The Advanced Placement program of the College Board has suffered heavy blows recently. The Harvard University faculty recently voted to accept only 5s, the highest possible AP score. The National Academy of Sciences, after an exhaustive, two-year study of the mathematics and science program, has found AP “not satisfactory.” Fieldston has joined other exclusive private schools in completely discarding the AP program without any damage to admission of its graduates to highly selective colleges.

Why this startling decline in AP’s reputation?

Harvard has exposed AP’s weaknesses in its service to the Ivy League elite. But AP’s clientele has become much wider, more broad-based and, as we shall see shortly, even less well served.

The College Board continues to cling to its outmoded, misleading scale for what scores should be acceptable for advanced placement or credit: “1 – no recommendation, 2 – possibly qualified, 3 – qualified, 4 – well-qualified, and 5 -extremely well-qualified.”

Today most selective colleges — those that receive the bulk of AP applicants — require a 4 for qualification. Even before Harvard’s dramatic move, most schools such as Stanford, Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Princeton, accepted only 5s in at least some subjects. Selective colleges often excuse no one from the basic writing course. Finally, some top schools, such as the California Institute of Technology and Amherst, simply do not award advanced placement.

The College Board inaccurately counts all examinations with scores of 3 or higher as qualifying. Two years ago, I suggested counting all 4s and 5s and half of the 3s as qualified, which still errs on the side of generosity. On the basis of this improved scale, only half or less of matriculants’ AP exams qualified.

If the qualification score were set at 5, my guess is that half or less would qualify. But AP students generally are brighter than average. The average college-bound student, whose SAT verbal and math scores average about 500, has a poor chance of earning a passing grade of 3 and even less for a score of 4.

In nonselective, inner-city, predominantly minority high schools, failure in AP is the rule rather than the exception. It is not unusual in such schools for the entire class to fail the AP exam. For example, the average grade for African-American pupils in the Great City Schools, the organization that represents public schools in America’s major cities, is 1.8; scores in other subjects range from 1.4 to 2.3, so far below passing that only a tiny fraction of tests qualify.

These problematic statistics are the product of the College Board’s decision to offer AP tests to a large number of high school students. At first, only a few very able students took AP tests. But then to widen AP access, the College Board recruited more broadly, which lowered the success rate. The College Board then faced a Hobson’s choice. It could either meet college standards and preserve excellence but lose customers, or it could encourage more participation and equity but lose college acceptance.

It chose the latter. In 2000, the College Board announced its intention to double the number of exams by the year 2010. This entails recruiting AP test takers largely from the vast middle and bottom of the distribution, with a necessarily high failure rate. The value added by this expansion is low.

Although it may be true that there is some value to taking a course and failing it, I shall stick to the conventional criterion of measuring success by achieving college qualification.

To illustrate, consider the changes from the year 2000 (1,242,324 exams) to 2001 (1,380,146 exams). Of the incremental 137,822 exams, only about 40,000 — 29 percent — qualify on the improved scale. The AP program, as it involves less well-prepared students, less qualified faculty and less well-endowed schools, appears to have passed the point of diminishing returns. One might suggest that the program is approaching the point of zero return, as far as qualification is concerned.

The NAS report confirms what critics of AP have been saying for years: reforms are needed.

AP needs built-in quality: standards for student and teacher preparation and selection, for curriculum, and level of teaching. To give an example, many schools have dropped regular high school chemistry and replaced it with AP. The outcome has been poor preparation of college matriculants and the raising of Yale’s chemistry requirement to a 5. In some high schools there are two tracks: Advanced Placement and remedial.

The program needs a paradigm shift, which the College Board, with its preoccupation with massive growth, is unable to make. As in the case of the forthcoming reform of the SAT, it will take college leadership and initiative to steer the program in the right direction.

Three-quarters of U.S. high school graduates enter college, but many arrive unprepared. Nearly half take a remedial course, one-third fail to make it into the sophomore class, and less than half graduate. A major reason for this weak performance is the high school curriculum. The best college graduation predictor is the highest level of high school math completed by the student. The median high school graduate is between geometry and algebra II. Raising this student from algebra II to trigonometry, not AP, would best meet this student’s needs.

In summary, the AP program was designed to meet the needs of elite students headed for highly selective colleges. It still does so somewhat, albeit to a shrinking extent. Less advanced courses are more likely to reach and benefit the bulk of college bound students. AP has a faulty, misleading scale, is overexpanded, and needs outside reform.

William Lichten is a professor emeritus of physics and a fellow of Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies. He was a visitor at the Educational Testing Service during the years 1998 and 1999.