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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.

By Washington Post Editors  | August 28, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Jay on the Web  
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Test scores from senior year are only available long after admissions decisions are made. Recommending AP instead of SAT scores will only cause more stress for IB students. The only scores available for college admissions are from junior year or earlier. Senior scores come much too late. Unlike the AP, IB students can only take two tests junior year and none as freshman and sophomores. Some schools only give IB tests to seniors. IB students would be pressured to take AP tests (in addition to IB) to have three or more tests scores to compete with AP students, even though they would not have completed the HL classes.

Posted by: Coloradoparent | August 28, 2009 8:34 AM | Report abuse

In a way, AP is even worse than SAT/ACT because it hijacks part of the high school curriculum, turning it into test prep. That's why some of the best high schools are actually getting rid of AP courses. For more about this movement, go to

Posted by: member8 | August 28, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Member8 stands logic on its head. Ask the vast majority of educators who deal with the SAT, and they will say the problem is that it is too divorced from what is taught at school, thus creating the inequities of kids who can afford to take the expensive SAT prep courses and those who can't. The AP courses, on the other hand, are recognized by most of those who teach and take them as their most valuable high school learning experiences. I have written much about the schools that are dropping AP, but I don't think you can call them the best. They are the smallest, most expensive and most self-regarding, almost all tiny private schools that keep standards up because their clientele are so affluent, but persistently fail to see how much good AP and IB had done for schools attended by the vast majority of Americans. Since they educate less than 1 percent of students, they are pretty irrelevant to what is happening in US schools.
Coloradoparent, on the other hand, raises a very good point. Getting AP or IB in the junior year is a stretch for some, but nearly all of the students who want to attend colleges that pay close attention to test scores are going to want to do some AP and IB in the junior year anyway. I think those tests are actually less stressful than the SAT, for no other reason than the nature of the scoring system. A five point test produces less obsessive score watching than a 2400 point test. I will have to crunch the numbers, but I bet there is a smaller percentage of test takers who get 2100s on the SAT than get 5s on the AP.

Posted by: jaymathews | August 28, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: morse99 | August 28, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

The AP scores don't provide enough distinction between applicants. If I'm an admissions officer, I can reasonably assume that an applicant with a 1550 M+V SAT score is brighter than an applicant with a 1450. But both students may have the exact same AP scores, let's say five scores of 5.

If AP exams are going to replace the SAT, then the scoring needs to be completely revamped to allow for better comparison between applicants.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | August 28, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

I feel the sole purpose of the SAT exam and AP course work is to make students look good for college admission. As a teacher and parent, I have seen first hand the stress these exams place on our kids. If students are really interested in college level course work, they can enroll in any community college. If colleges want to know if a student's grades are inflated, they can administer their own exam, one that cannot be prepped for. For the record, I am a blogger for the website This topic just happens to be the next one we are asking our student members, teachers(and parents), and colleges to respond to. We too want to continue the conversation on this highly charged topic. CRios.

Posted by: teacherblogmtg | August 28, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

I don't see how AP exams can replace the SAT. One of the things you have said Jay is students can take just one AP to challenge themselves and "prove" they can handle college level work. Okay, lets say a student chooses an AP Calculus class, and doesn't take English since they aren't a strong reader. How does a college evaluate a student based on one exam, in one field of study. The beauty of the SAT is that it does cover verbal and math. If a college is fine with test optional great, however substituting the AP for the SAT is not realistic..number one, it is still a test and those who feel test optional is the way to go can't get around that fact, and number two it is limited to what subjects and how many a student has access to in their school. The SAT is available to everyone...AP is not, some schools offer a slew of AP courses, some a few, and some none.

As an aside, I also happened to hear a Univ of Florida admissions person, and sorry I didn't catch the name, say that admissions officers honestly don't care about gpa because an A in one school is very different from an A in another school, they care about the SAT and ACT and want schools to teach to those tests, if they teach to any Jay, your comment that the SAT doesn't reflect what the schools teach, is actually the issue...perhaps they should be teaching more towards the SAT versus single subject AP.

Posted by: researcher2 | August 28, 2009 5:43 PM | Report abuse

For teacherblogmtg: What little data we have, from a Texas longitudinal study, indicates dual enrollment courses are not as challenging as AP and do not result in improved college performance, as AP course and test-taking do. This is supported by many selective college admissions deans who have told me they do not think the community college courses are as good as AP, and don't give them as much credence in admissions decisions. (Although, of course, if the college is in the same state, the kid will get college credit for the dual enrollment course.)

