Journalism Student Performance on Advanced Placement Exams

By Dvorak, Jack | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Journalism Student Performance on Advanced Placement Exams

Dvorak, Jack, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator

In the wake of various state and federal educational reform movements, the role journalism plays in schools continues to be questioned. But the reforms of the past 15 years have also stimulated programs- and accompanying tests that measure the worth of those programs- that link newspaper reading, journalistic study and other media use with widely accepted educational objectives found in elementary, middle school, junior high school, high school and even collegiate curricula.

This study examines high school student performance on Advanced Placement English Language and Composition Examinations from 1989 through 1997. Specifically, it analyzes students who have taken an intensive journalistic writing course as preparation for the AP examination and compares their performance with those who have prepared for the same test by taking AP English composition or some other advanced high school English course.

First, however, it seems appropriate to review some tendencies in the area of journalism versus non-journalism student performance. The literature is growing in this area, and the results described in this study are not inconsistent with the positive performance of students in other studies who have had at least some of their formal language arts education taught from a journalistic perspective.


In a Florida public school district, 17 teachers were trained in Newspaper in Education methods, and their junior high and senior high school students received newspapers from a local daily three times a week for a total of 55 days (Palmer, Fletcher & Shapley, 1994). Standardized tests in vocabulary and reading by Science Research Associates were scored by SRA; writing samples were derived from The Official GED Practice Tests and The Official Teacher's Guide to the Tests of General Development and were graded holistically and without bias at the Florida Department of Education.

The Florida experiment compared three groups from pretest to posttest: Newspapers used as part of the instruction in language arts; newspapers available for students but with no formal instruction; and control groups in which no newspapers were delivered. Both middle- and senior-high students using newspapers improved more on all measures of reading and writing than did students taught with traditional materials (Palmer, Fletcher and Shapley, 1994).

Research by Blinn (1982) has shown comparisons of advanced placement and senior honors composition classes with journalism students of similar ability. In the study involving senior high school students in 12 Ohio schools, data analysis showed that journalism writers made fewer errors in most of the writing skill criteria than did non-journalism students. And they scored significantly higher than nonjournalism students in all four criteria selected as measures of information presentation and selection judgment: information omission, opening sentence, editorializing and errors in fact. Also, Blinn found journalism students made significantly fewer errors in word context, spelling, redundancy, punctuation and agreement.

A 1988 study of college freshmen divided them into four groups based on ACT English Assessment scores in an effort to equalize abilities in language arts competencies. Those with high school newspaper or yearbook experience had higher writing scores than did non-publications students in 13 of 16 test comparisons. All essays were graded by English professors under the guidance of ACT personnel (Dvorak, 1988).

And in another study students who had completed one year of college and who had been on the staff of a high school yearbook or newspaper, in 10 of 12 statistical academic comparisons, journalism students earned significantly higher scores than their non-publications counterparts: cumulative freshman college grade point average; first collegiate English course; ACT Composite score; ACT English score; ACT Social Studies score; mean score of the final four high school courses taken prior to the ACT Assessments in English, social studies, mathematics and natural science; final high school English grade; final high school social studies grade; final high school mathematics grade; and final high school natural science grade. ACT Mathematics Assessment was significantly lower among journalism students, and ACT Natural Science Assessment scores were nearly identical between publications and non-publications students (Dvorak 1989).

In a separate part of the aforementioned study, attitudes about general high school language arts experiences were gathered from first-semester college freshmen who had taken journalism as part of their language arts program. They rated journalism as No. 1 in 16 of 29 general language arts competencies. They selected journalism courses as having fulfilled the general language arts competencies better than either standard (required) English or other English elective courses. And they also selected journalism courses as better fulfilling the following competencies than did either required English or other elective English courses: writing, editing, gathering/use of sources, and affective domain (Dvorak, 1990).

Lyle D. Olson (1992) examined the effect news writing instruction in college freshman English composition had on students' anxiety toward writing and six sub-hypotheses. While he found no statistical differences between the groups of journalism and non-journalism students in composition classes at a private Oklahoma college, he discovered that the journalism group showed greater decrease in test anxiety, more improvement in their scores on a standardized English test and more improvement in their scores on the writing exercise.

Similarly, a study of more than 200 collegians at several universities and colleges examined perceived influences of English composition as preparation for the first news writing course for prospective journalism majors (Olson & Dickson, 1995). Generally, the students did not feel that English composition was especially useful as preparation for their journalism classes, other courses or the world of work. Specifically, students were asked to rate 11 skill areas in which they compared their English composition with their journalistic writing classes. Nine of 11 skill areas were statistically significant in favor of journalism classes: writing concisely, writing precisely, using correct spelling, using correct grammar, writing clearly, writing meaningfully to an audience, writing in an organized manner, writing with detail, and writing interestingly. In two of the 11 skill areas, differences were statistically different in favor of English composition classes: writing creatively and using your opinions (Olson & Dickson, 1995).

