AP TESTS: Boon or Bane?


The 2019 AP scores have recently been released and students across the country have eagerly been checking their College Board accounts and hoping that their hard work will have paid off in a score that will earn them college credit.

For less than a $100 per test (and lots of effort), a student can sometimes earn 3 or more credit hours of college credit, saving themselves and their parent’s hundreds of dollars. More importantly, they often enter college with a sense of mastery and confidence that is likely to have significant benefit for their future college success. Even those that do not “pass” the test and earn college credit will likely benefit from having taken a challenging course and learned about the work ethic and their own study habits that they can then use to make changes before they enter college.

Still, there are many critics of the AP Program, who believe the courses provide little academic benefit and cause undue stress on the students.

For an excellent critique of the AP program, based on an analysis of the available research, please check out Stanford University’s Challenge Success program and their white paper, “The Advanced Placement Program: Living Up To Its Promise?”

It should be noted that their analysis is now five years old and would benefit from an update. Additionally, it should be noted that in my opinion there is not a lot of quality peer-reviewed research on the AP Testing program and outcomes. Still, this white paper is a good starting point and raises pertinent issues.  I would love to see College Board collaborate with a group of independent researchers to really dig into the data.

I also think the questions raised in the white paper about the program might be helpful from a policy point of view, but if you are a parent interested in helping your child, or an educator looking to start a new AP class at your school, the white paper has less value.

I agree that AP courses are not the solution for all that ails the education system, nor is it appropriate that every student takes an AP class in order to be successful in college or life.

But in an age when college expenses are making access to higher education increasingly out of reach for many families, the chance to reduce those costs through placing out of introductory classes or earning actual college credit itself is a true benefit for many families.

Another benefit is that the courses generally are of a higher rigor than one would ordinarily get a high school course, and although this varies from school to school, for many students taking the rigorous course and being successful in it can be a confidence booster.

Still, there are a few things that I dream of that I believe would increase the utility of the AP program through increased equity and access to higher education. In no particular order:

  • Allow schools to opt to teach the curriculum over an extended period. Whether this is through the actual AP course itself spread over two years or a preparatory course one year that leads into the AP course.  This would especially benefit students who are non-traditional AP students, or students in schools that might have socioeconomic factors that might limit the student’s success in taking a condensed, faster-paced course.
  • Allow students to take an AP course pass/fail. One of the ridiculous decisions that students and their families feel compelled to make is to imagine whether at their dream university if it is better to get an “A” in the “regular” course or a “B” in the AP Course (or heaven forbid a “C”)! If we really want to increase equity and access to a rigorous curriculum,  take this decision out of the equation and let students take at least one AP class pass/fail.
  •  Increase participation in the AP courses through eliminating tracking. It is ridiculous in 2019 that we are still sitting around in committees evaluating students’ standardized test scores from 6th or 8th grade and making decisions that essentially eliminate them from participating in honors and AP classes. Students should not be denied by schools from taking the most rigorous curriculum available to them if they choose to opt in. Parents should ask their school boards if this is happening in their district and request that it stop.
  • Colleges need to do their part too! Instead of allowing each department to determine how and when to grant college credit, there should be a universal standard. Any student who earns a “3”, a passing score, earns at least 3 college credits in that subject area.

In my dream world, any student who completes the class and takes the test gets at least one general elective college credit even if they “fail” the test.

Every college and every department feels that the courses at the university are superior and significantly more in-depth than a mere high school AP course, that emphasizes broad knowledge over the in-depth critical thinking that they are sure to get in every introductory class taught by every single faculty in their department.

Really? I doubt it, but even if this is the case, they should be fair to the students and their family and give them 3 credits anyways in a general elective course. Parents need to step up and speak to the deans and provosts and trustees and get them to take a look at this.

Chances are their “policy” decisions to date have been made by one really cranky department chair who is convinced that this new generation is “just not prepared.” Ask for evidence. Also, ask them why the student can’t be given elective credit in that subject area? I would imagine none of them will have a coherent answer to that. While you are at it, encourage them to not charge students for any “remedial” classes that they must take at their university!

In my opinion, one of the true benefits of the program is that it provides much-needed standardization to our nation’s curriculum and assessment. It is hard to conceive of any other important aspect of our society that we have such little agreed-upon standards for excellence and comparison.  Most people agree that a speedometer is helpful for measuring speed, a stock price is useful for measuring the value of the company, and a thermometer is useful for temperature. How do we measure academic success? How do we measure student learning?

Most people agree that we want doctors who are proficient in anatomy, engineers who are proficient in mathematics, and manufacturing specialists who are proficient in communication and problem solving, but we can’t even agree on what knowledge should be acquired that allows students to grow into those careers.

Not only is this lack of curriculum and assessment standardization problematic from a policy perspective, it means that within a school, two students both taking a course in “Biology” from two different teachers, are not taking the same course at all.

The AP program at least is making an attempt to address these issues through its efforts at equity, inclusion, and rigor, as well as encouraging the conversation towards considering some common sense standardization.

The AP testing program is far from perfect and it’s benefits have sadly not been as distributed as equitably as any educator would desire. Still, it has many merits and in my idealistic changes highlighted above, which are meant to provoke conversation and reflection, the AP program can help be a gateway towards a rigorous, equitable education system.

Now, if only the selective colleges, traditional colleges, community colleges, parents, educators, and employers could continue the conversation towards meaningful, apolitical, rational, solutions, our students and our society will get the education we all deserve.




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