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High School Advanced Placement and Student Performance in College: STEM Majors, Non-STEM Majors, and Gender Differences

Background/Context: The past few decades have seen an explosive growth in high-school student participation in the Advanced Placement program® (AP), with nearly two million exams completed in 2011. Traditionally, universities have considered AP enrollment as an indicator for predicting academic success during the admission process. However, AP exam performance may be predictive of future academic success; a related factor in gender differences in major selection and success; and instrumental in predicting STEM persistence.

Purpose: This study focused on determining the influence of patterns of AP exam completion and performance on indicators of post-secondary academic achievement. These patterns were examined in the context of gender differences and for the prediction of grades, STEM persistence and graduation rates. Subjects: The sample consisted of 26,693 students who entered the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) as first-year undergraduate students during the period of 1999-2009.

Research Design: Archival admissions records and college transcripts were obtained for entering first-year (non-transfer) students, to examine patterns of AP exams completed and performance on the exams, as they related to indicators of college academic performance, TCR, 115, 100305 Advanced Placement and College Performance 2 BACKGROUND The Advanced Placement program has been in existence since the 1950s (DiYanni, 2009), but the program has markedly changed over time, especially in the past decade. Although the original goals of the program (to allow students to obtain college-level credit for advanced study during high school) have not changed, the program has expanded in scope, from an initial set of 10 exams in core areas of study (e.g., “English composition, literature, Latin, French, German, Spanish, mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics” [DiYanni, 2009]) to 33 exams that span the original areas, but also other diverse domains such as Art History, Environmental Science, Human Geography, and Macroeconomics. In addition, there has been an explosive growth in the number of AP exams administered, from about 10,000 in 1960 to a half-million exams in 1990, inflow and outflow STEM majors and non-STEM majors, and attrition/time-to-degree criteria. For predicting college performance, patterns of AP exams were examined in isolation, exams grouped by domain, and instances of multiple examinations completed (e.g., three or more AP exams in the STEM area). These patterns of AP exams were evaluated for predictive validity in conjunction with traditional predictors of post-secondary performance (e.g., high-school GPA and SAT scores). College course enrollment patterns were also examined, in conjunction with AP exam patterns, to determine the associations between AP exam performance and course-taking patterns in post-secondary study.

Data Collection and Analysis: Admissions records were obtained from Georgia Tech, including high-school grade point average information, along with college transcripts, including initial and final major declaration, attrition, and graduation data. Course enrollments were classified by level and by domain. Advanced Placement exam and SAT records were obtained from the College Board, and matched to the Georgia Tech records.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Although student completion of AP exams was positively related to post-secondary grades and graduation rates, this overall pattern masks the relation between AP exam performance and post-secondary success. Students who did not receive credit tended to perform at a level similar to those students who did not complete any AP exams. Increasing numbers of AP-based course credits were associated with higher GPAs at Georgia Tech for the first year and beyond. Students with greater numbers of AP-based course credits tended to complete fewer lower-level courses and a greater number of higher-level courses. Such students graduated at a substantially higher rate and in fewer semesters of study. Average AP exam score was the single best predictor of academic success after high school GPA (HSGPA). The most important predictors of STEM major persistence were receiving credit for AP Calculus and if the student had successfully completed three or more AP exams in the STEM areas. Men had substantially higher rates of these AP exam patterns, compared to women. Given that slightly over half of the AP exams are now completed by high school students prior to their senior year, it is recommended that admissions committees consider use of actual AP exam performance data, in addition to, or instead of AP enrollment data as indicators for predicting post-secondary academic performance.