AP exams remain contested despite recent success

AP exams remain contested despite recent success

Despite recent accomplishments, Advance Placement (AP) exams remain a contested topic in the DeKalb County School District (DCSD).

Due to recent district approval for the purchasing of exams, one DeKalb County board of education member, Stan Jester, has contested whether or not the tests warrant tax dollar spending.  

AP exams are taken by students at the end of every school year after completing college level AP courses. Course subjects range from art history to statistics and are designed to test students’ knowledge after a year of study. Opportunities are available in 37 courses, which often vary from school to school. 

According to The College Board, the company responsible for AP coursework, the classes and subsequent tests “ensure college-level learning is being assessed.”

Students are graded on a 1 to 5 scale after taking a test made up of multiple choice and free response questions. A score of 5 recognizes a student as “extremely well qualified” in a subject whereas a score of 1 classifies a student under “no recommendation.” Most American colleges grant course credit to students who score a 3 or higher.

“I contend that students who voluntarily choose to take AP courses and exams are the types of students that are already better prepared and highly motivated,” Jester wrote on March 6. “Success in college, perhaps, is not attributed to the AP class and exam, but to the personal characteristics that led them to participate in the class to begin with.”

Achievements relating to AP exams in DeKalb County for the 2014-2015 school year were announced on March 11. DCSD boasted 12 out of 22 district high schools have been recognized by the Georgia Department of Education and placed on the AP honors list. Approximately 41 percent of students throughout the district were able to score a 3 or higher, a percentage that has steadily risen since the 2010-2011 school year (31.7 percent). 

“We are proud of this latest example of how the district is preparing students for their first year of college,” said superintendent Stephen Green in the announcement. “On behalf of the school district, I congratulate the students and teachers for their hard work and dedication.”

The announcement came four days after a March 7 meeting at which the DeKalb County Board of Education approved a $310,000 purchase for one AP exam for every student enrolled in an advanced course. This coincides with the State of Georgia’s commitment to pay for one AP exam per student enrolled in free or reduced lunch, meaning students participating in free or reduced lunch had one extra exam.

On March 7, Jester said he was “at odds with the efficacy” of purchasing exams during the Board of Education’s work session.

Jester went further on his blog, factchecker.stanjester.com, including an interview with Knox Phillips, director of research, assessment and grants at DCSD, who was able to answer questions regarding concerns over district rationale in purchasing the exams.

Phillips cited studies linking AP exam success to further success in college.

“[One study] found that students who successfully participated in one or more AP exams and courses significantly outperformed their non-AP peers,” Phillips said. “Students who took one or more AP courses and exams had higher college GPAs, earned more credit hours and were more likely to graduate in four years or less. The findings indicate that even AP students who took the course and scored two out of a possible five points on an AP exam will still tend to do better in college than a student who did not take AP courses or who skipped the AP exam.” 

Phillips was able to provide six specific studies, but Jester remained unconvinced, stating The College Board funds such research and “financially benefits from more test takers.” Jester also claimed the research was not peer reviewed and did not take into account enough variables. 

“This was not an independent piece of scholarly research,” Jester wrote. “Additionally, researchers at Harvard and the University of Virginia did not find significant difference in college outcomes between students taking AP courses and those that did not.”

On March 7, Green pointed out that “AP stands on its own merit,” independent of any study. The superintendent said anything the district could do to increase the standard in the classroom should meet overwhelming approval. 

“Maybe I’m biased because I worked for The College Board for eight years,” Green said. “Numbers of studies have been done about the impact and influence of these rigorous instruction programs. At the end of the day, students are better off having been in them.”

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