The Advanced Placement (AP) Program began in 1957 with the aim of offering high school students a means for earning early college credits or for receiving advanced placement in college courses. The idea behind the AP Program was to avoid having college students revisit material already studied in high school. The AP Program was a useful adjunct for students enrolled in high-ranking private high schools where the level of study was higher than in the public school system.
The basic structure of the AP Program has remained unchanged during the half-century since its inception. However, the scope of the program has broadened to a dramatic degree. By 1960, there were 890 secondary schools participating in the AP Program. By the year 2000, four decades later, the number of participating schools had mushroomed to 13,253.
In 2007, there were 15,122 schools in the United States offering AP study, with 12,037 of them public high schools. While taking AP courses doesn't obviate the need for students to take Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs), colleges identify AP students as high-achieving, self-motivated students. As a result, at the state level, those who mandate educational policies have begun to include AP Programs in most school districts and high schools.
Research by the College Board has shown that passing the AP exams is a good predictor of success at the college level. However, some legislators have misinterpreted this fact to mean that expanding the scope of the AP Program will mean that a larger number of college students will have excellent academic outcomes. To be clear, taking AP classes does not ensure college success. However, an excellent high school student who does well in the AP Program will likely continue with academic success throughout his or her higher education.
There are some downsides to the AP Program. For one thing, critics state that the AP program leeches resources that might otherwise have been available to students outside this accelerated program. In general, the most excellent teachers are taken out of general circulation and assigned to the smaller-sized AP classes. AP teachers receive training at AP summer institutes, a benefit not shared with non-AP teachers. This additional training is often subsidized with state and/or federal funds that might otherwise be applied elsewhere. AP science laboratories are often outfitted with better, more expensive equipment than ordinary high school science labs.
Despite such drawbacks, policy-makers are scurrying to broaden the scope of the AP Program. A survey of 962 institutions of higher education in 2000 found that experience in the AP Program was among the top five or six criteria for college admission. AP exam grades, on the other hand, ranked ninth as criteria for college admission. In other words, AP experience counted more than high AP exam scores in terms of college admission criteria. This fact is used in support of policy-makers who would like to expand AP Programs to include all students regardless of their academic standing.
In 2005, a survey of 539 colleges and universities supported the findings in the 2000 survey by reporting similar statistics. In a 2006 report, 91 percent of postsecondary academic institutions were found to factor in AP course experience in their admissions procedures. Considering that grade point average (GPA) and student class rank occupy first place in the criteria for college admission, AP experience is not far down the list and appears to be no trivial factor in gaining admission to college.
It is doubtful that the designers of the AP Program anticipated in 1957 that AP course experience would be used or thought of as a stepping-stone to college admission. However, well-meaning officials have come to see the AP Program in this light: an essential part of the portfolio of college-bound students. However, there is no conclusive evidence that AP course experience can predict academic success at the college level.
On the other hand, there is evidence that the number of years a high school student studies math and science is a contributory factor in academic and professional success. This is an important consideration in designing the ideal high school education: one that prepares a student for life. Nevertheless, resources that would otherwise go to non-AP students are placed at the disposal of AP Programs in the mistaken belief that this will help more children get into college. The AP Program is a marvelous thing for excellent students. However, it is clear that further research on the subject is needed to convince policy-makers and college boards of the foolishness of expanding the AP Program to the detriment of other students. The AP Program has not outgrown its original purpose and should continue to be an adjunct to the studies of high school students who have mastered the basics of high school coursework.