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The relationship between the availability of AP courses in high school and college admission and completion — April 2015


Please provide research on the relationship between the availability of AP courses and student outcomes.


We have prepared the following memo with references on the relationship between the availability of advanced placement (AP) courses and student outcomes. This memo includes:

Reports and articles: Peer-reviewed articles and research reports about the effects of AP courses on student outcomes, such as college readiness, college success, and graduation rate.

Citations include a link to a free online version when available.

Citations are accompanied by an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the author or publisher of the document.

Relevant organizations that focus on the impact of AP courses.

We have not done an evaluation of the methodological rigor of these resources, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Articles and reports

ACT. (2010). The advanced placement program benefits mainly well-prepared students who pass AP exams. Issues in college readiness. Austin, TX: ACT/National Center for Educational Achievement. Retrieved on April 6, 2015, from

Abstract: Many policymakers and education leaders have embraced the Advanced Placement (AP) Program as a tool to strengthen the high school curriculum and prepare students for college. The popularity of the AP program among these policy leaders reflects their belief that the traditional high school curriculum has often failed to provide rigorous courses with well-specified curricular content and end-of-course examinations to verify that students have mastered that content—and that AP courses and exams can supply the rigor missing from the high school curriculum. Further, some policymakers have sought to expand the AP program in schools serving primarily minority and low-income students, in the belief that access to AP courses will promote educational equity and greater readiness for college and career among these students. Are these beliefs supported by the evidence? From 2002 to 2006, the National Center for Educational Achievement (NCEA) conducted research on the relationship between students’ participation in AP courses in high school and their later success in college—relationships that are often misunderstood or misinterpreted. The research is summarized in a report (Dougherty, Mellor, & Jian, 2006) and a book chapter (Dougherty & Mellor, 2010). This brief highlights the four major findings of this research. These findings are: (1) Taking AP Courses Alone Is Not Related to College Success; (2) Taking AP Courses and Passing AP Exams Is What Matters; (3) Low-Income and Minority Students Have Low AP Exam Passing Rates; and (4) Academic Preparation in the Early Grades is Critical for AP Readiness.

Challenge Success. (2013). The Advanced Placement program: Living up to its promise? Stanford, CA: Author. Retrieved on April 2, 2015, from

Excerpt: The College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) program is considered by many to be the gold standard for a top-notch high school education, and it is often heralded as a powerful tool for achieving educational equity, but is it? This paper, based on extensive review of the literature, will consider:

  • Does taking AP classes make students more likely to succeed in college?
  • Does taking AP classes boost a student’s chances of college admission?
  • Does taking AP classes make college more affordable?
  • Does the AP program help to narrow achievement gaps?
  • Does the AP program enrich students’ high school experiences?
  • Are schools with an AP program better than those without?

We conclude by offering a series of recommendations for educators and students aimed at making the Advanced Placement program a net positive.

Cisneros, J., Holloway-Libell, J., Gomez, L. M., Corley, K. M., & Powers, J. M. (2014). The advanced placement opportunity gap in Arizona: Access, participation, and success. AASA Journal of Scholarship & Practice, 11(2), 20–33. Retrieved on April 7, 2015, from

Abstract: Participation in Advanced Placement (AP) classes and AP test-taking are widely viewed as indicators of students’ college readiness. We analyzed enrollment in AP courses and AP test outcomes in Arizona to document disparities in students’ access to rigorous curricula in high school and outline some implications of these patterns for education stakeholders. Findings suggest that although 80% of high schools in Arizona offered at least one AP course, the total number of AP courses offered varied considerably across schools. Small schools and schools that served higher percentages of minority students were less likely to offer a wide range of AP courses than large schools and schools with majority White student populations. Although Hispanic students were underrepresented in AP courses, they had the highest test-taking rate. Only a third of the Hispanic students who took AP courses passed the AP test.

The College Board. (2014). The 10th annual AP report to the nation. New York: Author. Retrieved on April 2, 2015, from

Excerpt: The 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation reports on each state’s efforts to provide to students—in particular traditionally underserved minority and low-income students—the opportunity to gain and demonstrate college-level skills and knowledge in high school. This report also looks at the past 10 years of participation and performance in AP.

Dougherty, C., Mellor, L., & Jian, S. (2006). The relationship between advanced placement and college graduation (National Center for Educational Accountability: 2005 AP Study Series, Report 1). Austin, TX: National Center for Educational Accountability. Retrieved on April 2, 2015, from

Abstract: This study explores the relationship between college graduation rates and student participation and success in Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams. We reviewed three approaches to examining this relationship: 1) comparing the college graduation rates of AP and non-AP students; 2) comparing the college graduation rate of AP and non-AP students after controlling for students’ demographics and prior achievement and the demographics of their high schools; and 3) examining the relationship between percent of students from a given high school graduating from college, and the school’s percent of students in Advanced Placement. We conclude that the percent of a school’s students who take and pass AP exams is the best AP-related indicator of whether the school is preparing increasing percentages of its students to graduate from college. The importance of AP exam results indicates the need for schools and districts to pay close attention not only to the quality of teaching in Advanced Placement courses but also to improving the academic preparation of students prior to their enrollment in those courses. Appendices include: (1) Cohort Definitions and Descriptive Statistics; (2) Hierarchical Linear Modeling Analysis; (3) Ordinary Least Squares Analysis With School-Level Data; and (4) Differences in College Graduation Rates Compared with Students Not Participating in Advanced Placement.

Ewing, M. (2006). The AP® program and student outcomes: A summary of research. New York: The College Board. Retrieved on April 2, 2015, from

Excerpt: A substantial amount of research has also been conducted to evaluate the impact of the AP Program on specific student outcomes including college academic performance (Burnham & Hewitt, 1971; Dodd, Fitzpatrick, De Ayala, & Jennings, 2002; Geiser & Santelices, 2004; Klopfenstein & Thomas, 2006; Morgan & Crone, 1993; Morgan & Ramist, 1998; Willingham & Morris, 1986), college completion (Adelman, 1999, 2006; Dougherty, Mellor, & Jian, 2006), and performance on international assessments (Gonzalez, O’Connor, & Miles, 2001). The focus of this research summary is on those studies that have investigated the impact of the AP Program on student outcomes.

Gagnon, D., & Mattingly, M. (2015). Limited access to AP courses for students in smaller and more isolated rural school districts (Paper 235). Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire, The Carsey School of Public Policy at the Scholars’ Repository. Retrieved on April 2, 2015, from

Excerpt: This brief assesses trends in access to, enrollment in, and success in AP coursework in relation to school district poverty, racial composition, and urbanicity. It uses data merged from the 2011–2012 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), the 2012 Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE), and the 2010 Decennial U.S. Census. These data reflect AP access, enrollment, and success only at the district level.

Handwerk, P., Tognatta, N., Coley, R. J., & Gitomer, D. H. (2008). Access to success: Patterns of Advanced Placement participation in U.S. high schools. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. Retrieved on April 2, 2015, from

Excerpt: Providing high school students access to advanced coursework has long been considered an important means of preparing students for success after high school. The College Board’s Advanced Placement Program (AP) is among the largest of several programs providing advanced curricula to high school students today. For many years, the College Board has generated extensive data on AP program participation and performance at national and state levels and has provided these data for different racial/ethnic groups of students. This study offers a broader and deeper perspective by merging the College Board’s AP program data for the 2003-2004 school year with data from the U.S. Department of Education for all U.S. public high schools. Thus, for the first time, we can answer the following three questions about students in grades 9 through 12:

  • What is the availability of the AP program in the nation’s public high schools?
  • How many students participate in AP?
  • How many students are eligible for advanced placement or college credit?

Hallett, R. E., & Venegas, K. M. (2011). Is increased access enough? Advanced placement courses, quality, and success in low-income urban schools. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 34(3), 468–487. [Full-text PDF attached]

Abstract: This article combines descriptive statistics and interviews with college-bound high school students to explore the connection between increased access and academic quality of Advanced Placement (AP) courses in low-income urban high schools. Results suggest that although moderately more opportunities to take AP courses exist than in previous years, students’ sense of their own preparation and their resultant performance on AP exams do not indicate quality or appropriate preparation for college. The article is guided by a “funds of knowledge” framework, which emphasizes the value of instrumental and content aptitudes in preparation for college success.

Holstead, M. S., Spradlin, T. E., McGillivray, M. E., & Burroughs, N. (2010, Winter). The impact of advanced placement incentive programs. CEEP Education Policy Brief, 8(1). Bloomington, IN: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. Retrieved on April 7, 2015, from

Abstract: In December of 2009, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels announced that the latest state revenue forecasts predict that the state of Indiana will spend $1.8 billion more than it receives in tax revenue collections through July 2011. Therefore, Governor Daniels announced that he will cut at least $300 million from K-12 education spending in the next year, and another $150 million in funding for state colleges and universities. In this current economic environment both students and school administrators alike are feeling the need for education to become more efficient and effective. Programs such as the International Baccalaureate program, the Advanced Placement program, and dual credit courses, which can streamline and improve the transition between high school and college, have thus become increasingly appealing. This Education Policy Brief will examine, in particular, the incentive programs for the most popular and widespread of the accelerated education programs, the Advanced Placement (AP) program. After a brief historical overview of the AP program and a discussion of its merits, the brief will look into the various types of incentive programs found in the U.S. today, highlighting, in particular, several prominent or notable incentive programs. The Policy Brief will also examine some of the scholarly research that has been conducted regarding the effectiveness of the various incentive programs. Finally, conclusions and recommendations will be made to improve AP incentive programs.