AP journalism

Because of the promising research from the 1980s that showed journalism's benefits to students, personnel at the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund of Princeton, N.J., approached College Board officials to see if an Advanced Placement examination might be devised in journalism. At the time, 1987, the Board administered 28 subject-area tests in 15 academic disciplines.

Because of time and costs involved in developing a valid and reliable test in journalism, a compromise was reached. Students, following a specialized high school course in intensive journalistic writing, would take the English Language and Composition Examination, which had been in place for Advanced Placement English students since 1980. Newspaper Fund officials thought a good course in high school journalism might fulfill all the same objectives that any intensive, honors, or AP course would provide. Also, such participation by journalism students could possibly lead to a more prestigious ranking for journalism among other academic subject areas- if students could perform at least as well on the standardized tests as English composition students (Smith, 1991).

To this end, the Newspaper Fund set aside funding to sponsor one or more two-week workshops each summer so that expert high school English teachers with journalism certification could develop curricula, syllabi and teaching materials for the new intensive journalistic writing courses in their high schools. The first two workshops were held at Marquette University in 1988 and 1989. Since then, workshops have been offered at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Alabama, Ohio University, Rutgers University in New Jersey, and Indiana University.

Through the summer of 1997,13 Dow Jones Newspaper Fund Intensive Journalistic Writing workshops have been offered with about 200 teachers earning fellowships to attend. During the past nine years of test administration by Educational Testing Service, nearly 5,000 high school students have taken the English Language and Composition Examination. In May 1997, the largest group of high school students with the specialized journalism training took the exam - 843. By contrast, 66,479 students with AP English composition background took the examination.

The test itself is a three-hour exercise intended for students who have developed their writing abilities and awareness of style and rhetoric outside the realm of fiction. "Their chief practice in composition has been the writing of expository, analytical, and argumentative essays.... (O)n the AP English Language Examination, students normally are not expected to analyze poetry or fiction; their main concern is with expository prose" (Gadda, 1985, p. iii).

The first part of the exam is a onehour exercise in which students must read passages and then answer questions involving meaning, purpose, structure, tone, syntax, and diction. The final two hours of the AP Exam involve writing three separate passages depicting different, specific types or styles of writing. Typically, the essay portion includes a persuasive essay, an analytical essay and a descriptive or narrative piece. All are aimed at the "common reader," and each essay has a strict 40minute time limit (Gadda, 1985). For example, a recent AP exam in language and composition included these three general exercises for which the students had to respond: an 1860 passage from English art and society critic John Ruskin in which test-takers had to write a reasoned essay evaluating the author's argument; a 1979 opinion piece by syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman in which students had to write an essay analyzing her rhetorical techniques; and a 1979 paragraph from an essay by writer James Baldwin in which the testtakers had to defend, challenge or qualify Baldwin's ideas on the importance of language as a key to identity and to social acceptance (The College Board, 1995).

Goals of the Intensive Journalistic Writing courses in high schools, fueled by the IJW workshops that teachers have taken during the past 10 years, are consistent with aims of the AP writing program generally. Seven goals have been listed that mesh the journalistic and language arts skills that are important to college-bound students in the courses that prepare for AP examinations:

1. To teach the writing process using a journalistic process model.

2. To correlate and integrate journalistic and rhetorical modes.

3. To use journalistic techniques and models to teach writing forms.

4. To teach students to observe, to interview, to research and to organize.

5. To provide a variety of classical and contemporary models.

6. To develop students' critical reading and thinking skills.

7. To teach students to compose in a variety of modes for different purposes and audiences (Smith, 1991).

Carol Lange, teacher at a Virginia magnet school for sciences and technology near Washington, D.C., was among the first group of teachers who took the seminar at Marquette in 1988. She has been lead teacher and academic director of the JWI workshops for the past several years. She said, "The idea is to have a college-level journalism composition course that will challenge students" (Knopes, 1994, p. 23). To that end, Lange's students are taught the similarities between English and journalism: The argumentative/persuasive essay is like editorial writing; informative writing is similar to news writing/ reporting; writing in narrative, expository and descriptive styles in English are similar to feature-writing techniques in journalism (Knopes, 1994).

Former Dow Jones Newspaper Fund Director Tom Engleman, who initiated the contact with The College Board more than 10 years ago and who conceived the idea for the Intensive Journalistic Writing Institute, has said school systems are more likely to award English academic credit to an advanced writing course that does not include newspaper or yearbook publishing thatn they would for a publications-production class (Knopes, 1994).

