Colleges reassess value of AP classes
Bethany Bieisinger began her days at St. Vincent College as a biology major with an eye on medical school.
Those plans changed in her sophomore year when she switched her sights to an English degree and elementary teaching certification, a move that could have required her to stay an additional year in school and pay $30,000 more in tuition and other expenses.
But the Advanced Placement literature, government and composition classes she took in her Johnstown high school allowed her to receive credit for related courses at St. Vincent, and she was able to graduate from the college near Latrobe in four years.
That kind of credit is becoming more difficult to come by at some colleges where officials are beginning to take a second look at how they grant credit for introductory classes based on Advanced Placement courses taken in high school.
Earlier this year, Dartmouth College officials ignited a national debate when they announced that beginning in the fall of 2014, students admitted to the New Hampshire school will not receive credit toward graduation for AP classes. Other Ivy League schools also are no longer granting credit for AP classes; Brown does not and some departments at Columbia have stopped.
In making the move, Dartmouth officials stressed that it was more about ensuring the rigors of a Dartmouth education than a lack of confidence in the Advanced Placement program, which is administered by the College Board, the same nonprofit group that runs the SATs.
Deborah Davis, director of college readiness communications for the College Board, said in an email that “1 (percent) to 3 percent of colleges and universities modify their AP policies in any given year, with a balance between changes that allow for more credit and changes that allow for less.”
At Dartmouth, the change was made as a result of nearly a decade of conversations among academic departments, each of which had its own AP policies, said Justin Anderson, director of media relations.
“While the AP exams are rigorous and valuable and we will continue to use them for placement, we want the Dartmouth education to be had at Dartmouth to the extent that's possible,” Anderson said.
Raising the bar
In Western Pennsylvania, some colleges have raised the required scores students must attain on their final AP tests. The top score on the tests is a 5.
Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science previously accepted a 3 or 4 on an AP exam to place out of some courses, but students now must earn a 4 or 5, according to Michael Steidel, the school's undergraduate director of admission.
“In terms of what level we grant credit for, we used to be more generous,” Steidel said.
In fact, many departments across the board at CMU are becoming stricter, with most requiring at least a 4 or a 5 to receive credit, he said.
“The quality of our incoming class has changed over time and (we) raised that based on how they were doing,” Steidel added.
He stressed, though, that the university has no plans to eliminate awarding credit for AP exams.
Klaus Sutner, associate dean of undergraduate programs at CMU's School of Computer Science, said the problem is not that AP standards are too low, it's that students are able to take outside tutoring, and their scores continue to increase.
“You get a 5 out of a 5,” he said. “What does that tell me? Increasingly less and less. It doesn't really guarantee the kind of skills we're looking for.”
Duquesne University used to allow students to place out of composition classes after taking Advanced Placement literature and composition, but no longer.
“We want every student to have composition here because it is a building block,” said Debbie Zugates, director of admissions. “There is a research component that comes with our writing course.”
Zugates and other officials stressed that changes to the requirements for credit had little to do with the Advanced Placement curriculum or testing, but often stem from changes in the school's offerings or the makeup of the student body.
Some schools, such as Pitt and Penn State, have made no changes to their AP programs and still grant credit to students who score well on their tests. The required scores vary from program to program.
More interest in exams
According to the College Board, the number of students taking AP exams has increased yearly, reaching an all-time high in 2012 when 32 percent of all high school graduates — 954,070 — took at least one AP exam. In 2002, 18 percent of students — 471,404 — took at least one test.
As colleges weigh their options in regards to AP classes, the course offerings continue to grow.
Last week, the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit organization, announced that as a result of a $930,637 grant from The Heinz Endowments, its AP program will expand this fall to Pittsburgh Brashear High School and Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy.
And teachers stand firmly behind their schools' AP courses.
Upper St. Clair Advanced Placement chemistry teacher Dominick Frollini Jr. said that depending on how they are taught, AP courses are just as rigorous as college courses.
“From my perspective, the most important thing about an AP course is it prepares students for college-level science courses,” Frollini said. “The AP at the high school level can do an exemplary job of giving the student skills necessary to be successful.”
There may be factors other than academics at play in some schools' decisions, Frollini added.
“You've got to look at the perspective of AP and the perspective of the university,” he said. “Both have a vested interest in whether or not you take the exam or whether or not you take the course. There's some money issues.”
Frollini touched on an issue bandied about on Internet blogs where some have questioned whether colleges are tightening AP requirements to ensure that students will have to pay for classes they might be able to forgo because of their AP courses.
Seton Hill University's Michael Poll, vice president for enrollment, describes the Greensburg college as “AP friendly.”
“As part of our commitment to affordability, we embrace the AP program,” he said.
Since colleges all have different standards, it makes sense that some would accept AP exams and some would not, said University of Pittsburgh professor Suzanne Lane, but the tests are sound and offer a good measure of a students' proficiency in a discipline.
But for some students, taking AP classes isn't about getting college credit. It's about challenging themselves, said Tara Decomo, department chair of school counseling and AP coordinator for the Fox Chapel School District.
“I had a couple (students) who wanted to take as many as they can,” she said.
And that's exactly what sophomore Brooks Wilding, 16, had in mind when he enrolled in Frollini's Upper St. Clair AP chemistry class.
“My science class the year before wasn't very challenging so I wanted to try harder,” he said. “And I definitely had to try a lot.”
Kari Andren and Nicole Chynoweth contributed to this report. Kate Wilcox is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.