Many AP Test Instructors See Problems With Program

A survey of more than 1,000 teachers of Advanced Placement courses in American high schools has found that more than half are concerned that the program’s effectiveness is being threatened as districts loosen restrictions on who can take such rigorous courses and as students flock to them to polish their résumés.

The study, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational research and advocacy organization, noted the sharp growth in the A.P. program’s popularity. The number of high school students who took at least one college-level A.P. course increased by 45 percent, to 1.6 million from 1.1 million, from the school year ended 2004 to that ended 2008.

The number of A.P. exams those students took — with hopes, in part, of gaining exemption from some college class work, depending on how well they scored — increased by 50 percent, to 2.7 million.

The study found that the teachers were generally satisfied with the program’s quality. But when they were asked to explain the growing allure of A.P. classes and tests, 90 percent attributed it largely to “more students who want their college applications to look better.”

“Only 32 percent attribute A.P. growth to more students who want to be challenged at a higher academic level,” the researchers wrote, leading the authors to conclude that students were often enrolling in Advanced Placement courses “for utilitarian or pragmatic reasons, not intellectual aspirations.”

And according to the study, it is not just the students who are motivated in that way. The researchers also noted teachers’ concerns about high schools’ seeking “to burnish their reputation by showcasing A.P.” For example, the study found that 75 percent of teachers believed that school administrators were expanding A.P. courses “to improve their school’s ranking and reputation in the community.”

That the democratization of the A.P. curriculum has sometimes come at a price was evident in the response of teachers when they were asked if their students were ready and able to handle the work in such courses. More than half, 56 percent, said they believed that “too many students overestimate their abilities and are in over their heads.” Even more teachers, 60 percent, said that “parents push their children into A.P. classes when they really don’t belong there.”

Fifty-two percent said such courses should be open only to students who could demonstrate that they could handle the work.

Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president at the Fordham Institute, said he detected a tension within the results, given teachers’ hopes that a generally good program would not be weakened by making it too accessible. In that respect, the findings support Fordham’s general position that the nation’s current focus on raising basic skills sometimes neglects a need for the continued growth and challenging of high-achieving students.

Trevor Packer, a vice president of the College Board, which administers the Advanced Placement program, said he welcomed the report as a means of further illuminating the push-pull between “equity and excellence.”

“We certainly see situations in which A.P. is provided in classrooms where students haven’t received adequate preparation, and the test scores catch that: all of the students getting 1s,” Mr. Packer said, a reference to the lowest score on the exams, which are graded 1 to 5. “In other situations, though, we see schools providing double the number of seats in A.P. classrooms they did several years ago, and the mean exam scores have increased.”

“We’re really excited about the questions the report asks,” he added, “and the answers it’s found to date, but more important, the way this situates the discourse for future conversations.”