Raising the Cut-Off Score on the College Board Advanced Placement Examinations in Composition and Literature: Justification for a First-Year Writing Curriculum


Richard H. Haswell

Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi


24 August 2003


Sometimes English departments want to raise the level that allows waiver, placement, or credit for their first-year writng courses, raise it from a score of 3 to a score of 4 or 5 on the College Board Advanced Placement Literature and Composition Examination. But they get resistance from their administration and from the local high schools serving their institution, or they are asked to provide justification for the move. This Webpage provides some data, bibliography, and expert opinion that can help justify raising the cut-off.


The main argument for raising the cut-off score has been that a score of 3 does not possess good predictive validity in terms of a school's first-year writing curriculum. Advanced Placement courses in high-school and performance on the AP Exam may not train or test for skills taught in the first-year course, or in the beginning course of a first-year sequence. Those skills may be in researching, use of sources, citation methods, complex argumentation, rhetorical critique, or any number of other instructional expectations built into the first-year composition curriculum. The students scoring 3 (which typically will be over half of the high-school students who sit for the AP Exam) are put at risk if they do not enroll in the initial writing course. There are other arguments, of course. An especially forceful one questions the logic of testing for writing skills with short-answer questions and a brief essay responding to works of creative literature. Another points to the poor record of minorites in enrolling in AP courses and in scoring on the AP Exams.


It is wise to keep in mind the distinction among waiver, placement, and credit . Waiver merely removes a course or courses from a student's curricular requirements. Placement allows a student to begin at a certain point in a curricular sequence. Credit may or may not involve waiver and placement, but it always awards credit hours to the student. Combinations of the three are possible, and a student may be given three hours credit toward graduation, credit, however, not applied toward any particular course. Naturally enough, of the three the student and often the institution prefer advance credit. They are not much persuaded by the fact that the College Board titles its examinations "Advanced Placement" and not "Advanced Credit."


For its part, the College Board does not specifically recommend how admissions offices use success on their examinations, nor do they recommend any particular cut-off point. They do define a score of 3 as "qualified," whatever that means. And they make this statement: "Almost two-thirds of the students achieved grades of 3 or above on AP's 5-point scale--sufficiently high to qualify for credit and/or enrollment in advanced courses at many four-year colleges and universities, including some of the most selective"http://www.collegeboard.com/press/senior99/html/990831b.html. The operational words here (some would call them weasel words) are "many" and "some." See the piece by William Lichten for data that break this language down to specifics.


The following has four parts:


                  A. Table of institutions with a cut-off above a score of 3

                  B. Some opinions from experts in composition

                  C. Brief bibliography on AP validity

                  D. Memorndum justifying the move from a cut-off of 3 to 4




Some institutions offering placement or exemption for first-year composition with an AP score of no less than 4 (information gathered August 2003)




AP scores that earn waiver of requirement

AP scores that earn granting of credit

Qualifications (English 101 = first course in first-year sequence; English 102 = second course in first-year sequence)

Arizona State University


4 or 5

does not earn exemption for English 102

Atlanta Christian College   4 or 5 does not earn exemption for English 102

Berry College


4 or 5


Carleton University



student can’t exempt out of upper-division writing-across-the-curriculum requirement

Catholic University



students must still take an advanced writing cours

Cornell University


4 or 5


DePaul University

4 or 5



Eastern Oregon State University

4 or 5

4 or 5

credit granted only with additional evidence, such as a portfolio of high school writing

Eastern Washington State University


4 or 5


Gonzaga University


4 or 5

4 granted elective credit, not English 101

Gustavus Adolphus College


4 or 5


Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis   4 or 5 credit for 101 only on the English Language and Composition Exam; 4 or 5 on the Literature and Composition Exam earns different credit

Lynchburg University


4 or 5

credit for English 101 only; all students required to take English 102

Miami University of Ohio


4 or 5

4 earns English 101 credit; 5 English 101 and English 102 credit

Montclair University


4 or 5


Montgomery College, Germantown


4 or 5


Quinnipiac University   4 or 5  

Seton Hall University


4 or 5

does not earn exemption from English 101

Stanford University



no AP credit for composition courses

State University of New York, Buffalo

4 or 5



University of Maryland, Baltimore County


4 or 5


University of Miami   4 or 5 4 earns credit for English 101; 5 for English 101 and 102

Texas A&M, Corpus Christi


4 or 5

exempts from English 101, not English 102

University of Arkansas, Little Rock


4 or 5


University of Colorado


4 or 5


University of Missouri Columbia


4 or 5


University of San Francisco


4 or 5


University of Texas at Tyler


4 or 5


University of Washington



no AP credit for composition courses

University of Wyoming


4 or 5


Univesity of Illinois at Urbana


4 or 5


Washington State University


4 or 5

earns credit but not for English 101 or English 102





Some extended defense of an AP cut-off at no less than 4, for waiving of first-year composition requirement or for first-year composition credit (source: The Writing Program Administrators listserve [WPA-L], August 2003)


(1) My daughter's AP American History class was told by their teacher, who is also the chair of the History Dept at the high school, that only a 4 or 5 on the AP test would be accepted by any "quality" university.  Apparently, the 4 or 5, then, is the common assumption for AP tests, and students are told this by teachers in every AP class at the high school.


