At Dartmouth, a Stand for College Courses Over AP Credit

Dartmouth College’s faculty has made national headlines by voting to stop giving credit for high scores on Advanced Placement exams.

But it is far from alone among its peer schools and Dartmouth’s decision is the latest, and likely not the last, instance of elite colleges asserting that a high AP score is no substitute for their curriculum.

“I think the issue is one that’s up for debate in a lot of places,” Michael Mastanduno, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Dartmouth, said in an interview.

That Dartmouth’s move has been noticed, and in some corners condemned, is the latest reminder of the high stakes involved in higher education. The value of AP tests, which high school students have taken for more than half a century to prove their fitness for college work and earn college credit, has been steadily eroding as more students take more tests, and fewer elite colleges grant credit for high scores.

Faculty members who supported the decision said they think their students should get a full Dartmouth education during their time in Hanover.

“I think the general conversation was one of ... a Dartmouth education has value,” said Dan Rockmore, chairman of the college’s Math Department. Faculty were reluctant to grant Dartmouth credit without Dartmouth courses, he said.

“We started to doubt the reliability of these scores,” said Walter Simons, chairman of the History Department. In some cases, students take an AP exam a few years before they attend college, and might not retain a grasp of the material they learned for the test.

And while Mastanduno stressed that the faculty vote was not a referendum on the quality of AP courses, Simons and others said that a high AP score isn’t equivalent to the introductory classes they’re meant to catapult a student over.

“The course work in high school is really not comparable to the work we do in college,” Simons said.

The Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences devised its own test to gauge whether students who received top AP marks were prepared for more advanced coursework, department Chairman Jay Hull said. They weren’t.

Professors took questions from introductory psychology tests, eliminated questions based on lecture material and others deemed redundant or unserviceable and came up with a 97- question test. Over three years, 208 students who had received a 5, the top mark on the psychology AP test, took the department exam. Only 20 of them passed.

Those who failed fared no better in the introductory course than students who hadn’t taken the AP exam.

The study was not scientific, wasn’t intended for public consumption and was intended only to guide the department in deciding how to credit AP scores, Hull said.

There could be several reasons why the AP achievers failed, Hull said. His department emphasizes neuroscience and the biological basis for behavior and probably uses a higher level textbook than the AP curriculum. And, “it could be that the standard that we hold our students to is higher than the standards of the AP,” Hull said.

“We just didn’t have any evidence that they knew what we wanted them to know,” he added.

Dartmouth has come under fire for dropping AP credit without citing research. Joe Asch, an alumnus who blogs about the college, has criticized how information was presented to the faculty before the vote. In the Washington Post, education columnist Jay Mathews, long a supporter of Advanced Placement, asked the relevant question: “Why drop credit for all AP subjects without research?”

Faculty members have been discussing this issue for a decade, Mastanduno and others said. Although faculty members cited the psychology department’s study and considered what peer schools do, the decision had less to do with data than with belief in the college’s curriculum, Mastanduno said.

“It was much more of a philosophy of education decision about what we’re trying to do here at Dartmouth,” Mastanduno said. “The faculty approached this,” he added, “by talking about their own expectations for a really rigorous curriculum”

Although the faculty vote, taken last fall, was nearly unanimous, Mastanduno said, not all faculty members were in accord. Douglas Staiger, chairman of the Economics Department, said he was the lone member of the faculty’s Committee of Chairs to vote against the plan. It should be left to individual departments, he said.

Students who did well on the microeconomics AP test might not have had everything Dartmouth teaches, but they had a lot of it, Staiger said. “They did fine in our follow-on courses,” he said.

If applying AP credits could help students get an additional internship or save money by graduating early, that’s to their benefit, Staiger said. “It’s not rare, it’s not unusual among economics majors to graduate a term early,” he said.

As many as 20 percent of Dartmouth undergraduates accrue enough credits to graduate a term early, Mastanduno said, adding that he didn’t have data that shows how AP credits might contribute to that rate of early graduation. After AP credits are eliminated, Dartmouth will still offer a path to early graduation, one that requires students to take an extra course for at least two terms.

“We will continue to monitor this,” Mastanduno said. A message left with the Dartmouth registrar’s office was not returned. A message left for a spokeswoman for the AP section of the College Board was not returned.

The financial aspect of ending AP credit was a topic of discussion, faculty members said.

“I’m a parent, so I’m sensitive to the economics of it all,” Rockmore said.

Offered since 1955, Advanced Placement tests are built on a curriculum created and sold to high schools by the nonprofit College Board. The tests are now offered in 34 subjects ranging from physics to studio art. Students can take the tests anytime during their high school years and receive grades from 1 to 5. The idea behind the program is to provide high school students with college-level courses, and students who receive high marks, typically a 3, 4 or 5, are able to skip introductory college courses, or receive credit they can apply toward their college requirements.

Taking AP courses has also been a way for students to show their eagerness and aptitude for college-level work, Hartford High School Principal Joe Collea said. Hartford offers AP classes in calculus, English, biology, physics and will soon offer chemistry. Since many schools still recognize and grant credit for AP scores, Dartmouth’s decision alone “doesn’t change the way we do business,” Collea said.

Top colleges have long varied in how they treat AP test results. For example, Amherst College has never accepted them for credit, and the school’s faculty voted in 1994 to reaffirm that decision on the grounds that it felt comfortable granting credit only for courses its members design and administer.

“We really use it just to place students in non-introductory courses,” said Lauren Franks, an assistant in Amherst’s registrar’s office.

Among Dartmouth’s other peer schools, relatively few grant full credit for AP scores. At Yale, individual departments decide whether to award credit. About half of departments listed on the Yale website decline to give credit. Brown notes that AP exams “do not count towards the 30-course credit (minimum) graduate requirement,” although use of AP credits can enable graduation in fewer than the standard eight terms, if other requirements are met. Princeton will grant students advanced standing if they have sufficient AP credits, but doesn’t grant credit on the basis of individual tests.

At Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, acceptance of AP scores for credit is up to individual departments, much as it has been at Dartmouth. Williams College uses AP exam results primarily for placement, and a few departments grant credits toward major requirements.

Harvard tightened AP requiremewnts a decade ago, declining to award credit to students who received less than a 5. Indeed, top colleges that do grant higher placement or credit for AP generally accept only a top score.

The debate over AP is not new or unique to Dartmouth. For example, Hanover High School doesn’t offer AP courses, relying instead on its own curriculum. And unlike Dartmouth, which has been a member of the College Board since 1907, Hanover High is not a member.

The New York Times reported in 1994 that as the number of AP courses, and of students taking them, proliferated, the value of the courses was eroding. That year, “nearly 400,000” students took exams, and colleges were cutting back on the number of credits they granted AP results. In spring 2012, around 2 million students took 3.7 million AP tests.

Dartmouth’s decision, Mastanduno said, was not a referendum on the value of AP courses and exams. They remain an excellent preparation for college, he said.

But “when they get to college, at least to this college,” he said, “we want them to do certain things.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.