Advanced placement mathematics courses may not increase STEM interest

OREM — A newly released study has found that enrolling students in Advanced Placement (AP) mathematics courses may not cause an increase in interest in studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) topics. The study is co-authored by Russell T. Warne of the Utah Valley University Department of Behavioral Science, Gerhard Sonnert, and Philip M. Sadler, both of whom are affiliated with the Science Education Department of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.


The researchers examined a large national sample of more than 15,000 college students in freshman classes, whom they asked about their childhood and adolescent science interests, grades, test scores, educational experiences, and college educational and career plans.


“We were interested in whether students who enrolled in an AP mathematics course were later more interested in a career in STEM,” Sonnert explained. The results indicated that the average level of STEM interest after the students’ AP experience could be explained almost entirely by pre-existing science interest.


“We found little evidence that these AP mathematics courses actually increase students’ interest in STEM subjects,” Warne said. He and his coauthors estimated the increase in the percentage of students interested in a STEM career and found that the strongest impact was no more than a 2.5 percentage point increase. Most percentages were close to zero.


“There’s a prevalent belief that AP is a tool for increasing the number of scientists, engineers, and technicians in our country. Policymakers and educators believe that early exposure to advanced content will make students more interested in these fields. We were disappointed to find that this belief was not supported by our study,” Warne said.


The researchers do not believe, though, that this study means that schools should eliminate AP courses. There may be other advantages to offering advanced content to bright students. “We just want people to be realistic about what they can expect from AP,” Warne explained.


 “Many also assume that AP coursework makes taking similar introductory college STEM coursework superfluous. Our earlier research shows that the real benefit comes down to earning about a third of a letter grade more, but not really enough to support bypassing the college course,” says Sadler.


This is the first joint work between Warne and the Harvard team, and is an outgrowth of their independent research on Advanced Placement. Sonnert and Sadler have published research about AP for at least 10 years and were editors of the landmark book “AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program.” Warne published his first article on the topic in 2015. None of them have any affiliation with the College Board, which owns and operates the AP program.


The study is newly published in Educational Researcher, a flagship journal of the American Educational Research Association. The study abstract page.







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