Getting Ahead


While a senior at Irvine’s University High School last spring, Aydin Kadaster frantically crammed for four advanced placement tests. The calculus exam was especially important because he planned to major in engineering at Duke University, where he enrolled this week.

But there was another reason the pressure was on: He needed more than just a passing score. Two years ago, Duke decided to give college credit only to those with the maximum grade, a 5. To Kadaster’s chagrin, he was short a point, landing a 4.

“It’s kind of a drag I have to take calculus again at Duke,” Kadaster said. “I know I could have gotten a 5. I got 5s on all my practice tests.”

Despite the hefty $73 fee per test, ambitious students such as Kadaster are tackling and passing a record number of AP exams. Some high schoolers take 15 or more--the College Board, which administers the tests, last year honored 985 students with the AP National Scholar title, meaning they scored 4 or higher on eight or more exams. The latest national results, released last week, show that the rate of students passing AP tests in California has tripled since 1984-85.


In response, colleges and universities such as Duke have tightened up on accepting the tests as a substitute for actual campus course work.

Duke decided that students with anything less than the top score should not be exempted from introductory college math courses, finding the students unprepared for upper-level classes. “We simply had disappointing grades,” said Lewis Blake, an assistant professor of mathematics.

Harvard has increased the number of AP credits required for advanced standing. Even so, 40% of the incoming students have passed so many of the tests that they are eligible for sophomore status, though many don’t use that advanced standing to complete their college education early--they choose to spend the full four years.

“Through advanced standing, I can get into classes taught by Nobel laureates, ones that are hard to get into,” said Harvard sophomore Kyle Clayton of San Clemente, who entered the school a year ago with scores of 5 on nine advanced placement tests.

But some college officials fear that AP classes in high school do not meet ever-changing university standards.

“There’s some mistrust of AP tests,” said Margaret DiStasi, the chief undergraduate academic advisor at UC Berkeley, where one-third of the first-year students have already done college-level course work.

Berkeley stopped accepting advanced placement credits for its general education requirements three years ago. For example, it requires a semester of college biology and social sciences to graduate--and will not let AP courses, taken in high school, fulfill that demand.

“There is recognition of their validity, by the fact that we give credits,” DiStasi said. “But the faculty believes the students need to take college-level courses at the university. They decided it is a better academic experience for the students.”


A number of liberal arts schools, such as Vassar, will credit no more than four AP tests. And Duke is not alone in requiring a higher passing grade--Stanford does the same.


Some educators question the new restrictions, saying they penalize students who show promise and unfairly force families to pay an extra year of tuition.

“Why should colleges require students to retake a course if they can master the material before they get to college?” asked Pat Callan, executive director of the California Higher Education Policy Center, a San Jose-based think tank. “California has a serious problem of getting students to college, and here are colleges punishing students who are motivated and have proven they can succeed.”


“It’s money. It’s all money,” said Michael Victorson, who teaches advanced placement U.S. history at Canyon High School in Orange. “You’ve got so many kids doing well on the AP test, but a large number of the schools don’t want to lose out on the tuition money.”

The tests, scored on a scale of 1 to 5, are based on the premise that high school students can tackle college-level exams and earn college credit if they pass with at least a 3--or, in the case of Stanford, a 4.

As colleges’ rules for AP credit have changed, so have students’ reasons for taking the challenging courses and tests. Even if they don’t earn credits, transcripts stacked with AP courses can give them a better shot at getting into the top universities: Many high schools add a point to the grade for an AP course. Thus the grade-point averages of students who get A’s in such classes will be inflated beyond the perfect 4.0.

And AP courses are expected of applicants to schools such as Caltech, which has never accepted them for college credit.


“We want students to be best prepared for our curriculum,” said Charlene Liebau, director of admissions there. “That means being in the most rigorous academic environment.”

Some legislators take a similar view. At least 19 states, including Georgia, Utah and Missouri, promote AP programs by paying schools to offer AP courses or picking up the tab for students’ test fees.

Other groups worry that AP programs are one way by which wealthier schools give their students an advantage. The Claremont-based Tomas Rivera Policy Institute recently examined access to AP and honors courses in public high schools throughout California and complained that students in predominantly black and Latino communities were offered fewer such classes.

As AP exams continue to gain popularity, the hyperintensive testing culture has spawned an assortment of testing aids and gimmicks. Workbooks, sample exams and tip guides from former AP graders can be found in bookstores and on the Internet.


Duke freshman Kadaster said he does not regret having worked through a total of six AP tests in high school. He earned at least passing scores on all of them; only two earned him exemptions from taking college core courses.

“The APs are like brownie points that colleges look for,” the 17-year-old said from his dorm room in Durham, N.C. “They certainly helped get me here.”


California AP Test Trends


California and the Nation

California has surpassed the national average in the number of advanced placement tests passed by high school juniors and seniors since 1994.

Qualifying rate per 100 juniors and seniors




‘97: 12.7 students per 100


‘97: 9.1 students per 100


Advanced Placement Data

A higher proportion of California students of all backgrounds passed AP tests in 1996-97 than in 1984-85.

Total number of juniors and seniors taking tests:

California: 561,525


Nation: 661,073


Number qualifying per 100, by ethnicity:

American Indian


1984-85: 1.5

1996-97: 6.7




1984-85: 9.0

1996-97: 28.4


African American


1984-85: 0.5

1996-97: 2.1




1984-85: 1.2

1996-97: 6.5




1984-85: 4.0

1996-97: 11.2


All students


1984-85: 4.1

1996-97: 12.7

* A score of 3 or better is commonly recognized as qualifying for college credit. The statistics are based on the number of AP exams per 100 juniors and seniors with a score of 3 or better. In 1996-97, 84% of all AP exams were scored at 3 or better.