AP Course Credit and Undergraduate Student Success in Gateway Science Courses

January 20, 2023

Although more than two million students take Advanced Placement (AP) courses annually, policies that allow students to replace introductory courses with AP credit vary greatly within and across universities. Christian Schunn and his colleagues examine the repercussions of these policies. Read more on the LRDC website.

Main takeaways from this research are:

  • Students do not appear to benefit in later coursework from retaking a course when they have passed the equivalent AP course
  • Administrators who set university AP credit policies should consider updating their formal policies as well as the informal advice given to students.
  • The authors encourage other institutions to replicate their analyses at their respective campuses to evaluate their AP policies and potential inequities.
  • The methodological approach used in this study can be used to examine other academic courses such as IB courses, courses taken at community colleges, and internal course placement exams.

AP graphic More than two million students take Advanced Placement (AP) courses annually. Some university departments allow students to replace introductory college courses with AP credit when the student obtains a passing score. This transfer credit can mean shorter time to degree, increased retention, and reduced college costs – factors that are particularly important for students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, where college retention and success in the labor market are uncertain.

Yet, departmental policies that allow students to replace introductory courses with AP credit vary greatly within and across universities, even across relatively similar universities: sometimes the minimum passing score is accepted and sometimes not even the highest score is accepted. A number of university faculty and administrators worry that students will struggle in later courses if they do not experience the equivalent gateway course at their particular university. Policy decisions can have complex and unintended consequences for students overall or specific groups of students, and thus it is important for policy makers to be informed about potential factors that might exacerbate inequities in the system.

LRDC Senior Scientist Christian Schunn and colleagues conducted the first independent and cross-institutional effort to examine the differences between AP credit policy across universities and the impact of AP credit on college performance. Their work is also the first to examine equity at the level of eligible AP scores within science pathways at selective public research institutions and the first to examine equity in terms of choosing to skip courses when eligible.

Using advanced statistical research methods, the research team examined the impact of AP credit policies on subsequent course success in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics at six large public research universities (N = 48,230 students).

The researchers found that among students who were eligible to skip the first course, those who skipped actually performed similarly well or better in subsequent courses than students who did not skip, even in contexts where lower AP scores were accepted. They also discovered wide variation in the percentage of students who chose to skip when meeting their local policies, suggesting that some students were likely being given strong guidance by advisors to not skip the course even though there was no support for this advice. Finally, the equity analyses in the study critically showed that there were only very small demographic differences in which students had eligible AP scores; policies to reject AP credit should therefore not be made on the basis of improving equity among students.

The main finding of the study is that using AP credit to skip the first course does not adversely affect student performance in subsequent gateway courses. This finding has implications for educational stakeholders across the nation as millions of students take AP examinations every year. To reduce unnecessary coursework that is burdensome for both students and universities, the authors suggest that departments should consider modifying AP credit policies and that advisors consider encouraging students to skip introductory courses when they have eligible AP scores.

Fischer, C., Witherspoon, E., Nguyen, H., Feng, Y., Stefano, F., Vincent-Ruz, P., Mead, C., Rodrigues, N. B., Matz, R., and Schunn, C. (2023). Advanced placement course credit and undergraduate student success in gateway science courses. Journal of Research in Science Teaching.