Jay on the Web: Will Advanced Placement Replace the SAT?
This online column, now in its ninth year, used to be called "Class Struggle." When we shifted that name to my blog, including all three of my weekly columns plus my various rants and outbursts, and the more reasoned discourse of my Post education writer colleagues, we renamed it "Trends." It is a simple name, useful mostly to access our left-side-of-the-page archive of Friday online columns, but proves to be quite apt.
I love following trends in education, particularly those that involve favorite topics such as high-performing charter schools, college admissions practices, great teachers, weak-minded curricular fads and college-level courses in high school. We have two interesting trends in this last category, both having to do with the rise in influence of Advanced Placement, and to a lesser extent International Baccalaureate.
I have been accused of uncritically promoting AP and IB. I insist it's not true. I have written three books looking at these programs in detail. I think that makes me credible when I say they have done more to raise the level of high school instruction than anything else in the last two decades. But they have their flaws, such as the odd ways some schools motivate students to take the courses and tests. One of the two trends is the use of cash bonuses. That approach raises participation and achievement, both good things, but I still consider it troubling.
First, though, let's consider the other, more felicitous trend. It's not a mass movement, or even close to it. But I am seeing signs of colleges beginning to use AP or IB exam results as a substitute for the SAT or ACT. I think this will eventually put the AP ahead of the SAT as the most important test in the country.
As far as I know, only Hamilton, Bryn Mawr, Furman and NYU have opened their admissions process to AP, and at least implicitly to IB. The schools have not made a big deal out of it. They say it is just one more way to give their applicants more choices, and reduce stress. Unlike colleges that have joined the test-optional movement, they don't let applicants avoid any standardized testing. Instead they allow them to substitute something comparable, like sending in their AP U.S. history, AP English literature and AP psychology scores instead of the scores for their SAT I and two SAT subject tests.
This is likely to draw more high-profile colleges into the test-choice movement, since it lets them de-emphasize the SAT but still have some national standard to judge applicants. The admissions dean at Harvard, who has so far resisted the test-optional movement, has said he thinks the AP is a better predictor of college performance than the SAT. Switching AP for SAT would allow him and other Ivy deans to look flexible while still providing data for their painful annual culling of applicants.
"The use and reporting of standardized tests in college admission is sure to remain a volatile issue," said Jenny Rickard, dean of admissions at Bryn Mawr. "I think Bryn Mawr has approached the use of standardized testing in a thoughtful manner that is in keeping with the latest research regarding the predictive value of such tests in general and at our own institution."
This in turn will open the door to AP becoming more important than the SAT or the ACT as AP's superiority as a teaching tool becomes more apparent to educators, parents and students. Like them or not, AP and IB are becoming the gold standard for instruction in high schools, with a better reputation among teachers and education reformers than the SAT or ACT. They are enriched by their emphasis on writing and analysis, which the SAT and ACT test in only a small way.
So what of that second trend, using financial incentives to persuade students to take and do well in AP, and to support the training of AP teachers? Leading this movement is the National Math and Science Initiative, whose president and chief executive officer is Tom Luce, an accomplished educational innovator. There is no question that the cash bonuses have had a good effect in the six states - Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Virginia - where the initiative set up its Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program. Students can earn several hundred dollars for each passing AP score. In an unrelated but similar program in New York run by another private nonprofit, Rewarding Achievement, a student can receive $1,000 for each 5 on the 5-point AP tests, as well as $750 for a 4 and $500 for a 3. Luce's program has produced a 51.4 percent increase in the number of AP exams passed in the participating schools and a 71.2 percent increase in AP exams passed by African American and Hispanic students.
The private money to train teachers is fine. But I think the bonuses for test scores would be better spent in educating students, parents and school administrators on the long term benefits of doing well in AP, proven to be a key factor in college success. I don't usually agree with Alfie Kohn, the education author and lecturer, but his book "Punished by Rewards" had an effect on me. He presented research showing that such material incentives can backfire. Plus they make me feel uncomfortable.
Cash bonuses have been paid to AP students in Dallas for a decade. The results still look good. We shall see how this turns out. If Luce is right, I will confess to being a stodgy traditionalist. But for now I don't like paying for grades.
Washington Post Editors
| August 28, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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