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Editorial: Creditworthy No More; Dartmouth Alters AP Policy

Dartmouth College has attracted national media attention for modifying its stance toward Advanced Placement, the rigorous college-preparatory courses offered in more than half of all U.S. high schools. The faculty decided that, beginning in the fall of 2014, the college will no longer grant credit for high scores on the AP exams, as some departments do now.

Why the interest in a new rule seemingly relevant only to prospective students? Because Dartmouth is the first Ivy League school to devise a policy that appears to discount the value of this popular curricular program administered by the powerful College Board.

Many academic departments at comparable institutions such as Yale and Harvard also refuse to grant credit for AP coursework. However, Dartmouth’s faculty is alone in voting to deny AP credit across the board, no matter what the subject or the score, according to AP’s executive director. AP coursework and exam results will continue to be used for evaluating applicants and for course placement.

Michael Mastanduno, dean of the arts and science faculty, said the change was made to require students “to take full advantage of the faculty expertise and unique academic resources that characterize a Dartmouth educational experience.” AP and its many boosters aren’t pleased. Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews accuses the college of arrogance, an accusation the dean’s recent statement does little to dispel. But if Dartmouth professors choose to regard AP coursework as good for high school but not good enough for the college, that’s their prerogative. Students seeking AP credit can look elsewhere. And anyway, the institution is hardly the first to suggest that AP courses, no matter how challenging, are not necessarily the same as introductory college courses. While much of the content may be similar, they’re organized differently, taught differently and assessed differently.

This is not to dismiss the AP program, which not only helps highly motivated students get ready for college but also helps them succeed once enrolled, according to research. Moreover, in the absence of a national curriculum and a national exit examination — common in other developed countries — AP represents a standard of excellence against which to measure academic achievement in diverse high schools across the country. That’s why selective colleges use it as a benchmark, favoring for admission students who have taken AP courses.

Nationally, almost a million students took at least one AP exam last year, up from some 471,400 in 2002. That’s generally regarded as a sign that more high schools are raising expectations and that more students are striving to meet them, now that the federal government helps low-income students pay for AP exam fees. There’s been a democratization of the program, and that’s a good thing.

But its rapid expansion over the past decade has, inevitably, devalued its currency in the vaunted higher-education marketplace. Mastanduno implied as much in a letter to the Valley News, when he wrote that the AP decision is “part of Dartmouth’s ongoing effort to improve the institution’s academic rigor.” As standards for college-bound students ratchet up, attributable in part to higher AP participation rates, so must standards rise in colleges like Dartmouth that accept large numbers of AP students.

The worry is that if more and more selective colleges fail to credit AP coursework, the program and the high schools that offer it will suffer. Fortunately, there’s evidence to suggest that won’t happen. Ten years ago, a Yale study revealed that just under half of all AP test-takers received college credit, even though two-thirds were deemed “qualified” for college work by earning high scores on the exams. Yet, over the past decade, the number of test-takers has just about doubled.

In other words, the prospect of earning college credit — integral to the program when it was initially instituted in a small number of elite high schools back in 1955 — may no longer be a main reason high schools offer the AP program or the motivating factor for some participating students. For the high-flyers, AP continues to be a bridge to college, but not necessarily a bypass to college credit.