A second (and third) look at AP tests

The popularity of advanced-placement (AP) courses has soared among high-schoolers in recent years, as students seek to beef up their transcripts and earn college credits before they even set foot on a university campus. But a new report suggests that the highly respected AP program is not as bright as it could be.

The problem? AP science and math courses, in particular, cram in too much material at the expense of in-depth understanding, according to the study by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Education. Many students were poorly prepared for the courses, some having forgone intermediate steps so their transcripts would bear the AP standard. The College Board, which provides the AP curriculum and exams, has been working on these problems.

AP courses have grown increasingly important in admission to top colleges. That's been a boon to many - but a disadvantage for those in high schools where AP courses are in short supply. More needs to be done to expand access for rural and inner-city students.

Then there's the question of whether the classes and tests are really the equivalent of college work. Exam scores range from 1 to 5, and most colleges give credit for a 3, 4, or 5. Last week, Harvard University decided to stop giving college credit to high-schoolers who earn below a 5. Yale and Stanford are considering doing the same.

In a counterintuitive move, some private high schools have dropped AP courses in favor of greater curriculum flexibility. It's a provocative choice in this era of academic standardization and intense competition. It indicates that scrutiny of any system, even one seen as the pinnacle of a high school education, isn't a bad idea.

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