Started by the College Board in the late 1950s, the Advanced Placement (AP) program provides a structure in which high schools can offer college-level courses to high school students. At the end of the academic year, students are eligible to take one or more of 36 standardized tests, and students who perform well on a course’s AP test may be entitled to receive college credit.

Many students either want or are encouraged by their parents to take an AP course. Based on previous performance, however, school personnel may question the student’s potential to be successful. Educators grapple with two difficult situations: 1) allowing a student to enroll in a challenging course even if the teen might struggle with the content and encounter stress, or 2) not allowing the student to enroll and find out if, in fact, they could be successful when held to a higher standard.

“AP Potential” is a single yes/no data point that is determined based on PSAT and/or SAT information. The College Board began identifying AP Potential approximately four years ago, with the intent of increasing enrollment from low-income students and those of color.

The College Board provides teachers, administrators, and counselors free access to AP Potential statistics. The intent is to “increase access to AP and to ensure that no student who has the chance of succeeding in AP is overlooked.”

As of March 2015, only about 20 percent of high schools were using AP Potential to identify students who could be taking AP courses. While skeptics may believe that the College Board wants to increase students enrolled in AP classes to generate more revenue, the organization argues that “students who score a three or higher on an AP exam typically experience greater academic success in college and are more likely to earn a college degree on time than non-AP students.”

To determine appropriate placement every year, all sophomores and juniors in two large, high-performing high schools are analyzed for their “AP Potential,” which identifies those who are 60 percent likely to get a score of 3 or better on an AP test. Each AP exam is based on a five-point scale—a weighted combination of the student’s multiple-choice portion of the exam and the open-ended portion of the exam.

Students who are “qualified” (meaning they scored a 3 on the AP exam) are believed to have demonstrated the ability to execute the work of an introductory-level course in a particular subject at the college level. The AP score can be used by institutions of higher education to determine if credit will be granted for the course taken, or if a student will be allowed to skip the course entirely. A number of colleges and universities grant credit for scores of 3, 4, or 5; however, it is up to the institution to decide whether or not scores will be accepted for credit.

While the school district under study has chosen to base Potential on the 60 percent likelihood of getting a score of 3 or better on an AP exam, any percentage from 10 percent to 90 percent can be chosen. Or, the Potential can be based off of “3 or better” or “4 or better.” In addition to changing the specifics of how AP Potential is generated, The College Board believes that Potential can be used to determine which courses to offer.

Measure of Aptitude?

While AP Potential has been generated for many years and is presumed to be a measure of aptitude within the school district under study, it has never been directly compared to what students actually receive on the College Board test or their final course grade.

The College Board analyzed the results of nearly 140,000 students to determine if there is a strong correlation between PSAT critical reading and math scores and performance on the AP Chemistry test and found that such a correlation indeed exists. We set out to determine if students not on the AP Potential list who take the course perform as well as their peers who have been deemed to have Potential. Another goal for studying this issue was to tie students’ AP Chemistry Potential to their course grade. It was expected that students identified as having Potential would have higher course grades.

A Case Study

There are few independent studies on AP Potential and student outcomes. One study examined the relationship between AP Potential and student scores on the AP Chemistry exam, as well as AP scores and final grades in a single school district.

For this study, data for 169 students at High School A and 188 students at High School B were evaluated. The results were tabulated and summarized in several ways. Based on all students who took AP Chemistry in the 2015–16 school year, 331 were deemed to have AP Potential. Only 11 students were shown to not have AP Potential, and another 13 students were not evaluated for their potential because they took the course as sophomores.

For students said to have AP Potential, there was a nearly equal distribution of scores of 5 and 4, and a significant number of 3s. Nearly 60 percent of students received a 4 or 5, which are scores most commonly accepted for credit at colleges and universities. For students who were said to not have AP Potential, the overwhelming majority of them (nearly 80 percent) scored 3s and 2s. Surprisingly, sophomores did significantly better than expected (more than half got a 5). However, most chemistry teachers in the school district believe that while these students may have the academic aptitude for success, they may lack the hands-on skills necessary to complete some of the rigorous lab experiments required by the course.

The second goal of this project was to compare AP Potential, AP exam scores, and course grades. As expected, students with an AP test score of 2 had a course grade lower than those with a 3. Those with a score of 3 did not do as well as those with a 4, and so on. While this analysis may seem intuitive, it speaks to the consistency of instruction across all AP Chemistry teachers and both high schools. A definitive conclusion cannot be made comparing course grades of students with and without AP Potential. The number of students without potential is a small sample size of only six, as not all teachers provided their scores from the 2015–16 school year. However, within that small sample size, it appears that students without Potential generally receive lower grades.

More Study Needed

The results of this project have led to additional analysis and discussion, because they show there is a strong correlation between AP Potential and student performance. Further, the outcome of one part of this project has necessitated a long-term analysis of policies that are in place in many high schools that make it difficult for sophomores to take AP Chemistry. As demonstrated, these students did much better than was realized or expected, so the district administration plans to have additional conversations regarding this subject before the next program of studies is published.

Andrea Knorr, PhD, is an AP teacher at a New Jersey high school. Judith Stegmaier-Nappi, EdD, is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership at Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ.