Taking an AP Science Class in High School—Positive and Negative Effects

The AP program has been widely adopted in secondary schools, yet the evidence on the impact of taking AP courses has been entirely observational. The challenge faced in prior studies has been that students self-select into advanced high school courses. This makes it difficult to disentangle the effect of taking these advanced courses from the characteristics of students (e.g., ambition) that might prompt their decisions to take AP classes.

Dylan Conger, Alec I. Kennedy, Mark C. Long, and Raymond McGhee, Jr. report results from the first experimental study of AP. In a group of schools that were newly offering an AP biology or chemistry course, they randomly assigned eligible and interested students access to the new AP course. Thus, they were able to compare AP course-taking students with students taking other regular and honors courses.

So what did the study show? The team found suggestive evidence that taking an AP science course increases students’ science skills and their interest in pursuing a STEM major in college. Yet, AP course-takers also have lower confidence in their ability to succeed in college science, higher levels of stress, and worse grades than their control counterparts.

These findings give us greater clarity on the positive and negative impacts of AP course-taking, particularly in schools that are deciding to offer new courses and in schools in neighborhoods with lower resources. Such schools might have challenges in implementing the inquiry-based approach of AP science courses, particularly if they lack the technology needed to integrate this approach in the classroom.

Read the full study in the Journal of Human Resources: “The Effect of Advanced Placement Science on Students’ Skills, Confidence and Stress,” by Dylan Conger, Alec I. Kennedy, Mark C. Long, and Raymond McGhee, Jr.

Dylan Conger is a professor of public policy at the George Washington University. Alec L. Kennedy is an educational policy analyst at the San Francisco Public Schools. Mark C. Long (@mlmarklong) is a professor of public policy and governance and adjunct professor of economics at the University of Washington. Raymond McGhee Jr. is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.