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As Advanced Placement Tests Gain Popularity, Some Colleges Push Back

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2/15/2017 Melissa Korn

More high-school students are taking Advanced Placement exams than ever—just as questions about their value are growing.

At least 20 states now require public universities to award credit for strong scores on the exams, including most recently Nevada, Illinois and Texas, to help students get through college faster. The AP tests often allow incoming students to skip introductory college courses, or gain credit toward graduation based on their test results.

Meanwhile, some schools, including the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University, have scaled back or are reconsidering how much credit they give students for AP exams. They question whether a high mark on the test is really equivalent to mastering college-level course work.

More than 2.6 million high school students globally took 4.7 million AP exams in the 2015-16 school year, both up 5% from the prior cycle. The test caps what is generally a year-long class whose curriculum is designed to be similar to a college-level course.

For many students, the exams offer a cost-effective way to get college credits, potentially shortening the length of time it takes to earn a degree. AP exams cost $93 each—well below the tuition equivalent for the same amount of credit at most colleges.

But some colleges are pushing back, saying the AP courses aren’t on par with their classes. They also say that too many exemptions from classes can take away from a shared undergraduate experience with other students.

Beginning this school year, public colleges and universities in Nevada, Illinois and Texas must award credit for all AP scores of three or above, out of a top score of five. Institutions can decide for themselves whether students can apply the credits toward their overall graduation requirement, skip a few electives or simply advance into upper-level courses.

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The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign now awards three academic credits to a student who scores a three or four on the AP biology exam, and four credits for a score of five; in 2014, it only gave credit for a score of five.

At the University of Texas at Austin, about two-thirds of freshmen come into school with some credit earned through tests like the AP.

“We believe that exams can be used to demonstrate mastery of material,” said Tara O’Neill, director of curriculum management and enrollment analytics at the University of Texas at Austin.

Nationwide, 66% of colleges and universities awarded some sort of credit for a score of three on an AP exam this year, up from 64% in the 2015-16 academic year. But policies are far from uniform. According to the College Board, which oversees the AP program, nearly 4,000 U.S. colleges that accept AP scores have about 51,000 separate policies on awarding credit for the exams.

Admissions officers from some elite colleges say they still expect to see high-school transcripts loaded with AP courses, but don’t give much more than a pat on the back—and possibly an offer of admission—for the hard work.

Starting in 2014, Dartmouth College stopped giving AP credit toward graduation but allowed students with high AP scores to pass into more advanced courses.Students and their parents complained about the move, but the Ivy League school has stuck with it.

Next month, faculty at Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences will vote on a revamp of the undergraduate curriculum, including reconsidering whether to award academic credit for high AP scores. Students there now can use AP credits to replace two of the 34 credits they need for graduation.

Duke spokesman Keith Lawrence said no final decisions have been made. “We want to wait until the faculty committee has had a chance to do its work before commenting publicly on this,” he said.

At the University of Pennsylvania, French, physics and a few other departments award credit or advanced standing based on a student’s AP scores. But other departments, including chemistry and biology, found that students who used AP scores to skip introductory courses fared worse in upper-division classes than those who took the full sequence at Penn because they weren’t as well-prepared. The departments unveiled new credit guidelines for the current academic year.

“We recognize and reward any external experience that we believe enriches the undergraduate experience at Penn,” said Steven Fluharty, dean of the school of arts and sciences. He added that the school looks to award credits for “Penn equivalency.”

Mr. Fluharty said internal studies showed that Penn students who had AP credits rarely graduated early, but instead took more advanced courses or electives. “If anything, the undergraduates that I talk to want a fifth year,” he said.

But cash-strapped students and test-credit advocates say it is helpful to have the option of applying AP credits to obtain a speedier degree. That is why removing the possibility of AP credit can be a blow to minorities and low-income students, the College Board argues.

“When schools have a commitment to expand diversity, eliminating AP credits cuts against those goals,” said Trevor Packer, who oversees the AP program at the College Board.

However, the University of California, Los Angeles, recently stopped using AP credits to help determine whether a student gets priority enrollment for courses, after deciding the policy hurts students from less competitive—and often poorer—high schools that may be less likely to offer AP courses.

Ashly Mohankumar, a senior psychology major and academic affairs commissioner in UCLA’s student government, supported the new policy.

She took most of the half-dozen AP courses that were offered at her high school, in California’s Central Valley, but that didn’t provide enough credits to give her advanced standing for course enrollments.

“All of my hard work, being number one in my high school class, didn’t seem to matter,” she said.

Write to Melissa Korn at melissa.korn@wsj.com

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