Initial applications of the intensive journalistic writing approach to traditional English courses have seemed to be effective. Typical, perhaps, is the experience of Judy Cole, a Montana high school teacher with IJWI background. She teaches Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men by having her journalism students visit a senior citizens' home, interview people who lived through the Great Depression, and then write a personality profile about the people (Knopes, p. 24).

Following completion of the intensive writing course, students are primed to take the AP English Language and Composition Examination. When they achieve certain scores on the AP exams (for example, 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale), they can earn college English composition credit at some schools. A passing score of 3 can merit a waiver of English composition at several universities and colleges. that accept AP scores. In the May 1997 administration of AP examinations, nearly 600,000 high school students took almost 922,000 tests that covered 19 disciplines and 31 subject areas. The global pass rate was 64.7 percent.

The research question explored in the current study: Do high school students who take intensive journalistic writing as a preparation for the Advanced Placement Examination in English Language and Composition pass the examination at a rate similar to those students who take English composition as a preparation?


The Advanced Placement Program of The College Board has made scores from the English Language and Composition Examination available to The Dow Jones Newspaper Fund for each of the past nine years. Those students from schools represented by a teacher with Intensive Journalistic Writing Institute training are grouped as the journalism component. The pass rates of journalism test-takers, with scores of 3 or better out of 5 possible, have been compared with global scores on the same examination, as seen in Figure 1. In 1997, 843 journalism students from schools in 24 states took the AP Language and Composition Examination. In all, 67,322 high school students took the exam, all-time highs for each.

Results and discussion

The answer to the research question is no: Advanced journalism students do not pass the examination at a rate similar to those students who take AP English composition as a preparation for the exam. Indeed, in the past seven years, the journalism students passed at a rate higher than that of the other students. During the first two years students took tests as part of the program (1989 and 1990), the global pass rate was higher than the journalism pass rate: 65.9 percent versus 54 percent in 1989 and 61.3 percent versus 61.2 percent in 1990. Note that the 1990 rate was virtually identical, however.

Because of the newness of the program, and given that all test-takers in 1989 took their intensive journalism courses from teachers who had not taught the course before, early test results were expected to yield lower scores among journalism students, according to test experts at the Educational Testing Service who administer the AP tests for The College Board (Engleman, 1989).

In the seven most recent years, 1991-1997, journalism students passed the examination at higher rates than did all test-takers. However, in two of the years, 1991 and 1993, the differences were slight (2% in 1991 and 0.1% in 1993), as seen in Figure 1. In the remaining years, substantially higher percentages of journalism students passed the test (with journalism listed first): 65.7 percent/60.7 percent in 1992; 66.6 percent/63.0 percent in 1994; 60.7 percent/ 52.8 percent in 1995; 74.0 percent/61.9 percent in 1996; and 72.7 percent/65.1 percent in 1997.

Mean test-grade data (5 being highest) were also available for the past six years. As can be surmised from the percentage of pass rates, the average scores were higher for those who took intensive journalistic writing as a preparation for the examination, as shown in Figure 2. In 1993, the difference was negligible, 2.87 for journalism students and 2.85 for English students. In 1994, the difference was almost 0.10 (3.08 for journalist students, 2.99 for English students). In the four other years of comparison, the grade point average difference on the test approached 0.20 or beyond: 3.07/2.90 in 1992; 2.92/2.75 in 1995; 3.18/2.90 in 1996; and 3.21/2.99 in 1997.

Further analyses were made using the data from the past three years (1995-1997) of the AP English Language and Composition Examination because during that time period, almost 53 percent of the total journalism students involved in the intensive journalistic writing program also participated in the test. During the first six years of test administration, 1989-1994, 47 percent of the total journalism students to date participated. During the past nine years, 4,969 journalism students have taken the AP test in language and composition; 2,598 of them during the past three years. In the past three years, a total of 175,964 English students took the exam. By contrast, many thousands more have taken advanced English as a preparation. In 1997, 66,479 English students took the test; 843 journalism students took the test that year.

Using the last three years' results seemed to be a more equitable way to approach comparisons because it allowed journalism teachers some added years of classroom experience with the course. In essence, the assumption is that the journalism faculty members are now about on equal footing with the advanced composition faculty in terms of experience with their respective courses. Also, larger numbers of journalism students taking the AP exam each year allowed for more valid comparisons even though the number of English students far surpasses the total number of journalism students.

Taken collectively, journalism students' rate of passing the examinations for the past three years was significantly higher (69.5%) than that of English students (60.4%)((chi)^sup 2^ = 6.73, df = 1, p <.01).

