Advanced Placement®: Some Research Reflections — An Interview with Dr. Kristin Klopfenstein 
Friday, March 25, 2011 at 1:39PM
AVID Center

By: Rob Gira, Executive Vice President, AVID Center

As an economist, Dr. Kristin Klopfenstein looks closely at return on investment.  Thus, she examines the dollars that school districts invest, and has not been shy in her criticism of AP® “helicopter drops.” Jay Mathews, the unabashed AP advocate from the Washington Post, has called her the “smartest critic of AP in low-income schools,” but in meeting with her on several occasions, I have been impressed with her understanding of what underserved students need and deserve from our school system, as well as the importance of teachers in changing students’ lives.

If you want to see a healthy debate between two student champions, read Jay’s interview with KristinAs you will see, Mathews came away with an appreciation for Klopfenstein’s thinking.  For additional study, Dr. Klopfenstein has also published an insightful paper with Dr. Kathleen Thomas,The Advanced Placement performance advantage: fact or fiction,” that is worth reading.

In addition to her incisive research, Klopfenstein’s work appeals to me because of her understanding of how the AP pipeline must be built.  It is not just a high school responsibility.  At AVID Center, we have had plenty of AP experience and have learned some important lessons as well.  See our paper here.

Dr. Klopfenstein holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Colorado and a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from The George Washington University. She is the founding Executive Director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado, a center that is beginning work this year to identify and interpret the best research on current education issues for policymakers and practitioners. Klopfenstein also serves as interim director of the University of Texas at Dallas Education Research Center (UTD-ERC), a repository of data on Texas schools and universities where she also worked as a senior researcher the last two years. At UTD-ERC she has collaborated with top researchers from around the country on projects of importance to Texas schools and participated in the federally-funded National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER). She came to UTD from Texas Christian University, where she was on the faculty in the Department of Economics from 1999 to 2010.

Dr. Klopfenstein is best known for the research on Advanced Placement that has challenged truisms about the benefits of students taking AP classes and weighed the costs and benefits of government programs subsidizing AP expansion. Most recently she co-edited “AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program,” published last year by Harvard Education Press. An overarching thread through all her work has been scrutiny of factors that influence preparation for college and successful workforce transitions for low-income, rural, black, and Hispanic students.

I had the opportunity to interview her about AP and AVID, and below is a partial transcript of her remarks.  More of this interview will be featured in an upcoming issue of Access.

You have conducted several studies analyzing the causal impact of Advanced Placement participation on student outcomes such as college grades and time to graduation, using a large data base of Texas students. What were your major findings and how might they affect your future work?

The first questions that interested me were just about access. Early on, I found that students from low-income, rural, and small schools had the least access to AP, and that the gap was more about poverty than ethnicity.  I was finding that low-income students took AP courses at less than half the rate of more advantaged peers. From there, I moved to the more complex causal questions, investigating the extent to which taking AP could directly affect postsecondary outcomes. You get closer to estimating cause by adding more controls and using certain statistical techniques. I found that AP had a strong positive effect, but when I added other factors such as the highest math course a kid had taken and the number of science, the AP effect disappeared. That told me that benefits originally attributed to AP were really caused by the other courses students were taking. If a regimen of tough courses — probably beginning in middle school — is what improves a kid’s chances of success in college, then expanding AP alone can’t be expected to improve the academic prospects of traditionally underserved students. This echoes the work of Clifford Adelman, who also found that rigorous courses matter most. So what’s next for me? If AP alone is not having the effect, I want to know why. I want to look at how taking AP classes affects college aspirations and the role colleges play in supporting low-income and minority students. I also want to look at whether taking AP affects the type of colleges and universities students choose as well as their need for remediation in college.

You report that AP participation more than doubled between 1997 and 2005, with a corresponding decline in passing rates. What led to the huge increase in AP participation and do you see any positive impact for U.S. students, their families, and school districts?

A lot of it was driven by the ratcheting up of competition in college admissions, and students seeking ways to distinguish their applications from others. This continues to be a major driver. Another contributor was the emergence of AP as a reform strategy, as well as the development of Newsweek magazine’s high school rankings, which are based most heavily on AP participation. In some cases, this led principals to expand AP offerings beyond what they can support at a quality level. When I trained at AP institutes in economics, I was appalled at the number of young teachers who were being thrown into AP without the proper background and experience. It is important to note that while we have chipped away at the access problem for low-income and minority students, we still need to address significant disparities in AP teacher preparation.

Your book mentions AVID as a positive intervention that might warrant state and district investment. What led you to this conclusion? Do you see AVID as a key component of an AP pipeline?

AVID hit my radar as I was becoming frustrated with schools that participated in AP ‘helicopter drops,’ bringing in AP courses in schools without the proper student preparation and support. These are college courses after all, and kids need support to succeed in them. Our K-12 curriculum should teach kids explicitly how to be good students, but currently it does not do that, and AVID fulfills that critical need. We make assumptions about our students that they learned good study habits from their parents. But many don’t. College students get frustrated when they realize that they could have gotten much more out of college if they’d had some training in how to be a good learner. What AVID teaches, that AP alone doesn’t teach, is that successful students are 24-7 learners, not just 8:00 to 3:30 learners. When enough students recognize that difference, it can change the culture of an entire campus.


Phillip Sadler addresses a wide audience in the final chapter of the book—including students, parents, teachers, administrators, state leaders. If you had only a few words of advice for each group, what would you add to his comments?

Advice to students:  If you are new to AP, talk to the teacher before enrolling to make sure you have the academic background to succeed. If you take the class, complete all the assignments and take the AP exam. It is the only way you’ll have a shot at getting college credit and it will tell you how your performance compared with students across the country.

Advice to parents:  Make sure your child is academically ready for the advanced coursework and willing to spend more time on the heavier AP assignments. If your child’s primary interest is getting advanced placement (in other words, placing out of intro-level college courses) for skills already in their toolbox, colleges offer exams at the beginning of the freshman year that can accomplish this without taking a course. One common example of this situation occurs when a student’s native language can count for a college’s foreign language requirement. If your child’s primary interest is college credit, the dual-credit program provides another option. If faced with the choice between taking an AP course via distance learning or a dual credit course in a classroom, choose the classroom every time.

Advice to teachers:  Make it clear to students that you expect them to complete all the work and take the exam. Stress good study skills as well as content and help students understand that colleges’ policies about accepting AP credit vary greatly.

Advice to school and district administrators:  Make sure all AP teachers have adequate training and all AP students have adequate preparation. Be mindful of the costs of AP courses on non-AP students given fixed resources. Start identifying promising students from underserved groups in middle school and provide them with the high-level courses they need to be on track to succeed in AP. Work to mitigate equity issues by ensuring that all schools offer rigorous courses and sound methods for identifying underserved students with high academic potential.

Advice to policy-makers: Conduct rigorous cost-benefit analyses of AP programs. Recognize that success in high-level courses, AP or not, is the strongest predictor of college success. Offer a variety of accelerated learning options for students with different needs.

Article originally appeared on AVID Adventures in College & Career Readiness (
See website for complete article licensing information.