Iatarola, P., Conger, D., & Long, M. C. (2011). Determinants of high schools’ advanced course offerings. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 33(3), 340–359. [Full-text PDF attached]

Abstract: This article examines the factors that determine a high school’s probability of offering Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. The likelihood that a school offers advanced courses, and the number of sections that it offers, is largely driven by having a critical mass of students who enter high school with eighth-grade test scores that are far above average. The number and qualifications of the instructional staff, in contrast, play a very small role. The results suggest that the willingness of schools to offer advanced courses is driven by real, perceived, or created student demand and that there may be few resource constraints that prevent schools from supplying advanced courses.

Jackson, K. C. (2010). A stitch in time: The effects of a novel incentive-based high-school intervention on college outcomes (NBER Working Paper no. 15722). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved on April 6, 2015, from

Abstract: I analyze the effects of a program that pays both 11th and 12th grade students and teachers for passing scores on Advanced Placement exams on college outcomes. Using a difference-in-differences strategy, I find that affected students of all ethnicities attend college in greater numbers, have improved college GPAs, and are more likely to remain in college beyond their freshman year. Moreover, the program improves college outcomes even for those students who would have enrolled in college without the program. I also find evidence of increased college graduation for black and Hispanic students - suggesting that late high-school interventions may confer lasting positive effects on students, and may be effective at improving the educational outcomes of minority students. The finding of enduring benefits when extrinsic motivators are no longer provided is important in light of concerns that incentive-based-interventions may lead to undesirable practices such as “teaching-to-the-test” and cheating.

Kelley-Kemple, T., Proger, A., & Roderick, M. (2011). Engaging high school students in advanced math and science courses for success in college: Is advanced placement the answer? Evanston, IL: Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness. Retrieved on April 6, 2015, from

Abstract: The current study provides an in-depth look at Advanced Placement (AP) math and science course-taking in one school district, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Using quasi-experimental methods, this study examines the college outcomes of students who take AP math and science courses. Specifically, this study asks whether students who take AP math and science courses are more likely to enroll in four-year colleges, enroll in selective or very selective four-year colleges, and persist in college for two years. Because there may be heterogeneous treatment effects, the authors also run separate analyses for lower- and higher-achieving students.

Klopfenstein, K. (2008). The effect of AP participation on time to college graduation: Technical report. Richardson, TX: UTD Texas Schools Project. Retrieved on April 2, 2015, from

Excerpt: I estimate the effect of AP course experience on time to college graduation by tracking a cohort of Texas students for ten postsecondary semesters using the Texas Schools Microdata Panel (TSMP). Students in the sample graduated from Texas public high schools in spring 1997 and matriculated directly at one of 29 four-year Texas public universities.

Mattern, K. D., Shaw, E. J., & Xiong, X. (2009). The relationship between APR exam performance and college outcomes (Research Report no. 2009-4). New York: College Board. Retrieved on April 6, 2015, from

Abstract: This study focused on the relationship between students’ Advanced Placement Program[R] (AP[R]) performance in AP English Language, Biology, Calculus, and U.S. History, and their subsequent college success. For each AP Exam studied, students were divided into three groups according to their AP Exam performance (no AP Exam taken, score of 1 or 2, and a score of 3 or higher). Subsequent college success was measured by students’ first-year college grade point average (FYGPA), retention to the second year, and institutional selectivity. Results indicated that, even after controlling for students’ SAT[R] scores and high school grade point average (HSGPA) as measures of prior academic performance, students with an AP score of 3 or higher outperformed the other two groups. Additionally, students with an AP score of 1 or 2 tended to outperform students with no AP scores except in terms of FYGPA. The implications are discussed. Percentage of Institutions in Sample by Key Variables (N = 99) is appended.

Sadler, P. M., Sonnert, G., Tai, R. H., & Klopfenstein, K. (Eds.). (2010). AP: A critical examination of the Advanced Placement program. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press. Available for purchase from

Book description: AP draws together the most recent and rigorous research on the strengths and weaknesses of the Advanced Placement program. With an annual yearly growth rate of 9.3 percent over the last two decades, Advanced Placement courses have become a juggernaut in American high school education. AP courses are routinely perceived as an indicator of educational rigor, and many schools push to enroll low-income or minority students in these courses in the hope of preparing them for success in college-level courses. This rapid expansion of AP courses raises important questions. What are the advantages and disadvantages of courses geared toward the AP exams? How well do AP courses prepare students for college-level work or predict students’ success in college? Should colleges award credit for AP courses? Is the AP program a cost-effective tool for closing the gap between students in privileged and struggling communities? It examines closely the differences between AP and other high school courses, as well as variations among AP courses. In-depth studies gauge the impact of AP coursework on student performance in college. Finally, researchers examine the use of AP information in college admissions. Taken together, these studies present a comprehensive picture of the history, impact, and future of the Advanced Placement program.

