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AP programs and AP testing have long been considered a stepping stone to college — a very big stepping stone since they enable high-performing students to skip ahead by earning early credits, registering for higher-level courses in their first year, and saving money on tuition.

The good news about AP testing

With all the attention that AP classes have been getting in recent years, it only makes sense that the program as a whole would come under scrutiny. Scrutiny isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the primary purpose of it in this case is to ensure continuing quality in AP courses and testing so that all students are adequately served in their preparation for college, regardless of what high school they attend.

AP help: Maintaining program integrity

AP courses and exams are designed by a committee made up of college faculty and Master AP teachers. Their purpose is to make sure that AP course curriculums cover the skills and topics that are found in similar college-level courses and that AP exams measure these areas adequately. The College Board wants to make sure that the high quality of all AP offerings continues.

The AP score: Auditing for quality

With continued program quality in mind, the College Board has implemented an annual auditing process known appropriately as the AP Course Audit. In a nutshell, this process will “certify” schools as designated AP providers by assessing the quality of each school’s program. For each course that a school wishes to designate as an AP course, the educator must submit a course syllabus and an official audit form.

Within two months of its submission, a school will be informed of the College Board’s decision and will receive a legal agreement authorizing it to be designated as an official AP school. An online registry that lists all courses authorized to use the AP label is published annually and then updated throughout the year to reflect newly authorized courses.

The AP score: Upping the numbers

In conjunction with the federal government, the College Board initiated an incentive program to help schools increase student participation in AP programs. Although numbers and performance levels have been steadily increasing, there is a desire to see 1.5 million students getting AP help by 2012.

This new program also aims to boost minority participation in AP classes and exams. In spite of larger overall numbers of AP students, African American and Native American students are not participating to the same degree as others. Legislation will encourage the creation of programs that will ensure that students of all races and backgrounds are adequately prepared for AP programs. This objective will most likely be attained by expanding access to AP courses, with many districts likely adding more courses and in some cases, even covering the cost of exams.

The bad news about AP testing

Some schools have started upping their requirements for awarding college credit to a student who receives a high AP score on an AP exam. What this means for individual schools may vary, but the controversy has already started to boil. Some argue that schools are making the process harder in order to save money — which could make sense if a student is able to shave a semester or two off their college education (to the tune of several thousand dollars).

However, schools argue that the purpose of making it harder to earn college credits for AP work is simply to help ensure student success in college. Research has consistently proven that students who score a 3 or higher on their AP exams consistently do well in college, but some schools are now requiring 4s and 5s.

Whatever their reasoning, standards for awarding credit are decided by individual schools, not the College Board. If you want to know what to expect from the college you hope to attend, you should contact them directly to find out what their expectations are for AP students. (This information is often available on college Web sites.)

AP help: Increase your chances of earning credit

Once you find out what you’re up against, give yourself time to prepare adequately and make adjustments for any courses or study time that may be necessary to help you earn a better score. Take some AP prep for the specific exams you are planning to take. AP prep will teach you tips and strategies to increase your score on exams. While it may be getting harder to earn credit at some schools, your fate is still in your hands. The best way to increase your chances of doing well is to be prepared!