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Harvard raises its AP credit standardsBy Patrick Healy, Globe Staff, 02/21/02
The Harvard University faculty has decided to stop awarding college credit to students who score a 4 on Advanced Placement exams, calling into question the academic value of a test score earned by 279,000 high school students last year.
The new Harvard policy bucks the trend at most US colleges to give course credit for a score of 3, 4, or 5 on AP exams, which are scored from 1 to 5. Such course credits are a perk enjoyed by tens of thousands of incoming college students, who can use them to skip introductory classes and often save money on tuition.
Harvard's move also adds grist to a growing national debate about the rigor of Advanced Placement classes and exams, and whether the AP system lives up to its billing as a fair substitute for introductory college work. A report by the National Research Council last week criticized AP classes in math and science, saying they were often superficial, and schools such as Yale, Stanford, and Boston University are reconsidering how they reward incoming students who have performed well on AP tests.
"Just because you're able to answer a bunch of stylized questions does not mean you're actually prepared to do college work," said Daniel L. Goroff, a Harvard professor of the practice of mathematics, who has studied the AP math exam. "The transition from high school to college has much more to do with taking responsibility for learning than with having certain subject matter under your belt. This is a question for the AP, and for colleges."
The last several years have seen an explosion in popularity for the AP system, which is designed to allow students to do college-level work in high school and then start college in intermediate-level courses. Last year 820,880 high school students took 1.38 million AP exams, 10 percent more than in 2000 on both counts.
Most of those students score in the middle range. Of the 2001 test scores, about 13 percent were 5; 20 percent were 4; 27 percent were 3; 25 percent were 2; and 13 percent were 1.
The College Board, which sponsors and oversees grading of the test, generally equates a score of 4 as akin to B work in a college course, said Lee Jones, the organization's executive director of the AP program. "From our standpoint, a 4 represents good work," he said.
Last week the Harvard faculty unanimously endorsed a dean's finding that students who earn 4s have "significantly inferior" preparation in the subject matter than those who score a 5. The dean, Harry Lewis, found in a study that students who received 4s on AP chemistry and micro economics exams were far less likely to earn A's in their first Harvard classes in those fields, despite the Advanced Placement preparation.
Harvard is believed to be the first school to require all 5s for students to receive advanced standing, a full year's worth of college credit that can cut the normal Harvard degree program to three years. The policy change adds a twist to the national debate over the AP. Educators in urban areas and low-income school districts have recently been pushing to add more AP courses to their curriculums. Many of these schools do not have enough teachers or resources to offer a full complement of AP courses, and their students find themselves at a disadvantage when they apply to elite colleges that look for evidence of college-level AP coursework on the students' transcripts.
At the vast majority of American colleges, admissions officers still see AP classes as indicators that students have prepared well. Also, most schools accept passing AP scores as evidence of college-level work and exempt students from classes in related subjects.
Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and some other elite schools operate differently: They will confer "advanced" or "sophomore" standing on students who earn high scores on several AP tests.
At Harvard, students can now receive a half or full year's worth of academic credit if they earn a 4 or 5 on at least four AP exams. Under the new policy, which takes effect with the class of 2007, they must earn a 5.
Some college officials say Harvard's move reflects a broader rethinking about AP test scores.
"A 5 says this kid has a robust mastery of the fundamentals, but a 4 says there's a pretty low ceiling to the student's mastery," said John Latting, dean of admissions at Johns Hopkins University. "If you're going to give credit for a course, I think more and more people feel more comfortable with a 5."
Some supporters of the AP exam speculated that the Harvard policy change was partly an attempt to raise academic standards at a time when the faculty is also confronting evidence of grade inflation.
"If Harvard doesn't want to look like it's giving away A's too easily, one way is to say we're not going to give academic credit to students with a mere 4," said Fred Wetzel, director of teaching and learning for the College Board's New England office.
Several elite schools, such as the California Institute of Technology, do not give credit for AP test results, based on a rationale that echoes Harvard's decision.
"We don't want students to repeat things they have command of from AP class, but we don't want them to miss out on a CalTech education, either," said Charlene Liebau, director of admissions.
To some extent, said Jones, colleges' concerns, as well as the criticisms in last week's NRC report, reflect the difficulty of updating an AP program to keep pace with advances in the subject matter and teaching. The NRC report says that too many AP classes emphasize rote memorization instead of "active problem solving and discussion," and teach theories without encouraging students to think about how they work in practice.
Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.
This story ran on page A1 of The Boston Globe on Thursday, February 21, 2002. © Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.
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