Dartmouth’s decision to stop accepting top scores on Advanced Placement exams as stand-ins for introductory-level classes starting with the Class of 2018 reflects recent skepticism around the A.P. exams’ ability to prepare high school students for college.
MIT felt similarly in 2007 when they deemed that students who had earned a five on the A.P. Biology exam did not necessarily have the skills required to succeed in upper-level Biology courses.
Dartmouth decided to change their A.P. policy after the psychology department designed an experiment to test how incoming freshmen that had scored a five on their A.P. psychology test compared to students who have completed the introductory-level psychology class. The department created a condensed version of the class’s final and administered it to the incoming freshman. Ninety percent of the students who had earned a five on the A.P exam failed.
We believe that the Dartmouth psychology department’s experiment exposes a flaw in the A.P. scoring system rather than a fundamental problem with the idea of earning credit for high school work. Test takers who receive fives on an A.P. exam may have vastly differing levels of understanding of the subject material. In order to serve our nation’s wide spectrum of colleges and universities, the A.P. system would be more useful if there were a more sensitive scale than just one through five.
The A.P. exam has experienced incredible expansion in recent years, with two million students taking 3.7 million exams last year, more than doubling enrollment in a decade. Seventy-five percent of teachers polled in 2009 believed school administrators looking to improve the school’s reputation and ranking were pushing students into A.P. courses. The A.P. exam distributes the grades based on the distribution of test scores. Thus with the increasing number of potentially unprepared students taking the test, the threshold for earning a four and five is lowered. A more sensitive scale would allow students and universities to have a better understanding of whether a given student is prepared for upper-level classes.
We believe that the decision to eliminate the ability to graduate early by using high school credit is an especially important and serious one considering the debt burden borne by so many students. In an interview with the Washington Post, Kate Lyon, a 2005 Dartmouth graduate, disagrees with her alma mater’s policy change, as she appreciated being able to save $15,000 by using her A.P. credit. It is unfair to deprive future ambitious students from seizing the opportunity to graduate early.
The A.P. program clearly has much room for improvement, but with student loan delinquency exceeding credit card delinquency for the first time ever, Dartmouth’s decision seems inadequately justified. We encourage Dartmouth and other universities to support improvements to the A.P. exam, such as a more sensitive grading scale, but hope that they continue to honor high school accomplishments.