AP Courses: Corrupt?

John Tierney says Yes, and here are his reasons:

My beef with AP courses isn’t novel. The program has a bountiful supply of critics, many of them in the popular press (see here and here), and many increasingly coming from academia as well (see here). The criticisms comport, in every particular, with my own experience of having taught an AP American Government and Politics course for ten years.

  • AP courses are not, in fact, remotely equivalent to the college-level courses they are said to approximate. Before teaching in a high school, I taught for almost 25 years at the college level, and almost every one of those years my responsibilities included some equivalent of an introductory American government course. The high-school AP course didn’t begin to hold a candle to any of my college courses. My colleagues said the same was true in their subjects.
  • The traditional monetary argument for AP courses — that they can enable an ambitious and hardworking student to avoid a semester or even a year of college tuition through the early accumulation of credits — often no longer holds. Increasingly, students don’t receive college credit for high scores on AP courses; they simply are allowed to opt out of the introductory sequence in a major. And more and more students say that’s a bad idea, and that they’re better off taking their department’s courses.
  • The scourge of AP courses has spread into more and more high schools across the country, and the number of students taking these courses is growing by leaps and bounds. Studies show that increasing numbers of the students who take them are marginal at best, resulting in growing failure rates on the exams. The school where I taught essentially had an open-admissions policy for almost all its AP courses. I would say that two thirds of the students taking my class each year did not belong there. And they dragged down the course for the students who did.
  • Despite the rapidly growing enrollments in AP courses, large percentages of minority students areessentially left out of the AP game. And so, in this as in so many other ways, they are at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to college admissions.
  • The AP program imposes “substantial opportunity costs” on non-AP students in the form of what a school gives up in order to offer AP courses, which often enjoy smaller class sizes and some of the better teachers. Schools have to increase the sizes of their non-AP classes, shift strong teachers away from non-AP classes, and do away with non-AP course offerings, such as “honors” courses. These opportunity costs are real in every school, but they’re of special concern in low-income school districts.
  • To me, the most serious count against Advanced Placement courses is that the AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification — a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.

In short, somewhere along the way over the past half-century, the AP idea got corrupted.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Joe Canner

    I have taken AP courses, taught AP courses, and have children who have taken or are taking AP courses. Here are my thoughts:

    1. The extent to which AP courses resemble college courses may depend on the discipline. AP courses in Math and Science are quite rigorous and do a reasonable job of approximating introductory courses at the average college. Courses in the social sciences that require a lot of research and writing, perhaps not so much.

    2. I agree that the monetary advantage doesn’t always pan out. However, it is still good preparation for college; one just needs to have reduced expectations. For example, most schools teach Biology in 9th grade. Even if you don’t do well on the Advanced Biology AP, you are still better prepared to take college biology than if you hadn’t had biology since 9th grade.

    3. I agree with the last several points, but I don’t think they require that the AP program be abolished. The original intent is still valid: gifted students shouldn’t have to repeat in college material they have already covered in high school. These critiques can and should be used to reform the AP program, but getting rid of it would be a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Phil Miller

    All I can say is that the math and history AP courses were probably more rigorous than any of their equivalents at the university level. I was able to skip the first year of college calculus because of AP math, and I had no problem in doing so. Actually, I believe I started off at an advantage compared to some people because of the quality of my high school calculus teacher.

    So like anything, it comes down to individual cases and schools.

  • http://saintmarkslutheran.org Mark Brown

    The only reason they got corrupted would be that the higher education racket realized that they were losing money on introductory courses and stopped giving credit. One corrupt regime creating another.

    And please, let’s stop giving credence to the “rigid stultification and mindless genuflection” bloviating. These are by and large classes taught in packed lecture halls that should be about the accumulation of knowledge. Exactly what the AP tests for. Do you have the entry level knowledge to actually move on to analysis, synthesis and evaluation? And if we were looking at the real scandal it would be that except for those motivated students those college lecture hall classes fail miserably at that.

  • Joe Canner

    Mark #3: Or, alternatively, colleges put pressure on the AP folks to make the tests harder and/or grade them harder and/or change the curve so that fewer students get qualifying scores.

    I had the same thought as your second paragraph. While it is true that AP courses “teach to the test”, zoom through material, and stifle creativity, this is not much different than the average freshman-level college course.

  • Leslie

    The same arguments can be made about taking courses at a community college or any other institution that is not the institution you plan to graduate from particularly when the courses are in a sequence. Invariably, courses in a sequence are not going to measure up exactly from institution to institution as different professors are going to emphasize different points or skip over items that other professors feel are important. For this reason, I have read the pre-med and nursing students are advised to always take all the courses in their anatomy sequence at the same institution in order to make sure they have covered everything.

  • Joe Canner

    Phil #2: You are no doubt correct that the level of rigor differs between high schools. College Board has made an attempt to standardize and accredit AP courses, but there is little that they can do to make sure that teachers are actually teaching the material in a rigorous way. Perhaps College Board should decertify (or at least put on probation) high schools that have low pass rates and who can’t explain these results on the basis of the underlying demographics. This might also address the author’s third bullet point.

