Op-Ed: AP courses worthwhile, but college credit not sure thing
I join The Tribune in congratulating the 22,088 Utah students who took Advanced Placement courses and exams last spring ("AP high point," Our View, Sept. 29). I took AP English and AP chemistry in high school, and I consider my AP teachers among the five most influential of my entire life.
However, after 37 years teaching college English (32 at BYU), I've learned that AP courses are best considered as preparation, not substitutes, for college courses. I caution high school students and parents who think to shave time and costs from college by loading up on AP courses and paying $89 each for AP tests. Buyer beware! You may not get what you think you're paying for.
It's true that many universities waive first-year courses on the basis of AP test scores of 3, 4, or 5. But college courses evolve, and AP courses and tests seldom evolve in sync with them, so The Tribune editors' statement that "AP credits are accepted virtually anywhere" is simply not true.
For example, there are two kinds of AP English: Literature and Composition, and Language and Composition. In the past 10 years, many universities, including BYU, have stopped awarding credit for Literature and Composition because the course and test bear little resemblance to first-year college writing courses (what we used to call freshman English).
Although the AP Language and Composition experience also differs markedly from first-year writing, many universities (including BYU) still give credit for it, but only to students who earn AP scores of 4 or 5. Prestigious universities like Harvard and Stanford give no credit for AP English. Other universities may give credit, but it doesn't "count" for anything. It merely boosts a student's total credit hours at graduation.
Parents, students and the public should also know that AP test scores of 3 are nothing to boast of. A 2002 study my colleagues and I conducted at BYU showed that students who earned a 3 on either AP English exam and bypassed our first-year writing course exhibited poorer writing skills than any other group whose writing we studied in a sophomore course.
The best writers had earned a 4 or 5 on the AP exam and still taken first-year writing although they were exempt. These results didn't surprise me because I have graded thousands of AP exams, and I quickly learned a C- performance on the essays nets a 3.
Everyone's writing improves the more they write. It's like playing the piano you get better by practicing and expanding your repertoire. So rather than think of AP English as a way to bypass first-year writing, think of it as a good way to prepare for the course. Then in college take as many courses as you can including the first-year writing course to hone your abilities as a writer.
Finally, consider what the goal of education should be. Is it merely to amass enough credits to earn a diploma? These days everyone is encouraging students to earn as much "college credit" as possible in high school to "take care of" requirements and "get them out of the way" to graduate from college faster.
However, we've found that students who enter BYU with up to 40 AP credits already on their transcript don't graduate significantly faster. A few years ago the state of Utah discovered that students who started college with an associate degree and a New Century scholarship also did not graduate sooner. Why not? Think about it.
How many 20-year-olds are ready to enter the job market? How many employers are eager to hire such youngsters? Instead of trying to fast-forward students' college graduation, let's allow them to mature naturally and educate them deeply and broadly, both in high school and college. Let's prepare them not only for careers but for a well-rounded life and active participation in our democracy.
Education is much more than lots of credit hours earned as early and as cheaply as possible.
Kristine Hansen is professor of English at Brigham Young University and lead author of the Council of Writing Program Administrators position statement on Pre-College Credit for Writing. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of BYU or its sponsor.
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