Trachtenberg Professor Dylan Conger Studies How New AP Science Courses Advance Student Outcomes and Interest in STEM

Kerry Belodoff, MPP, Staff Writer Brief Policy Perspectives

Every year millions of American high school students take advanced placement (AP) courses to engage in more rigorous academic content and improve their chances of getting into a top college. Two and a half million students took at least one AP course in 2015, with participation in AP science courses on the rise. Such noteworthy growth and presence in our nation’s schools leads many to wonder what effects AP science courses have on students during high school and beyond. That’s why Trachtenberg Professor Dylan Conger, in partnership with researchers at the University of Washington and SRI International with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), are studying newly redesigned AP Chemistry and Biology courses to provide the first experimental evidence of the effects of taking an AP science course. Conger and colleagues are exploring the impacts of participating in an AP science course on students’ educational progress and interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Additionally, the researchers are looking at how the AP curriculum is implemented in classrooms across the country to identify the triumphs and challenges AP science teachers face.

The newly redesigned AP science curriculum moves away from the traditional emphasis on the acquisition of limited knowledge across many content areas, and instead focuses on students’ development of scientific inquiry skills. Inquiry-based instruction cultivates critical thinking and reasoning skills to promote enduring understanding of subject content, and builds transferable skills that students can bring to college STEM courses. Validly measuring students’ ability to conduct scientific inquiry is essential to capturing the impact of AP. According to Conger, “Our study has resulted in the development of the first instrument, to our knowledge, that assesses high school students’ scientific inquiry skills separately from their content knowledge.” Current science assessments typically measure students’ content knowledge (e.g., stoichiometric calculations in chemistry or the details of the nitrogen cycle in biology) in tandem with their ability to engage in scientific inquiry (e.g., how to ask scientific questions, how to obtain and analyze data, how to draw conclusions). The ability to measure inquiry-skills without the impact of content knowledge is highly valuable to those seeking to evaluate science curricula and other interventions aimed at increasing scientific-inquiry skills.

In addition to developing an innovative instrument for assessing inquiry skills and providing the first experimental estimates of the most widely-used advanced high school curriculum in the country, Dr. Conger’s study also advances research and policy knowledge by providing insights about the challenges involved in implementing AP science courses. Challenges that may arise in implementing an AP science course, such as pacing course content or differentiating based on student needs, have not yet been documented or examined and may be particularly burdensome for schools and districts with limited resources. The study includes a disproportionately high number of schools that serve students from low-income families and traditionally underrepresented minority groups, and Conger notes that “Research on the implementation challenges that schools face aims to help school leaders and teachers as well as curriculum and professional development programs improve access to rigorous, high-quality courses for these students.” Understanding the challenges that accompany expanding access to high-quality STEM experiences for women, minorities, and students with disabilities is important in increasing their participation in STEM, a priority of the Obama administration, as well as NSF.

Prior to this study, Conger conducted research on the drivers of advanced course offerings across schools, the reasons why advanced course-taking is lower among certain groups (such as low-income students), and the effects of taking an advanced course on high school achievement and college-going. This earlier work set a baseline for expectations about the magnitude of the effects of taking an AP course, and the current study will use the highest evidence standards available via a randomized control trial to draw causal links between AP science courses and student outcomes. Conger and colleagues are just now preparing the first implementation report. It has not yet been made public, but Conger notes that the research team is learning a lot about the barriers schools face in implementing AP science courses. Stay tuned!

For more information on this study, check out the press release and a podcast recorded by Dr. Ray McGhee, a research partner at SRI International.

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