Deborah H. Holdstein, PhD

Faculty Associate for Graduate Studies and Research, Office of the Provost

Professor of English and Rhetoric, CAS

Governors State University


(2) This takes me back a bit. I think ASU still accepts only 4 or 5 for credit. When I was WPA, we got some pressure to give some credit for 3's. I'm not sure about the current stats, but then about 20% of the students who took the test scored 4 or 5 while over 60% scored 3, 4, or 5. That was a sign. You can certainly see why ETS would like us to give credit for 3's. But we actually read the AP essays that were awarded a score of 3, ands then we understood why the big jump from 20 to 60% and we decided that 3 level writing did not merit college credit. The essays were pretty weak.


What I don't really know is how students who earn 3's on the AP actually do in our composition courses. I suspect that they do quite well.  Students who take AP courses tend to be high school achievers who are reasonably conscientious students.  They are more likely than many other students to be successful in college. That does not mean, however, that they would not benefit from our composition courses. It means only that they would do well. I remember someone around here once proposed that we should identify the profile of the students who got A's in ENG 101 and exempt students with that profile from the course. I have never heard that proposal made for CHEM 101. The logic is interesting.  Students who do well in a course do not need the course. That would make college a quick trip for a 4.0 graduate.


The very idea that such logic would be applied to first-year composition suggests that others do not view a comp course as a learning experience but simply as a test of competency already acquired.    


David E. Schwalm

Vice Provost for Academic Affairs

Arizona State Univerity East


(3) David's point is crucial and bears repeating.  An equivalency exam such as AP must use the OUTCOMES of a course as criteria, not just some general ability measure.  That's why you can't use the same test for both placement and equivalency.  Even perfect understanding of algebra (good preparation for calculus) doesn't mean you know calculus.  If your program can't distinguish good preparation for college comp from completion of the goals of college comp, your course is a real problem.


Ed White

Senior Lecturer

University of Arizona


 (4) At DePaul, we accept a score of 4 or 5 on the AP English Language and Composition examination to waive with credit the first of two required FY writing courses.  A student who presents a score of 4 or 5 on the AP English Literature and Composition examination gets credit for English 120, an elective Introduction to Literature course.


As the incoming chief reader for the English Language and Composition exam (and therefore the target of a good bit of animadversion from my colleagues in rhetoric and composition), I unofficially support colleges' and universities' holding the line at scores of 4 and 5, and not accepting a 3 for credit and/or waiver, which is what the College Board wants.


Two more thoughts from someone who's been working with the AP English Language and Composition Program since 1992:


First, ETS doesn't want colleges and universities to accept scores of 3; the College Board, which "owns" the AP Program, does.  ETS is the subcontractor here--it only oversees the development and scoring of AP exams.  The College Board, which is a very different organization from ETS and becoming even more so, has for many years been trying to advocate for a score of 3 as "qualified" for advanced placement.  Second, as I've pointed out before, the name of the program is Advanced Placement, not Advanced Exemption, and this distinction has implications for both students and college/university writing programs.  Students need to see instruction in writing as a continuing education, and those earning scores of 4 and 5 need to go into more advanced, more challenging rhetoric/writing courses.  Colleges and universities, for their part, need to offer an array of writing courses as entry points into this continuing education for students with varying writing abilities.  So long as first-year composition is a one-size-fits-all monolith, diligent students are going to try to avoid it.


David Jolliffe

DePaul University


 (5) The University of Washington has stopped accepting any AP score for composition credit.  We are giving general humanities credit for scores of 4 or 5 on either or both exams, but nothing that includes writing.  It seems like a good compromise to us.  Students do typically get a meatier course in AP, but . . . I'd still rather have a high school teacher not go through contortions trying to fit American literature into AP Language and Composition.


As for the recruiting issue, I suspect that most state universities are in the same position as we are: far more qualified students than we can possibly accept.  So until the gremlins and demons in our various state legislatures agree to teach the baby boomlet, perhaps recruiting won't be as big an issue.


Our admissions director also tells me that some colleges are proposing "banking" AP type credit, allowing students to wait until after their first year to see if they want to use the credit.  For calculus here, for example, it turns out that students track differently depending on whether they intend to go into the biological sciences or math-based sciences and accordingly take the appropriate track.  AP Calculus courses don't typically address the different disciplinary communities using college level math (um. . . sort of like writing).  One of the problems we've run into here in WA is legislators who are unhappy with students who are graduating with more than the minimum credit hours.  We had a bill this year, which thankfully died, to charge 5th year students the full state support plus tuition.  Those "extra" hours available from AP, CLEP, dual credit and the like may come back and bite us.


