College Board President Gaston Caperton recently announced that he would be stepping down in 2012. The College Board is a non-profit organization that claims nearly six thousand schools and educational organizations as members. It’s most famous for two programs it runs: the SAT college-admissions exam and the Advanced Placement (AP) program, which allows high school students to earn college credit by taking rigorous classes and exams. The program has grown tremendously over the past two decades—in 2009, nearly 1.7 million students took at least one exam—buoyed by a perception that it helps participants succeed in college. But do students who take these classes (and take the expensive exams that go with them) actually do any better in college?

According to research by Kristin Klopfenstein and M. Kathleen Thomas, the answer is (in most cases) no. After controlling for a host of variables including the rigor of other, non-AP classes taken, the researchers found that AP classes had no statistically significant impact on students’ first-semester GPA or first-year dropout rates. Other studies that did find a positive impact, the researchers say, falsely found that result only because they failed to control for the non-AP classes the students were taking. Students who would already do well in college are already more likely to enroll in AP classes than weaker students are, so a failure to control for this innate difference would make AP classes seem more effective than they actually were.

Challenging, high-level classes are valuable, but the College Board is wrong to claim that they actually help students succeed in college, the researchers argue. They write, “While we are strongly in favor of open access to AP and do not wish our results to be interpreted as justification for excluding traditionally underrepresented students from AP classes, it is equally unfair to misplace underprepared students in AP classes when they would be better served in other rigorous courses.” AP classes, this study finds, are no more valuable than any other challenging curriculum. 

For more research on what’s in the news, check out the rest of TNR’s newest blog, The Study.