Posted by: jaymathews | August 28, 2009 8:20 PM | Report abuse

So Mr. Matthews, please tell me- imagine that you are an admissions officer at Harvard. Without the SAT, how would *YOU* distinguish between student A, who's a valedictorian with a 4.5 GPA and five scores of 5 on AP exams and student B, with the exact same stats? Wouldn't *YOU* want to know which had the 1550 and which had the 1450?

Posted by: CrimsonWife | August 28, 2009 10:31 PM | Report abuse

For Crimsonwife (is that a Harvard reference?) who always has good questions: I have a lot of experience with this very situation, having been an alumni recruiter for that college for many years and being allowed to share in what those admissions officers were thinking. IN that situation it would not matter if the admissions officer knew that one kid had just a 1450. He would still be over the 1400 (or now 2100) mark and thus considered in the same maybe pile as the kid with the 1550. If both kids had the same stats other than the SAT, the issue would still be decided by other things--most importantly extracurriculars, how effusive teacher recommendations were, quality of essays and if their respective schools already had a lot of kids admitted to Harvard. Or, as happens a lot these days, it would be just how they felt at that moment about each of those kids when they asked the committee, cutting the class back to the target number, to say yea or nay for each kid. At that point, there is no time to discuss reasons any more. They just vote. That is why admission to such schools has become not much more rational than winning the lottery, and as I say all the time, not worth worrying about because you can get just as good an education at at least 300 other schools.

Posted by: jaymathews | August 29, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

I won't bore you with the long version of how I wound up with my 'net handle, but suffice it to say that I'm married to a Harvard alum (hence the wife of a Crimson) but I graduated from Stanford.

And I'll have to respectfully disagree with you that the kid with a 1450 has the same shot as the kid with a 1550. That may have been true a decade ago, but it's not what I've been seeing in recent years in my social circle. The kids who aren't scoring in the mid-1500's are getting rejected by the top colleges.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | August 29, 2009 8:49 PM | Report abuse

I would agree with Mr. Mathews on admissions criteria. As a Georgetown alumnus interviewer and a teacher who annually writes 30+ recommendations for students applying to top 25 schools, I have seen scores of well-rounded students with relatively lower SAT scores (say, 2100 vs. 2200) receive more admissions than their less accomplished peers who have mastered the SAT.

And unless admissions officers from these schools are lying when they visit my school, then extracurriculars, quality of application essays, teacher recommendations, the number of students applying from a particular school, etc., are just as important, if not more important than SAT scores.

But doesn't this sort of miss the point of Mr. Mathew's original argument? Check out his 8th paragraph--it's not that we ought to prefer the AP for college *admissions*; we ought to prefer it for college *preparation*...

--Christian Talbot

Posted by: cmtregis | August 29, 2009 9:24 PM | Report abuse

For Crimsonwife, thanks for the explanation. My question: many kids in the mid 1550s, even the 1600 (2400) kids, are being rejected. How can that happen if the SAT has so much weight?

Posted by: jaymathews | August 30, 2009 9:42 PM | Report abuse

To followup on posts by Coloradoparent and researcher2, I am confused as to how AP will replace the SAT.

The SAT/ACT provides one standard to apply to all college applicants whereas there are 30 AP exams, each testing a variety of subjects. Eliminating the SAT provides no baseline that admission officers can use to compare students from a variety of schools.

By using AP exams how are your able to assess student's verbal and quantitative abilities if they choose to take AP exams in subjects outside of the English and math exams?

I took the majority of my AP exams during my senior year, the scores arrive too late for senior year AP classes to be used in college admissions. What are the ramifications for emphasizing the AP coursework during the first 3 years of HS, especially since many AP classes require prerequisites and previous HS coursework?

Posted by: arieswym | August 31, 2009 2:44 AM | Report abuse

Jay Matthews responded to Member8 with some additional poor logic. While it is true that expensive test prep "courses" abound, he might better point out that MOST, though not all, consist of practice exams and getting students into the habit of taking the test. It's a documented FACT that most test prep course are of little value unless the students take several - three minimum - full practice exams.

Why do they make a difference? Many students arrive at the SAT without too much practice in taking that test. They're nervous, feel pressured, etc. It's highly regimented, and unlike many aspects of many modern public high schools, there are strict rules or conduct and behaviour.

Those students who arrive with three or more complete practice sessions under their belt have already seen what the test looks like, know the feel of it, and do not have to spend any additional time or mental, or emotional resources coping with the nuts and bolts of taking the test.

ETS and College Board provide loads of free materials to practice with. Old tests are also available for free and can be scored. Short form - there's LOTS of FREE opportunity for low and moderate income students to practice and become prepared with spending thousands of dollars on test prep courses. The notion that only "rich" kids can compete on the SAT is fatuous on its face and promoting that type of classist misinformation does nothing to promote equity in education.

