Volume 3 Issues 3

AP Classes and Exams: Are They an Effective Path to College Credit?

by Brianna Golden

Over the past five years, participation in Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams has grown steadily in Jefferson County. As one way to gain college credit and, thus, save time and money spent on postsecondary education, students can take AP courses while still enrolled in high school. The courses are overseen for rigor by the College Board, a non-profit membership organization responsible for the SAT and Advanced Placement Program. AP courses are offered in a variety of subjects, from English to mathematics, and prepare students to take the standard AP exam alongside high schoolers across the country. 

If the student achieves a sufficiently high score on the five-point scale, traditionally a 3 or higher, many universities and colleges will award college credit. Some schools only award elective credit; others require a 4 or a 5 in order to get the credit, and a few colleges won’t give any credit for AP classes no matter how a student scores on the exam. Other institutions may accept a score of 3 in some subject areas, but not others. 

From 2010 to 2014, Jeffco high school students took 40,245 AP exams. At a rate of $91 per exam, Jeffco students spent $3,662,295 on AP exams during the five-year period. In examining pass rate data, at least $1.3 million has been spent on exams with scores that do not qualify for college credit. This poses a serious concern, particularly since this indicates that almost 40 percent of Jeffco students fail to receive college credit from their AP exams. 

In 2014, students took a total of 8,725 AP exams. Due to small class sizes and the need for privacy, 586 of these test results remain unknown. Still, 5,058 exams resulted in a score of 3 or higher, or a passing grade for students. Conversely, 3,081 of the exams generated a 1 or 2, and so will likely not receive college credit. 

It is encouraging that more money is being spent on passing exam grades than on failing exam grades. However, the $1.3 million spent over the last five years to take tests for which students did not get college credit remains a significant amount of money. This total does not take into consideration costs to the AP teachers who must submit their course plans to the College Board, books for the course, or materials fees that Jeffco schools and parents are spending every year. 

In addition, as institutions of higher education continue to refine and raise their standards, more college and universities are refusing to offer college credit to students with scores less than 4, or even less than 5 in some cases. Unfortunately, there is no consistent standard for what will be accepted as college credit and what will not. 

Locally, Colorado School of Mines will not award credit for scores below a 4. The University of Denver, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and Colorado College each offer credit for AP scores of 3 or lower in fewer than 15 circumstances. Other institutions may accept a score of 3 on a foreign language exam, but refuse credit of any kind for any score on a statistics or calculus exam. 

If one of the main reasons to take AP courses and exams is to receive college credit, then one has to ask if AP exams are the most effective way to achieve this goal. It is also imperative to know which schools and classes provide the best chance for a student to earn high grades on AP tests.  

Since 2010, students at Chatfield High School have passed the AP Calculus exams at a perfect 100 percent rate. The course includes two separate exams: Calculus AB, or the equivalent to a college level Calculus 1 course, and Calculus BC, which includes the material in AB as well as the equivalent of college level Calculus 2. Those students who took the AP Calculus AB exams have all received scores of 3 or higher at Chatfield since 2010, and those who took the AP Calculus BC exams have all earned a score of 5 in the same time frame. This stands in stark comparison to the district pass rates of 58.6% in AP Calculus AB and 79.6% in AP Calculus BC. 

Other Jeffco high schools, such as Lakewood and D’Evelyn have great success in some AP classes. In AP U.S. History, only 48 percent of district exams yield scores of 3 or higher. However, Lakewood students have maintained a pass rate ranging from 60 percent to above 80 percent since 2010. While, of course, a rate of 60 percent is far from optimal, it still represents a distinct difference from district-wide scores. 

As for D’Evelyn, students have received high pass rates on both AP Calculus and Physics exams since 2010. D’Evelyn’s students taking the Calculus AB and BC exams have achieved at least a 94 percent pass rate. On the AP Physics B exam, D’Evelyn has maintained a pass rate of at least 82 percent since 2010, exceeding 90 percent on several occasions, compared to the district-wide pass rate of 67 percent in the same period. 

Given these comparisons, what is the AP Calculus teacher doing at Chatfield that other teachers are not? How is the AP U.S. History teacher at Lakewood better preparing students for that exam? What has enabled the AP Calculus and Physics B teachers at D’Evelyn to help their students so consistently succeed on these exams? It is critical that best practices be examined and shared. 

There may certainly be other reasons a student would choose to take an AP course in high school. However, if the goal is to receive college credit it should be understood there are other paths to receiving college credit while still in high school. Many colleges offer students the opportunity to take concurrent enrollment classes. For example, Red Rocks Community College allows Jeffco students to take their classes while still enrolled in high school. 

Both CU and CCU offer credit to Jeffco students for classes taught by a highly qualified teacher. College credit depends on receiving a passing grade in the class rather than a passing grade on one final exam.  At Jeffco’s high schools offering the IB program, students can also get college credit if they receive passing scores on their year-end exams. 

Evaluating a student’s best path should begin with determining his or her goal. Next, a student ought to look at all of the options available and then balance the risk and reward. The best way to obtain college credit may or may not be the AP path.