Gail Stygal

Director of the Expository Writing Program

Associate Professor of English

University of Washington


(6) When I was at Michigan, we cooperated with ACT folk to compare the correlation of ACT scores vs our placement test scores as a predictor of success in FY Composition. Basically, the ACT scores were useless as predictors, since the average was above 25. The range of ACT scores was just too small for them to predict performance in FY Comp


Bill Condon

Director of University Writing Programs

Professor of English

Washington State University


(7) Seton Hall University restricted the acceptable AP cutoff scores to 4 and 5 a few years ago when we realized that the score of 3 did not guarantee an acceptably high level of achievement.  While Seton Hall has recently entered the ranks of Tier II institutions, it doesn't pretend to be Princeton or Williams.  The point is that even a somewhat less competitive school like ours felt the need to raise the bar because those students with 3's looked pretty much like the rest of the College English I students


Ed Jones

Assistant Professor of English

Seton Hall University


(8) We did a study here last year that looked at the writing of students in their sophomore year who were enrolled in a history of civ course. We found that students with AP score of 3 who did not take FYC wrote significantly worse than students with 3 who had taken FYC. We also found that students with AP scores of 4 and 5 who didn't take FYC wrote significantly worse than students with 4 and 5 who took FYC. We interpret this to mean that taking FYC adds to a student's ability to write. We hope to use this study to persuade our admin to raise our cut-off score from 3 to 4. Right now we accept 3, but we shouldn't. A score of 3 on the AP exam (either one) is nothing to boast about.


Kristine Hansen
Assoc. Dean of Undergraduate Education--University Writing
Brigham Young University


(9) During the years that I was at Ohio State, we managed to change the AP rule so that students who would have placed out of first year writing instead were highly recommended into a special first year seminar:  students were generally very happy to take that course and, of course, profited from it a great deal.  I am all in favor of AP courses, but they are NOT the equivalent of a college-level writing course IMHO.


Two years ago, on the advice of the University Writing Review Committee, the Stanford Faculty Senate voted to drop AP for placement into writing; as of this year, all incoming students will take one writing class in their first year, a second writing writing course by the end of the second year, and then a writing in the majors class (and usually a capstone course of some kind).


Andrea Lunsford

Professor of English

Stanford University


(10) I believe that the University of Wyoming accepts only scores of 4 or 5. We made this change several years ago, and I haven't heard that we've gone back to a score of 3.


As a former scorer of AP exams, I strongly think that it should be a 4 or 5, not a 3. Of course, I also think that all college students should take a college writing course soon in ther college career, no matter what their AP scores from high school.


Jane Nelson, Director
University of Wyoming Writing Center


 (11) I recently upped our AP cut-off score to 4 or 5 for FY exemption at U Colorado-Boulder. In reviewing the AP curriculum and exam, I found that students in Colorado who scored well were likely to be proficient in a typical, literature-based English course but not a writing course that emphasizes critical inquiry and research across disciplines and methodologies, as our FY course does.


Patricia Sullivan

Director, Program for Writing and Rhetoric

University of Colorado at Boulder


(12) Drew University cuts at 4 on the AP English Literature and Language exams. Students with a 4 or a 5 on either exam exempt composition and earn four credits toward graduation (one course worth). In the spirit of David's reminder that this is a placement exam not an exemption exam, this fall my department will propose that exemption be granted only to students earning a 4 or 5 on the English language exam. Students with a 4 or 5 on the literature exam will simply be placed in a more advanced class. We may negotiate that to an exemption for a 5 on either exam, although I don't see why a literature exam should exempt students when the composition course it replaces is not a literature course. Students coming out of most AP programs lack skills in research and source use and general critical and analytical thinking, and are therefore not as prepared for college-level writing as students who have taken a college composition course. And a 3 is certainly not an indication of college-level proficiency.


Sandra Jamieson

Director of Composition

Drew University


(13) In practice, almost all of the students expecting AP or transfer credit take our placement exam, since the AP scores and transcript do not arrive until July. The results over the years remain fairly consistent. Assuming these students do receive the credit, the profile remains: about 5% would have placed out of our first-year comp course, about 80% would have been placed in our regular EN 101, and about 15% would have been placed in our 101 Intensive (developmental sections). This last group is given liberal arts elective credit, but still required to take our EN 101.


Mary Segall

Quinnipiac University (Connecticut)





A Brief Bibliography


An extensive, keyworded bibliography can be found on CompPile http://comppile.tamucc.edu/search.php. Type in “advanced placement” (without the quotation marks) into the Keyword field; this will locate 120 items, as of August, 2003.


