AP Economics is a Model of Academic Rigor

Introductory college courses may have some catching up to do.

As a college professor and former academic dean, I have long heard that Advanced Placement courses are generally not the equal of their college equivalents. Each of the 38 AP courses has a related college course, for which a qualifying student may receive college credit. Upon completing an AP exam, each student receives a score from the lowest of 1 to the highest of 5. A university, if awarding credit, decides at what level credit will be awarded. The lowest score recognized tends to be a 3, with some schools requiring a 4 or even a 5. Other schools view participation in the AP program favorably during the admissions process but do not award any course credit, on the premise that the AP experience does not match the rigor of their own courses.

The college-level course and the AP course are expected to have an equivalence.There are three important decision points in this process. The first is the design of the AP course curriculum. The second is the writing of the AP exam, which generally consists of multiple-choice and free-response questions that are both rigorous and consistent with the course specifications. The third is the grading of essay questions by college and high-school teachers, referred to as readers, which must be rigorous and consistent if the exam score is to be meaningful.

The objective of the final exam grade (1 to 5) is to place each AP student within a continuum of college students taking the related course. Deficiencies in any of the three processes can lead to a mismatch of student performance and college expectations. First, the curriculum of the AP course may not satisfy the college instructors of “equivalent” courses. More frequently, some colleges argue that the questions used on the AP exam are too easy or are not appropriate at the college level. Others contend that, while the questions are appropriate, they are graded too leniently, with poorer quality answers receiving too high a score. Thus, at any one of these three levels, the rigor of the AP process can be compromised.

In this essay, I concentrate on the first part of the process—curriculum design—for AP microeconomics and macroeconomics. Are the specifications for these AP courses rigorous and consistent with the analogous college-level course(s)? The process begins with a comparability study, undertaken by the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the Advanced Placement program. Participating college faculty reveal the topics that they teach in each course (introductory microeconomics and macroeconomics), as well as the time commitment allocated to the teaching of each. The central tendency or “average” of these responses is compiled and used to form the specifications for the AP courses. In this sense, the two courses (the college-level course and the AP course) are expected to have an equivalence. The College Board releases a course material brochure for each class, and fundamental to that brochure is the organization of topics to be taught, the time allocated to the teaching, and the percentage of multiple-choice questions expected. This material is also posted on AP Central, the College Board’s website for AP instructors. Thus, each AP teacher has access to the course specifications.

Now, in year one, when new specifications are released, the two courses should be equivalent. And over the ensuing years, the content of the AP course generally remains the same. But what about the university course? Each year, a college instructor compiles his or her course syllabus and has the option to change the topics. Thus, over time, while the AP course does not usually change, the college course can. The two courses may lose their essential equivalence.

In economics, the college-level course has become less rigorous.In economics, I would argue anecdotally, from my experience, that the college-level course has become less rigorous. Several factors could contribute to this decline in rigor. First, as an economy measure, some universities have reduced the length of their semester, leaving less time for instruction. Second, many economics courses, particularly at liberal-arts colleges, combine introductory microeconomics and macroeconomics into a single one-semester course, reducing significantly the amount of instructional time for both. Third, as incoming college students seem to have a reduced capability in basic mathematics, instructors respond by reducing the amount of calculation required in their courses. Certain rigorous concepts are muted or even eliminated at the college level. Fourth, college grades have been drifting upward. With this grade inflation, students have less incentive to master the material in their courses, but they still receive a “high” grade.

In many AP subjects, direct interaction with college and university faculty has affirmed the strength of the AP course. Jay Mathews, in a 2018 Washington Post Magazine article entitled “The Triumph of Advanced Placement,” references the annual AP Faculty Colloquia, at which college faculty are shown the AP curriculum and testing process for their subject. Trevor Packer, director of AP for the College Board, states that surveyed participants almost always come away saying that “these exam questions are so much more challenging than we were expecting.”

I directed one such colloquium for AP economics in Philadelphia in March 2014, and the college faculty present were quite surprised by the content taught and the degree of rigor expected in student answers. Specifically, in AP microeconomics, they were surprised that the course included such topics as elasticity calculations (including cross-price and income elasticity), increasing cost industries in perfect competition, and monopsony in the labor market. Very few college introductory courses will go into all of these nuanced topics.

The difference in AP macroeconomics is even more pronounced. Current AP standards for that subject call for teaching the components of the balance of payments, the competitive determination of foreign exchange rates, and comparative static change in the exchange rates from several types of economic changes, among them GDP and income. These are required components of the AP macroeconomics course for high-school students. It is a very rare college student who studies any, let alone all, of these changes at the introductory level. Conversely, a recently released multiple-choice test for AP macroeconomics had a multiple-choice question for each of the changes listed above. The test’s essay or free-response questions also have foreign exchange market questions—requiring students, for example, to draw the market for Euros and show the impact on the dollar price per Euro of an increase in real interest rates in the Euro zone.

Few college teachers seem to have revised their teaching of monetary policy.Moreover, the College Board has already released revised curriculum units for important policy changes recently introduced by the Federal Reserve System. The most important of these is the mechanism by which the Federal Reserve will adjust the structure of interest rates, as they have recently been doing. The Fed will now directly change the interest rate charged to commercial banks when they borrow reserves from the Fed. This is in contrast to the traditional selling of government bonds to raise interest rates or the buying of bonds to lower them. Thus, already, AP teachers are expected to teach this revised monetary policy mechanism and to prepare students for such changes on upcoming AP exams. Almost no college textbook has introduced this change into its current edition. Anecdotally, few college teachers seem to have revised their teaching of the monetary policy quite yet.

The publicly released curricula for AP economics courses are rigorous and in the vanguard of economics teaching. Indeed, they are likely ahead of the majority of undergraduate economics courses in certain respects. In sum, the AP economics system is well-designed and trustworthy. Many introductory college courses have some catching up to do.

Clark Ross has taught economics at Davidson College since 1979. He served as dean of the faculty for nearly fifteen years.