Speroni, C. (2011). Determinants of students’ success: The role of Advanced Placement and dual enrollment programs. New York: Mathematica Policy Research and Community College Research Center. Retrieved on April 2, 2015, from

Abstract: Advanced Placement (AP) and Dual Enrollment (DE) are two programs that allow high school students to earn college credits. The recent growth of these programs has been unprecedented. However, there is little evidence that compares how they fare in terms of improving college access and success. Using data from two cohorts of all high school students in Florida and controlling for schools’ and students’ characteristics (including prior achievement), this study examines the relative power of AP and DE in predicting students’ college access and success.

The study finds that both AP and DE are strongly associated with positive outcomes, but the enrollment outcomes are not the same for both programs. DE students are more likely than AP students to go to college after high school, but they are less likely to first enroll in a four-year college. Despite this difference in initial enrollment, the difference between DE and AP in terms of bachelor’s degree attainment is much smaller and not statistically significant for some model specifications. In addition, the effect of DE is driven by courses taken at the local community college campus; there is no effect for DE courses taken at the high school.

What Works Clearinghouse. (2009, April). WWC quick review of the report “college outcomes comparisons by AP and non-AP high school experiences.” Retrieved on April 7, 2015, from

Abstract: The study examined whether taking Advanced Placement Program[R] (AP) courses and exams in high school improves student college performance. The study included students who graduated from Texas public high schools between 1998 and 2002 and then went on to attend a Texas public college or university. Data on students’ college grade point average (GPA), credits earned, and graduation rates were drawn from a statewide database. The study compared the college outcomes of students who took both an AP course and exam in a particular subject to other groups of students who did not. When making these comparisons, students were grouped according to their SAT scores and socio-economic status. The study reported that students who took both the AP course and the AP exam had higher college GPAs, earned more credits, and had higher graduation rates than students who took only the AP course or a non-AP course in the same subject area. The study reported no differences between students who took both the course and the exam and students who took only the exam. What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) does not consider these results to be conclusive because the study does not provide evidence that the students were initially equivalent. The reported differences might reflect initial differences in the types of students who take AP courses and exams rather than the effect of AP courses and exams on college outcomes.

Relevant organizations that focus on the impact of AP programs

AP students, College Board

Website description: The College Board is a mission-driven, not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity. Founded in 1900, the College Board was created to expand access to higher education. Today, the membership association is made up of over 6,000 of the world’s leading educational institutions and is dedicated to promoting excellence and equity in education. Each year, the College Board helps more than seven million students prepare for a successful transition to college through programs and services in college readiness and college success—including the SAT and the Advanced Placement Program. The organization also serves the education community through research and advocacy on behalf of students, educators and schools.

The Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA)

Website description: The Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) prides itself in helping students reach and exceed their academic goals. DoDEA’s main goal in offering Advanced Placement courses is to help students earn college credit while preparing them for the academic course load of college.


Keywords and Search Strings Used in the Search

(“Advanced placement courses” OR “availability of AP courses”) AND (“student outcomes” OR “college acceptance” OR “college graduation” OR “student success” OR “college readiness”)

Search of Databases

EBSCO Host; Google; and Google Scholar

Criteria for Inclusion

When REL West staff review resources, they consider—among other things—four factors:

  • Date of the Publication: The most current information is included, except in the case of nationally known seminal resources.
  • Source and Funder of the Report/Study/Brief/Article: Priority is given to IES, nationally funded, and certain other vetted sources known for strict attention to research protocols.
  • Methodology: Sources include randomized controlled trial studies, surveys, self-assessments, literature reviews, and policy briefs. Priority for inclusion generally is given to randomized controlled trial study findings, but the reader should note at least the following factors when basing decisions on these resources: numbers of participants (Just a few? Thousands?); selection (Did the participants volunteer for the study or were they chosen?); representation (Were findings generalized from a homogeneous or a diverse pool of participants? Was the study sample representative of the population as a whole?).
  • Existing Knowledge Base: Although we strive to include vetted resources, there are times when the research base is limited or nonexistent. In these cases, we have included the best resources we could find, which may include newspaper articles, interviews with content specialists, organization websites, and other sources.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educators and policymakers in the Western region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West (REL West) at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-12-C-0002, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.