Education Opinion

Advanced Placement: Growing, But Good Enough?

By Peter Gow — February 25, 2013 3 min read
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There was big news on Advanced Placement last week. The College Board announced that more students than ever had taken AP examinations and that more students than ever had scored at the top level--about one test-taker in seven pulled off a 5.

Getting a 5 on an AP exam is a big deal--the tests are hard, and there’s no doubt about it. For lots of people--perhaps fewer of them in education than in the general public--really hard is really good; there’s nothing like a “rigorous” examination, requiring months of preparation and inspiring raw fear, to show that kids are learning something valuable. Jay Mathews’ now practically industry-standard Challenge Index of school rankings is built just on the percentage of students at a school who sit the exams, regardless of their scores.

I haven’t always been very positive about the Advanced Placement program, although the center of my skepticism resided in the context of my own school. AP courses didn’t really quite fit what we were working toward in curriculum and assessment, and the demands they put on teachers and the schedule made it hard to accomplish other worthy things. It wasn’t a giant step for us to stop offering courses with the AP designation, and it was probably fortuitous that other independent schools were doing the same at that time--Fieldston essentially ran interference for a bunch of us.

Whenever someone offers a less-than-supportive observation about Advanced Placement, or when one more college devalues AP performance,* there is always a cry of “Elitist!” Whatever, a part of me thinks, but a school that steps away from the AP is making a kind of statement of independence, about going it alone, that might seem a bit snooty out of context; as much as America claims to loves mavericks, it often doesn’t. Various implications that can be read into such a step: you think your teachers and students are beyond all that or that your school is so well established that it doesn’t need the letters “AP” on its transcripts to give its students or itself credibility in college admission offices.

Many of the schools that have jettisoned AP programs (or never had them in the first place) are independent schools, some famous, others less so. Each school has its own reasons, and by and large things seem to have worked out, even if Jay Mathews misses us. Lots of these schools still offer AP exams to students, so a score can be sent to colleges even if the letters on the transcript aren’t there. Some have simply taken their curricula in different directions--courses that might parallel an AP curriculum or offer a more in-depth focus on fewer topics, for example.

But I understand, and I think most independent school people, even at “non-AP” schools, understand, that for the vast majority of schools in this country, College Board-certified AP courses and AP exam scores are a kind of currency that is otherwise missing in a country without a national curriculum. The flux in which many public high schools live--subject to changes in funding, demographics, state requirements, with new schools being opened and others closed--means that college admissions offices, and employers for that matter, need some kind of shorthand measure of the quality of a student’s education.

This is not to say that the AP is perfect, or even to suggest that pretty good is good enough. Well trained teachers, given freedom and support, are clearly able to create truly exciting, demanding courses. We see this every day in the great work teachers do with K-12 students outside of AP classes. And of course there are alternatives; many schools--far more public than independent--see the International Baccalaureate (about which I have written for the independent school audience) as matching the AP in rigor, with the added bonus of being a coherent and comprehensive program with a strong critical thinking component in its Theory of Knowledge course.

But for now it seems the AP will have to do, standing in as a symbol of educational quality without being much more than just another kind of standardized test. But I am humbled by the efforts of so many teachers--as witnessed by the experience of one of my own kids and of friends of the others--many of them in public schools, to stretch the AP curriculum in order to go beyond mere “rigor” toward the best kind of authentic, deep learning. But whether it is truly good enough as it stands deserves further discussion.

*A practice that is growing slowly, and one that is forcibly argued against in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education in an essay by Mark Bauerlein.

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