What’s Really Wrong with Advanced Placement Courses and College Board?

“Fraudulent schemes come in all shapes and sizes,” asserts John Tierney, adding, ” To work, they typically wear a patina of respectability. That’s the case with Advanced Placement [A.P.] courses, one of the great frauds currently perpetrated on American high-school students.”

Tierney calling the A.P. program from the College Board a scam may seem at first to be at best hyperbole and at worst, baseless screed.

But I find Tierney’s arguments are important as one more door opening into what is wrong with the College Board broadly, as well as what is wrong with A.P. more specifically.

Let me offer some context for my assertions to follow.

First, I am no fan of the College Board’s SAT, having addressed the class-, race-, and gender-based flaws with the SAT for at least two decades now—along with confronting the more recent flaws with the 2005 addition of writing on the SAT, the David Coleman planned reboot, and the proposed relationship with the Khan Academy.

However, from 1984 until 2002, while teaching high school English in a rural South Carolina public school, I always taught either advanced feeder courses, A.P. Literature courses, or both.

My experience with A.P. in a small impoverished high school that often ranked first in the state for highest percentage of students enrolled in A.P. courses was not typical because our district policy was to push as many students up into the advanced track as possible (occasionally with those students and their parents kicking and screaming). As well, my A.P. students hovered around scoring 3 or above at about only a 50% rate—whereas at nearby high schools, A.P. was a strictly gated program and those teachers were expected to have 3 or above rates at 100% [1].

The commitment of my district also included that my classes were very small and I had nearly complete autonomy for the content of the courses and how I taught the courses.

As a result of the unusual context of my A.P. experience as a public school teacher, my background is mostly positive in terms of how well we prepared students for college within our unique implementation of the A.P. program (notably disregarding—or at least greatly expanding—the College Board’s guidelines for gatekeeping that existed in those years).

Like the SAT, the College Board’s A.P. program experienced changes in who took the exams throughout the 1980s and 1990s, during my public teaching career. Since the early 2000s, A.P. programs have increasingly lost value at the university level (as Tierney points out and Schneider details, and as I have witnessed, colleges are often likely to give less or different credit than parents and students expect, and for much higher scores).

The A.P. program has also received criticism (again like the SAT) for inherent inequity problems, mostly about the lack of diversity in who has access to the courses or the score gaps among race and class groups.

But, this still leaves us with an important question regarding Tierney’s provocative claim: Are A.P. courses a scam?

My short answer is that we must come to terms with this: The A.P. program (as well as the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams, Common Core, and all test-based practices and policies in education) is a deeply flawed distraction, as Jack Schneider concludes:

Without a doubt, programs like AP have their place. And in many schools AP remains a valuable addition to the curriculum. But when we pretend that all our schools need is the right reform, we erode our collective will to do the harder work required of us. We distract ourselves from our greater purposes. (see HERE and HERE for additional criticism of A.P. by Schneider)

While not unique to the program, A.P. ultimately fails the broader promise of universal public education in the following ways:

  • The A.P. program is grounded in gatekeeping (historically hard gatekeeping metrics as well as lingering soft gatekeeping dynamics) and tracking [2], both of which are counter to goals of equity in public schooling. As a result, A.P. scores share with SAT (and ACT) scores the power to perpetuate privilege and establish inequitable schools-within-schools.
  • The A.P. program is one example of the popular and political fetish for “top students”—a fabricated crisis that speaks to and perpetuates privilege [3].
  • A.P. tests further reinforce the reduction of learning and merit to single test scores generated from one testing session. As well, the importance of the A.P. score as a potential ticket to earning college credit (and the claim that this process can save students and their parents money) can and often reduces A.P. courses to teaching-to-the-tests.
  • Through the aura of being an “elite” program and by their selective nature, A.P. courses erode efforts to create educational settings that are equitable for all students. [The A.P. program was built on the allure of being elite, and regardless of the College Board's claims for seeking equity and diversity, the A.P. program benefits from elitism and selectivity.]
  • The concept of “earning college credit while in high school” distorts and marginalizes the value of both student intellectual development and instructional time spent in courses. While I disagree in some respects with Tierney’s claim that A.P. course are rarely comparable to college-level courses (some A.P. Literature and A.P. Language courses are far more demanding than freshman composition courses), I would pose that it is essentially impossible to capture a college experience in a high school classroom—and there is no reason to seek that goal as well.
  • Thus, A.P. courses draw too much focus on attaining certain content and away form valuing the entire learning experience that is greater than content acquisition.
  • A.P. courses and programs are a secondary and additional financial drain on families (often indirectly) and public funding, yet another source of expenses (time and funding) for materials, tests, and training that would be better spent elsewhere.
  • Another part of the allure of the A.P. program is similar to the promise embedded in the Common Core—establishing a standard curriculum across the U.S. However, if the A.P. program shows us anything, it is that the goal of standardization is both misguided and impossible to attain. In this respect, the A.P. program may not be quite a scam, but it is a mirage.
  • And as Schneider emphasizes, A.P. courses suggest that all we need to do it get what is taught, how it is taught, and how it is tested right and then all will be well. Among almost all the current calls for in-school-only education reform, A.P. courses are distractions from needed social reform and in-school reform seeking equity.

