How Advanced Placement Classes Leave Kids Underprepared for College

A fascinating article that compares how well students perform in high school advanced placement classes and how they perform in college exposes the terrible disconnect created by high schools in teaching students how to think and hold critical discussion that occurs at the college level.

Many states have already reported that college students are not prepared, and places like California have seen remedial math and English classes exceed the 50-percent mark. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found in 2013 that only 39 percent of students scored at a math level and 38 percent scored at a reading level needed to be academically prepared for college.

Despite the highest rates ever recorded for high school graduations in the U.S., the dropout rates for college are also exceedingly high, wasting time and money while leaving students without the skills they need for employment.

Brookings Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, noted more than 20 small-scale studies by college professors since 1980 have been conducted using “their own students to investigate how much high school knowledge predicted performance in their college courses.”

Here’s what the studies, and then Brookings, found:

These published studies collectively show that the effect of high school course-taking on college grades ranges from -5.3 to +6.7 points on a 100-point scale. When comparing students of similar race, gender, standardized test scores, and socioeconomic background, most of the papers find that high school course-taking makes no more than a two percent difference in the final college grade, even when high school courses include Advanced Placement. …

Analyzing thousands of transcripts from the Department of Education’s National Educational Longitudinal Study, we found confirmatory evidence that advanced high school courses apparently do little to prepare students for success in college coursework.

Specifically, we showed that students with one more year of high school instruction in physics, psychology, economics, or sociology on average have grades in their first college course in the same subject just 0.003 to 0.2 points higher on a four-point scale. For example, for students of similar race, socioeconomic status, and high school standardized test scores, those who took a year of high school economics earn a final grade in their college economics class 0.03 points higher than students who have never encountered that subject before. What’s more, these trivially small differences hold even for students who took exactly the same college course.

The authors at Brookings noted that what doesn’t work is better known that what does, and point to a lack of argumentative and non-fiction writing as barriers to performance in college-level courses. The also suggest teaching with less traditional models like AP classes and start focusing more on “non-cognitive skill development and technical education.”

Read the Brookings Institute’s report on college preparedness.