    One aspect of all this that could indeed be considered scandalous is that many schools inflate GPAs based on grades in AP courses. If the courses are not taught rigorously and there are few barriers to entry this puts non-AP students (at the same school and elsewhere) at a disadvantage when it comes to college admissions.

  • John Morris

    What about schools that have dual – credit courses, in which students get high school AND college credit, rather than a true AP class. For example, I passed the AP eng test after a year of AP eng, which meant I was exempt from one semester of college eng. Had I done a bit better on my second year of AP Eng (I needed a 4 on the test, got a 3), I would have be exempt from 2nd semester eng in college. So, at best, two years in hs equaled two semesters (ie. one year) college credit.

    My friends who took the dual credit courses got one semester of college credit for every semester in hs. And I am sure most other high schools have similar programs. I went to hs in a very small town with only one high school, one middle school, and one elementary. There was not even a jr. college in our town. All the dual credit courses were done through distance-learning, so I am sure other schools could do the same. Would this be better than AP?

    As far as the comment that students didn’t get college credit, just exemption from part of the introductory sequence in college was true for me. However, this meant that I could take whatever I wanted to fill those hours. While it didn’t save me any money, it meant I could pick a course more related to my field of study and more within my interests.

    As far as opportunity costs, ethnic disadvantages, and the rest, I have no disagreement

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    I’ll just that for myself, my AP experience was good. I’ll be honest, I went to a top 50 university for my undergrad and I felt that the AP courses I took were comparable to most of the intro/non-major level courses I took. In fact, my first year of college was easier than my senior year when I took the equivalent of 5 AP courses. Now, I also went to a good high school where the pass rate was extremely high and the teachers are top-notch. Doing the amount of AP work I did helped me graduated college in 3 years instead of 4-5. My one complaint is that I got out of college earlier and had a floater year before seminary, which really isn’t much of a complaint. I could have taken on an extra minor and spent the 4 traditional years. Still, I saved a year’s worth of tuition this way.

    As for the rest of it, he totally might be correct. In my experience though, the AP track was a real help.

  • Anna

    I agree with Derek. My AP experience was also good. But I will also say I attended a very academically intense, private college prep high school. In order to get into an AP class, a person had to have faculty approval. Overall, I would say I barely had any classes in college that were as challenging as some of my AP classes (and I was in a competitive program at a top university). In my AP English class, we probably wrote more than 50 papers over the course of the year. After taking AP Spanish, I tested out of every Spanish class a person could test out of. Others who graduated from my high school had much of the same experience. Granted, I also know others who got good grades in their AP classes, but did not pass their AP exams, or have anywhere near the rigorous level of study I had. I also know people who took classes at community colleges where the level of academic rigor was about equal to a high school class–in the non-honors track.

    It’s been nearly 10 years since I graduated high school, and I don’t know all of the issues with the AP system, but I would say the larger issues I saw with AP classes are issues of the educational system as a whole–students receiving credit and good grades for sub par work and then arriving at college and wondering why they weren’t prepared.

  • Meri

    I work for a small niche educational publishing company specializing in test prep that is integrated into regular lesson plans. Our bread and butter is our AP product lines. I do know that there has been a trend in some school districts to encourage more “regular” students to take AP courses to help challenge and inspire them to reach higher. Other school districts are more concerned about pass rates and have required AP students to take the exam if they are going to enroll in the school’s AP course — and most schools require students to pay the exam fee, although a few schools pay it for them. If the district doesn’t require students to take the exam, it’s not uncommon for students to take the course simply at the urging of their parents, because AP courses are generally taught better and more challenging. There’s no rule requiring AP students to sit for the exam, unless the individual school requires it.

    Interestingly, my daughter took an AP history course and then transferred into a regular history class. It was taught by the same teacher, but she said the teacher was like a different person in her AP class compared to her regular class. Most teachers enjoy teaching AP classes because the students are more motivated and serious, and it shows in their demeanor toward the students and the fervor with which they teach.

    Regardless, it’s silly to quibble over whether schools should offer challenging classes to their students. Of course they should! There will always be some tweaking to be done as far as what materials should be required and student admittance. In fact, the college board in recent years has added a requirement for schools offering AP courses: AP teachers have to submit a detailed syllabus and get it approved by the College Board before they can begin teaching the course.

    International Baccalaureate (IB) programs are also gaining popularity, and believe me, they are far more rigorous than Advanced Placement! IB classes are probably the equivalent of college honors programs — these students literally have to forego participation in extracurriculars or part-time jobs. They simply cannot keep up with the IB reading and work load unless they study constantly.

    I know high schools that offer AP, IB and dual credit classes, along with regular courses. Of course, this is in the DFW suburbs, where high schools run 3000+ in enrollment. But perhaps there is a place for all three, depending upon students’ motivation and interest.


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