses to assume prior mastery. AP students who do not earn passing scores (2 or less) appear to have gained no advantage from their year of AP study. While students who take AP science, on average, do better in college than those who take less rigorous courses, half of this performance difference is accounted for by demographic variables and prior coursework in high school.

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