Are A.P. Courses Contributing to STEM Education?

02/17/2011 07:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This year, 2 million high school students aspiring to go to top universities and colleges are expected to take Advanced Placement (A.P.) exams in over 30 subjects. The original purpose of A.P. exams was to encourage high school seniors to study at the college level. In 1956, a mere 1,200 students took 2,200 A.P. exams. Last year, 1.9 million U.S. students took 3.2 million A.P. exams in 34 subjects. That's a 190,000 percent percent increase. The unprecedented growth of A.P. tests in American high schools has no parallel globally.

The success of A.P. offerings comes as no surprise if you look at the fact that most universities consider A.P. scores for admission. A score of "3" is considered a passing score -- some universities look for a score of "4", or even, a "5". With thousands of students trying to get into the top educational institutions, A.P. courses have become a standard already. A.P. classes are hard, cover a lot of material, require lots of study time and are usually taught very poorly. And yet, over 100,000 students took six or more A.P. courses. Almost a third of A.P. exams taken were in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects including calculus, physics, chemistry, statistics and biology. This translates to almost one million students. These are serious students who were willing to put in long hours of study to get into top colleges.

What happens to these students when they go to college? Interestingly, College Board, the company that develops and administers A.P. exams, does not provide any research data on the effectiveness of their courses once the students go to college. Numerous STEM initiatives are underway in our K-12 education system. Attracting, inspiring, engaging and retaining young minds early in STEM is the key for maintaining and American leadership in invention and innovation.

Many college teachers believe that students who come with A.P. credits have not truly grasped the material and are not ready for subsequent classes. To their support, they show that it is not uncommon for students who completed A.P. Calculus and Physics to do poorly in subsequent college classes. Some even view A.P. classes being taught at high schools as their jobs being outsourced. Top institutions such as MIT, Harvard and Stanford seems to reduce their emphasis on A.P. scores and do not even make it on the list of top 30 schools receiving the most A.P. scores.

Do A.P. STEM courses truly benefit students in understanding the material better and getting them ready for college? Does a score of "5" in A.P. Calculus help them to do well in college, or choose a career in a STEM area? The answers to these questions are unclear at best. But one thing is certain. Whether or not A.P. courses benefit the students, they certainly benefit College Board. With $87 per exam, College Board collects about $300 million administering A.P. exams alone.