Posted by: China_Rider | August 31, 2009 5:45 AM | Report abuse

Personally, I don't get the logic of trying replace SAT with AP scores. The whole point of the SAT is that it is a snapshot of a student's ability on a particular day, regardless of all of the vague criteria that help kids get good grades (attendance, homework, etc.). It seems like apples vs. oranges to me.

But since the SAT and AP are both owned by College Board, what is their interest in this topic? At least on the surface, it would appear that College Board would benefit financially by getting more students to pay $85 per test to take multiple AP exams, versus $45 per test to take two or three SATs. Hmmm.

Posted by: margaret6 | August 31, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

margaret6 - A constant in the education business is that SAT's aren't fair, ( they are when used for what they are intended ), and the AP are an elitist perk - they aren't.

AP's are a VERY valuable opportunity in any economy for students from low and moderate income household's. Many college will award college credit to students who score a certain level or above on AP tests. It is not uncommon for a student to literally "test out" of almost an entire Freshman semester or year if they take the required AP exams. The College Boards posts enormous amounts of free materials for all AP exams on their website.

Given the expense of college tuition, consider the boon to a student - regardless of income - who can save his/her parents $20,000 - $30,000 for an investment of under maybe $2,000 over four high school years. Keep in mind as well that low income students qualify for discounts on AP exams.

Imagine the commitment a student might have to excel and thrive in college if they arrive on campus with an entire semester or possible two already under complete and in a position to bypass a great deal of the usual freshman jitters. How rewarding do you suspect it might be for a low income student or minority to arrive with credits “in the bank” and much smaller student loan obligations?

Instead of looking for excuse to fail – the education professionals around the nation might literally become a boon to their many students by looking far more often for reasons and opportunity to succeed.

Posted by: China_Rider | August 31, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

More and more AP courses are available to 11th grade students. In Baltimore County, where I teach, juniors take 11th Grade AP English, in preparation for the AP Language and Composition exam. This course seems to be geared towards "freshman composition," and can allow students to test out of that frequently onerous course in college. AP Calculus is also frequently an 11th-grade selection, as is AP US History. Depending on a district's offerings, it's possible (and maybe even more and more common?) for a junior to take three or four AP tests, and then three or four more as a senior.

I've taught freshman composition in community college, and taught the AP Lang and Comp course,and find that the GOALS of both courses are similar. What might be different--and I say this with trepidation, at the risk of sounding a little elitist, but as a generalization, it works--is the population of students in the room. In the sections of Freshman Comp (101) at the community college, a number of students struggled with pretty fundamental concepts that students in an AP had notably less trouble with.

The force of inertia concerning the SAT still seems quite strong, and many of the comments above raised the notable objections about using the AP exam in place of the SAT. I would, however, like to see students have more options to demonstrate their abilities, not fewer.

Articles on the College Board's AP Central are certainly worth at least a glance, including one by a teacher in New York. She recounts an initiative that had EVERY student in the building take AP English as a class. From talks with Montgomery County teachers, there seems to be a strong move towards this. Does this attempt to (insert favorite buzzphrase here: raise standards, force curriculum, help pay the College Board) work for you? For kids?

Posted by: ddaudelin | August 31, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

I think we are going into a period of advanced displacement...

Posted by: Wildthing1 | September 1, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

As I recall, the early data on the relationship between AP courses/passes and college success was significant. Like the older, positive relationship between Latin courses and SATs, the Latin courses worked as a proxy for the top students; only the top students took Latin. For many years, only the top students took/passed AP courses (and only top schools offered the courses), so it was expected that they would do well in college. That is not to say that many other kids, whose schools did not offer APs, were unlikely to do well. Now that many more schools offer APs and many more kids take them, I wonder if the correlation is as strong.

I'm entirely in favor of giving more and more kids the serious, content-rich curriculum that will provide the foundation for continued academic/workplace success. If that is provided and the kids put in the effort, they will do well on the SAT and be prepared for AP courses. However, I don't think that most kids will be ready to take/do well on AP tests before their senior year, so that data won't be available for the admissions process.

I think the SAT should be required and the APs recommended for college admission, because they provide a more objective measure than GPA (can be inflated) or class rank (heavily dependent on the individual school).

Posted by: momof4md | September 4, 2009 11:22 AM | Report abuse

APs will not replace the SAT, because there would be a serious class revolt if that occurred. If you have questions, there is a free upcoming college counseling seminar at the New Covenant Fellowship Church, 18901 Waring Station Rd., Germantown, MD 20874. The speakers include Jamal Caesar a former admissions officer for Yale and Columbia as well as C2's founder David Kim. For more info go to their website

Posted by: jennykporter | September 9, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

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