CONCORD, N.H. – High school students hoping to earn college credits through Advanced Placement exams soon will be out of luck at Dartmouth College, which has concluded the tests aren’t as rigorous as its own classes.
The Ivy League school currently awards credit in some academic subjects for qualifying scores on Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and A-level exams. But after nearly a decade of discussion, faculty recently voted to end the practice starting with the class of 2018.
“The concern that we have is that increasingly, AP has been seen as equivalent to a college-level course, and it really isn’t, in our opinion,” said Hakan Tell, a classics professor and chairman of the college’s Committee on Instruction.
Dartmouth’s decision comes at a time of rapid growth for Advanced Placement. About 2 million students took 3.7 million AP tests last spring, figures that have more than doubled in the last decade. In 2011, 18 percent of U.S. high school graduates passed at least one AP exam (by scoring at least a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5), up from 11 percent a decade ago.
But the program also has faced criticism that its growing popularity has resulted in watered down courses.
“Many high schools have made their AP courses little more than test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing. “The common criticism is that they’re a mile wide and a quarter-inch deep.”
Dartmouth still believes AP courses are useful in preparing students for college and will continue to use test scores to help place students in appropriate courses, Tell said, and students who may have wanted to use AP credit to graduate early will have other options. But he pointed to an experiment undertaken by the college’s psychology department as proof that AP courses often fall short.
Rather than award credit for an introductory course to incoming students who got the highest score on the AP test, the department gave those students a condensed version of the Dartmouth course’s final exam. Ninety percent failed, Tell said. And when those students went on to take the introductory class, they performed no better than those who did not have the high AP test scores.
Suril Kantaria, president of the student body at the university in Hanover, N.H., called the change prudent given that high school AP classes are rarely as rigorous as Dartmouth courses.
Students with AP credits “often opt to graduate early instead of taking challenging upper level classes,” he said. “This trend challenges the spirit of intellectual growth and discovery that pervades our institution.”
But Kate Lyon, a 2005 graduate, said Dartmouth has made a terrible decision. Lyon, who double majored in history and psychology, estimates she saved her parents about $15,000 by using her AP credit to graduate in 11 terms instead of 12.
“Tuition costs at Dartmouth are rising every year and a decision like this seems to show very little regard for the fact that students struggle to pay for college,” said Lyon, the oldest of four siblings. “I got just as much out of my Dartmouth experience as someone who took classes all four years, and I completed all the requirements of my degrees but it cost me less to do it.”
Tuition, room, board and fees at Dartmouth for the current academic year amount to $58,000, but registrar Meredith Braz said students who want to shave off some of that time and expense still have other ways to graduate early, including taking four courses instead of three for some terms.
“This is not an effort to make it more difficult for students to graduate early,” Tell said.
A spokeswoman for the College Board, which runs the AP program, declined to comment specifically on Dartmouth’s decision because the college has not notified the company of its policy changes.
But Deborah Davis said the company’s research indicates that most students who enroll in small, highly selective colleges use AP scores for placement, not to graduate early. But with the average time to complete a bachelor’s degree increasing to six years at most colleges, she anticipates that AP exam scores will increasingly be used to provide credits.
Dartmouth officials weren’t able to point to other colleges that have eliminated credit for AP exams, though some have tightened their policies over the years. Davis said each year, between 1 and 3 percent of colleges and universities change their policies, with a balance between those who allow more credit and those who allow less.
Policies vary at other Ivy League schools. At Princeton, AP tests scores can help students become eligible for “advanced standing,” and earn credit equivalent up to a full year. But no more than five students have taken advantage of that option in recent years, a spokesman said, and there are no plans to change the policy.
Columbia plans to review its policies this year, but for now, allows students to earn up to 16 points through AP tests. But very few use that credit to graduate early, said Dean of Advising Monique Rinere. Similarly, Harvard College currently offers students the opportunity to use test scores to satisfy the language requirement and sometimes to place into higher level courses, but only a small fraction ultimately graduate early.