When the Value of High School Is Exaggerated
It turns out that students who take AP classes don’t actually get better college grades.
Jae C. Hong / AP
As more students pursue college, high schools are becoming increasingly bullish about enrolling students in advanced classes. These courses, the standard refrain goes, will prepare young people for the rigor of higher education and set them up for success as they embark on their college careers.
Not so fast, say a pair of researchers in a new Brookings Institution blog post. “We found confirmatory evidence that advanced high-school courses apparently do little to prepare students for success in college coursework,” write Gregory Ferenstein, a former TechCrunch reporter (who has also written for The Atlantic), and Brad Hershbein, a nonresident Brookings fellow and economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
The pair looked at thousands of high-school and college transcripts using the National Educational Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative survey of about 25,000 students that began in 1988. They found that, when they controlled for things like race, gender, socioeconomic background, and standardized-test scores, the courses that students took in high school had very little impact on college grades. In other words, if Tom took an economics class in high school, even an advanced one, and Joe did not, and then both young men enrolled in an economics course in college, they were likely to earn the same grade. Still, states are continuing to push more kids into advanced courses. “For some reason, the belief persists,” Hershbein said.
That belief may persist in part because earning a good grade in a college course isn’t necessarily a student’s reason for taking an AP class in the first place. A young person might take an AP class in high school so she can skip a similar course in college or bypass a subject entirely. But getting at what drives students to sign up for certain courses, advanced or otherwise, was beyond the scope of this research.
While the authors were able to look at the first college class students took in a subject, it wasn’t clear whether the students had received college credit for doing well on an earlier AP exam. So if a student took a chemistry class in high school and then took Chemistry 101 as a college freshman and earned the same grade as Success in High School Doesn't Mean Good Grades in College - The Atlantic: