Amid American K-12 education’s chronic mediocrity, countless failed reform efforts, and policy divides that rival health care and immigration, the Advanced Placement program is a rare and happy exception. Not only has it endured for more than half a century, it has grown hugely popular (3 million kids took 5 million exams in 2018 in about 70 percent of U.S. high schools). It now embraces disadvantaged as well as more privileged students and has helped myriad young people get a head start on college. Through all this it has sustained a sterling reputation for academic rigor, solid content, and quality instruction.
Miraculously, AP has also quietly emerged as a below-the-radar national curriculum for able high school pupils and top-notch teachers, and it’s done so without falling into the partisan pitfalls that tripped President Clinton’s effort to set “national standards” and President Obama’s promotion of the Common Core State Standards. Because it’s privately operated, politicians need not approve it; because it’s optional—for schools, teachers, and kids alike—it can span the nation while coexisting with state sovereignty, local control, and school choice.
That’s no easy straddle, yet it’s just the first of five big challenges that Advanced Placement now faces and that will surely intensify as the program continues to expand.
Challenge two is the surging competition from fast-growing dual enrollment and “early college,” which community colleges hungry for more students are pushing. Many kids find dual enrollment an easier and surer way to jump-start their degrees. Solid dual-enrollment offerings share many advantages with AP, but the enterprise as a whole has a quality-control problem: Instead of uniform course frameworks and anonymously scored exams like AP, decisions about what’s taught and how students perform in dual-enrollment courses are generally—like most college courses—left entirely to the instructor. A passing grade yields credit but doesn’t prove readiness for tougher college classes. One may even arrive on campus—often the very same community college—with such credits but still need remediation in core subjects. Yet eager officials, keen to open this opportunity to one and all, are scattering dual enrollment across many states like cookie crumbs.
Miraculously, AP has also quietly emerged as a below-the-radar national curriculum for able high school pupils and top-notch teachers."
Curricular culture wars pose the third challenge, for AP courses must concurrently satisfy strong-minded professors, state graduation requirements, and parents (and teachers) with myriad priorities and ideologies.
When David Coleman took charge of the College Board in 2012, he faced backlash over the newly revised AP U.S. History course framework, which was slammed by conservatives for tilting leftward, omitting such icons as Benjamin Franklin and terming President Reagan “bellicose.” This was the work of a committee made up mostly of professors and teachers intent on modernizing the curriculum according to their sensibilities while addressing the long-standing complaint that AP courses are “a mile wide and an inch deep.”
A liberal arts devotee himself, Coleman ordered a further overhaul and the resulting 2015 framework drew praise for its balance. Yet controversy didn’t end there. Just three years later, the new framework for AP World History was slammed, this time from the left, for paying scant attention to early non-European civilizations. Coleman, again, moved to quell the storm with additional revisions. It is clear that curricular choices in today’s fractious educational and political climates are precarious, and that AP will require dexterity to flex with the times without sacrificing its intellectual integrity.
Challenge four is ensuring access for more students to enough of what AP offers. For all its growth in recent decades, many kids still have little or no opportunity to participate in AP coursework (except maybe online), and the pickings are slimmest in small rural schools and many city high schools. With 38 subjects now in the catalog, no school supplies them all, and many offer just a few. And despite much recent democratizing of AP access, some schools—and teachers—still try to limit entry to students who already have a strong academic track record and can be expected to ace the exams. That leaves out scads of students who might do fine if the door were open wide and they were encouraged to enter it.
AP’s final great challenge in the years ahead is getting more—and more diverse—kids to “qualify” on its exams without lowering standards. Welcoming them into classrooms is the (comparatively) easy part. As Advanced Placement participation has come to include many more poor and minority youngsters, their performance on AP exams remains far below that of the program’s traditional population of largely white students from higher income backgrounds who attend elite high schools. In 2017, for example, 70 percent of the exams taken by African-Americans and 58 percent of those taken by Hispanic students yielded scores of one or two on the exam’s five-point scale versus a national average of 42 percent.
Exacerbating the difficulty of boosting those scores is the College Board’s slender influence over what happens outside high school. Youngsters coming from lousy middle schools often lack the skills, background knowledge, and study habits to prosper in AP classes. Those with troubled home situations—be it neighborhood violence, sibling or work obligations, high-noise levels, or any of a long list of other barriers to independent study—may not manage the weighty homework load or get to Saturday help sessions run by partner organizations such as the National Math and Science Initiative.
These challenges loom large, but the College Board has adroitly navigated through similar shoals since 1955. Being private and optional helps, but AP’s greatest assets may be its wide acceptance among parents, teachers, and admissions offices; its reputation for quality and rigor; and its ability to launch able, hard-working youngsters into college better prepared for what lies ahead.
No longer an obscure boutique offering for a relative handful of privileged kids, AP today is a major force in American education, increasingly a force for enhanced opportunity and equity, and an all-too-rare example of sustained success. But AP alone cannot fix a system in which far too many youngsters never get close to college-level study during high school, often because they’ve already been failed by the many shoddy schools still operated by that same system.