Although the data available do not include global breakdowns of malefemale performance on the examination, the journalism data do. In that regard, an unexplainable finding that requires further research surfaces. Male students passed at a 73.7 percent rate (n=943) during the last three years while female students passed at a 66.7 percent rate (n=1,473) (2, p <.001).

The students' year in school also makes a difference in passing the examination. Seniors pass at a higher rate than juniors. In the last three years, 78 percent of the journalism seniors (n=1,038) passed the exams while only 66.9 percent of the juniors (n=1,505) passed (X, p<.001). Because of the small number of sophomores taking the exam (n=60), they were not included in the statistical analysis. However, it should be noted that nearly 92 percent of them passed. One possible explanation for such a high percentage is that there might be a tendency for extremely intelligent and highly motivated sophomores to sign up for an advanced placement course. (Unfortunately, global pass rates by year in school were not available for comparison.)

Journalism seniors pass in greater numbers, perhaps, because the added year of courses in both English and in other fields enriches their knowledge, their critical thinking abilities, and their powers of analysis. Further, an extra year of life, especially at that age, could provide the additional maturity and writing experience necessary in passing the AP composition course.

No statistically significant differences were found between the pass rates of minority students and non-minority students during the past three years. (The Advanced Placement Program uses the following categories to define minorities: American Indian/ Alaskan, Black/African American, Chicano/Mexican American, Asian/ Asian American, Puerto Rican, and Other Hispanic.) Among the total group for whom ethnic background was available (n=2,199), 69.1 percent passed the examination. Minority students (n=423) passed at the rate of 66.7 percent; nonminority students (n=1,776) passed at the rate of 69.7 percent (XI, p <.23). Also of note is the overall participation rate of minority students: about 19.2 percent of advanced journalism test-takers.


Should the role Intensive Journalistic Writing plays in the language arts curriculum be questioned? More specifically, should it be questioned as a worthy preparatory experience for the taking of the AP English Language and Composition Examination? Clearly, resuits of this study indicate that such a course matches up well with the traditional AP English composition courses that most students take in preparation for the exam.

Further study could be made of the factors that make journalism a good pre-test experience, especially as compared with advanced English courses with similar aims. Findings within this study are consistent with several other comparisons made during the past decade that show journalism matches up well with traditional English courses and in several of the comparisons presented here, it is found to surpass the effectiveness of those traditional courses.


Blinn, J.R. (1982). "A comparison of selected writing skills of high school journalism and nonjournalism students. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. Ohio University.

The College Board (1995). "Advanced plac:ement examination: English language and composition. Section II. Princeton, N.J.: Educational Testing Service.


Dvorak, J. (1988, Summer). "High school publications experience as a factor in collegelevel writing."Journalism Quarterly, 65(2), 392398.

Dvorak, J. (1989, Autumn). "Publications experience as a predictor of college success. " Journalism Quarterly, 66(3), 702-706.

Dvorak, J. (1990, Spring). "College students


evaluate their scholastic journalism a:ourses." Journalism Educator, 45, 36-46.

Engleman, T. (1989, August). "Analysis of advanced placement English language and composition exam results." Invited paper presented to the Secondary Education Division of the Association in Journalism and Mass Communication annual convention, Washington, D.C.

Gadda. G., et al. (1985). Teachers guide to advanced placement courses in English language and composition. New York: The College Board.


Grusin, E.K. and Stone, G.C. (1993, October). "The newspaper in education and new readers." Journalism Monographs,141.

Knopes, C. (Ed.). [1994). Death by cheeseburger: high school journalism in the 1990s and beyond. Arlington, Va.: The Freedom Forum.

Morgan, L. and Dvorak, J. (1994, Autumn). "Impact of journalism instruction on language arts in Alaskan schools." Journalism Educator, 49(3),15-19.

Olson, L.D. (1992, Summer). "Effect of news writing instruction in English composition courses." Journalism Educator, 47(2), 50-56. Olson, L.D. and Dickson, T. (1995, Summer). "English composition courses as preparation for news writing." Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 50(2), 47-54. Palmer, B.C.: Fletcher, H.J.: and Shapley, B.A. (1994, Spring). "Improving student reading, writing with newspaper-based instruction." Newspaper Research Journal. 15(2), 50-55. Smith, C.Z. (1991). Teacher's guide to intensive journalistic writing courses. Princeton, N.J.: The Dow Jones Newspaper Fund. Vockell, E.L. and Cusick, K. (1995, July/August). "Teachers' attitudes toward using newspapers in the classroom." The Clearing House, 68(6), 359-364.

[Author Affiliation]

Dvorak (DVORAKJ@INDIANA.EDU) is professor of journalism at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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Journalism Student Performance on Advanced Placement Exams


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