Camara, Wayne; Neil J. Dorans; Rick Morgan; Carol Myford. “Advanced Placement: Access not exclusion”. Education Policy Analysis Archives 08.40 (2000). http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n40.html. Response to William Lichten (see below). Hopes to refute his contention that there has been a decline in AP levels of quality.
Henderson, Sarah. “Why do I have to be here? The Advanced Placement student in first-year composition: Problems and issues in cogntive development”. Journal of Gifted Education 07.1(1995), 324-332. Describes the resistance of students who have been placed in regular comosition yet went through Advanced Placement programs.
Herr, Norman Edward. “Perspectives and policies of undergraduate admissions committees regarding Advanced Placement and honors coursework.” College and University 67.1 (1991), 47-54. Questionnaire survey results of admissions officers and committee chairs on their policies in handling Advanced Placement credit.
Hershey, Susanne W. “College admission practices and the Advanced Placement program.” Journal of College Admissions, No. 128 (1990), 8-11. Surveys and tabulates admissions policies in the Northwest USA and Ohio.
Lichten, William “Whither Advanced Placement?” Education Policy Analysis Archives 08.29 (June 24, 2000) http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n29.html. Extremely useful data substantiating the historical shift of colleges and universities toward a higher cut-off for AP advance credit in all content areas. Argues that less than half of colleges and universities allow a score of 3 or lower for credit/exemption/placement, and that the rate is dropping (this is over all subject areas). The piece documents another general trend: the more prestigious the school, the higher the cut-off score.
Modu, Christopher C. “The validity of the Advanced Placement English Language and Composition Examination.” College English 43.6 (1981). Based predictive power of the AP exams on course grades.
Olson, Gary A.; Elizabeth Metzger; Evelyn Ashton-Jones (Eds.). Advanced Placement English: Theory, politics, and pedagogy. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Heinemann (1989). Collection of essays, pro and con.
Smith, Paul. Grading the Advanced Placement Examination in English: A Report. Princeton, NJ: College Board Publications (1983). The CEEB’s apologia: see Vopat.
Vopat, James B. “Going APE: Reading the Advanced Placement Examination in English composition and literature.” College English 43.3 (1981), 284-292. A caustic description of irregularities in AP rater training and reading practices. For responses to this piece, see College English 44.2 (1982), 195-201.




The following memorandum was successful in convincing administrators at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christ to raise the cut-off score on the AP from 3 to 4.  The memorandum was written August, 2001, by Rich Haswell and Glenn Blalock.


At a meeting of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi English faculty on August 25, 2000, it was unanimously decided to raise the Advanced Placement score that qualifies a student for advanced credit for English 1301 from the current score of three to four. 
There are several reasons for our decision.  Perhaps the most compelling is that recently we have redesigned our English 1302 (the second half of first-year required composition sequence).  English 1302 is the required course that AP advanced credit places a student into here at TAMU-CC.  Intellectually, it is now a more demanding course.  As prerequisite, it expects students already to be skilled in writing lengthy essays that are complexly reasoned and organized and that integrate a variety of outside sources.  These are not skills required for a score of 3 on the AP English examination.  In short, students who earn a score of 3 are at risk in English 1302 as it is now taught at TAMU-CC.
What level of writing skill does a score of 3 on the AP represent?  This is difficult to tell.  It is difficult in large part because of the dubious validity of the exam.  What does a 30 minute essay on a literary work say about a student's writing abilities or potential?  One informative piece of data: 53 percent of Texas students who took the AP examination in the 1998-1999 school year scored 3 or better.
In a comprehensive study of AP practices, William Lichten of Yale University documents that the more selective the university in terms of admissions, the more likely that it requires a score of 4 or higher for advance credit.  According to Lichten, around the nation, only 45 percent of colleges and universities currently allow credit for a score of 3 or lower, and that percentage is falling. ("Whither Advanced Placement? Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 8.29, June, 2000). 
In terms of AP credit, our English faculty would like to imagine TAMU-CC in the upper majority of institutions of higher learning rather than in the lower minority.  We imagine that other of the Texas A&M universities imagine the same of their institution.
It's important to note that raising the qualifying score to 4 would still mean that around 30 percent of AP test-takers in Texas would earn advanced credit in English.  In other words, changing the qualifying score from 3 to 4 will affect little more than 15 percent of students bringing AP scores to TAMU-CC. 
It might be noted that universities that administer their own placement examinations in writing (examinations usually much more valid that the AP test) typically give advanced credit for their first-year writing course to only around 3-5% of entering freshmen.  A study at Quinnipiac College, where AP students have to undergo the college's own placement examinations, found that only 5% of students who had earned advanced credit in composition courses through AP or dual-credit coursework would have qualified for that credit through the college's placement essay, and that 15% of them would have been placed in remedial sections of first-year writing.