My final point about the College Board’s A.P. program is the same as my argument about school choice: We need to create the sort of equitable public school curriculum for all students that would make A.P. courses unnecessary.

The best parts of my and my students’ experiences when I taught A.P.—small class sizes, teacher autonomy, rich content (mostly immune from censorship), administrative support—can and should be what all teachers and students experience as the norm of schooling—not the rare air of selective programs that cost parents and schools additional funds and time to create.

[1] At surrounding high schools (and common across the U.S.) in the 1980s and 1990s, students were often blocked from taking A.P. courses unless they had scored well on the PSAT or met other quantitative requirements set by schools. At one nearby high school, for example, that had a student body 3 to 4 times larger than where I taught, the A.P. Literature class was about the same number of students as the one I taught.

[2] See Moving Beyond Tracking, Mathis (2013)

[3] Satire Warning: See a post from 2011 below about the “top student” crisis:

Top Student Crisis!: A Call for Trickle-Down Education Reform

The elite minds at The Thomas B. Fordham Institute have unmasked a serious but neglected crisis in education:

[M]any high-achieving students struggle to maintain their elite performance over the years and often fail to improve their reading ability at the same rate as their average and below-average classmates. The study raises troubling questions: Is our obsession with closing achievement gaps and ‘leaving no child behind’ coming at the expense of our ‘talented tenth’—and America’s future international competitiveness?

This study has prompted Room for Debate at The New York Times to ask: “Are Top Students Getting Short Shrift?”

The answer? According to Rick Hess, “We are shortchanging America’s brightest students, and we’re doing it reflexively and furtively.”

The top students in U.S. schools are in crisis, and the economic competitiveness of our country hangs in the balance. With this now exposed, I am calling for a move to trickle-down education reform, modeled on the trickle-down economic theories driving our commitment to avoid overtaxing the wealthy in the U.S. since they are our job creators and the backbone of our thriving economy.

Trickle-Down Education Reform

Trickle-down education reform requires our current education reform movement—spearheaded by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, philanthropist Bill Gates, and student-first advocate Michelle Rhee—to shift its focus on the bottom 10% of student performance and apply their same reform to the top 10%. This transformation must include the following:

  • Initiate funding of Teach for America (TfA) to send their core of teachers to teach in high-needs schools serving the top 10% achieving students. This core must replace the current experienced and certified teachers now teaching the top students.
  • Initiate funding to support Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools to serve schools consisting only of the the top 10% of students. These top students must be held to “no excuses” and taught to form lines, make eye contact, shake hands, say “yes, sir” and “no, sir,” and chant daily words of inspiration that will serve them well in corporate America.
  • Place the top students in classes with 40-to-1 student/teacher ratios.
  • Eliminate all band, music, art, and PE courses at the schools serving the top students and insure that these students focus exclusively on math, ELA, and science in order to perform well on state and national tests.
  • Increase dramatically the number of tests top students take and provide these top students the intense test-prep they deserve.

Once these reforms have been implemented, of course, we must hold the TfA teachers and KIPP schools accountable for not only the test scores of these top students but also the trickle-down effect of these policies on the remaining 90% of students who are currently being served to the detriment of our top students.

As Michael J. Petrilli implores us:

But if we want to do right by our highest-achieving students — and maintain America’s international competitiveness — we should rethink the move to eradicate tracking. Future generations will thank us.