27 January 2017

Are high school AP classes a scam?

One columnist at The Atlantic thinks so:
Interestingly, the evidence providing the clearest positive argument for AP participation is that high performance in AP courses correlates with better college grades and higher graduation rates, especially in science courses. But that's faint praise. It's the same as saying that students who do best in high school will do better in college and are more likely to graduate.

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.
He goes on to argue that
  • AP courses are not remotely equivalent to the college-level courses they are said to approximate.
  • Increasingly, students don't receive college credit for high scores on AP courses...
  • Increasing numbers of the students who take them are marginal at best...
  • Large percentages of minority students are essentially left out of the AP game...
  • Schools have to increase the sizes of their non-AP classes, shift strong teachers away from non-AP classes...
  • The AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification.
I sent the link to two friends who have been high school principals.  Both of them disagreed with the premise.
"These were expensive to run because a teacher teaching five students sees fewer students in a day. One might make the case that this diverts resources from areas. But this does not only happen with AP courses."

"I never experienced students being encouraged to enroll in AP classes just so the class could reach an enrollment minimum."

 "(our) district went out of its way to recruit black students into the AP programs."

 "He doesn't like that many AP scores don't allow a student to earn credit, only exemption from a basic level course. My experience and opinion is that is not a big problem."

"In this day and age of whopping college costs, dual-enrollment fills for many kids a better, more intelligent slot than AP."
The arguments are fleshed out in more detail at The Atlantic and the links embedded there.


  1. As a person who took quite a few AP courses, I don't think they adequately prepared me for university. I agree with the last statement that it would have been more advantageous for me to have been dual-enrolled instead of spending my time being taught what was going to be on the exam.

  2. At the high school my 3 children attend or graduated from, the dual credit students aren't usually the best students. The AP classes attract the best students. I wanted my children to be in class with other students who would push them to succeed.
    Additionally, not all select colleges accept dual credit either.
    From the University of Rochester: "Courses taken while a student was in high school which were sponsored by a college but were taught in the high school are not approved for transfer credit."

  3. Granted, I've been out of high school for almost 20 years, but from that vantage point I see mixed truths here. I went to high school in a state and county that was still busing students between schools in efforts to achieve racial balance and meet desegregation goals. And thank heaven for that. I grew up on a farm in a rural part of the county, but I got to go to a big school in the state's capitol. At that time, desegregation programs attracted a lot of the AP funding, so students at my school and others like it had vastly improved access to AP classes. I took 12 AP classes in three years, and earned enough credit to avoid almost all the 101-level courses at the university I went to, and a couple higher level foundation courses in my field of study. That allowed me to get two undergraduate degrees in four years, and helped me get into a graduate program. I truly loved the AP program and am thankful for it to this day.

  4. Rigid stultification? This was written by someone who never passed an AP course.

  5. We paid for AP credits. Our kids paid to be with the best students. But their credits didn't transfer. So it was really just a way to pay to be elite. And we did that. But we're not proud or pleased with ourselves.

  6. My kids took all the AP and dual-credit classes they could. The dual-credit classes were transferable, but the AP classes got them no college credit, because the cut-off on the final exam was very high. Still, those classes had weighted grades, which got their GPAs high enough to win scholarships. And while AP classes are not equivalent to college classes, they prepared them better for college than non-AP classes.

    Still, I can see how diverting resources can hurt other classes. The school here has been so focused on college prep that other students have suffered in many ways. Now they are taking an opposite tack, which I believe is wrong. Now freshman must sign up for a career track for their entire high school years! Asking an 18-year-old to select a major is hard enough, but a 14-year-old is too young to decide where their life is going.

  7. I had a rather unusual situation. I taught Spanish for Spanish Speakers. When the school opened up Spanish AP classes, only those students were enrolled in the new classes. The administration stuffed my AP classes with more than 40 students, and took months before we had books. I was used to these conditions, so I did my best.
    Amazingly, every student passed the test both years I taught Almost all of them passed with a score of 5 (best possible). At that time, they did get college credit, but sadly only a few went on to college. I should add that this was an inner city school.

  8. It's difficult to consider AP courses across the country as a single entity, since so much depends on the particular teachers, the resources available, and the academic culture of the school. As a recent high school grad, I will say that AP courses in my school district were a bit of a disaster. Schools which offered them often pushed heavily for students to take as many as possible - often as many as 4 or 5 at once, in addition to non-AP courses. However, they were worth the same amount of high school credit as a non-AP course. The regular high school course load is 6 classes, the regular college load is 4 - so students were being pressured to jump into more than a full-time college load, without any preparation. Theoretically, these courses were supposed to prepare kids for college - but taking so many at once was overwhelming, and they didn't actually teach you any skills for managing the workload, just piled on more work in the expectation that you would figure it out. I know a lot of people who came out of AP classes *less* prepared for college than before - rather than learning how to handle a large workload and do college-level work, they had learned to get overwhelmed, panic, and bullshit their way through assignments they didn't have time to complete properly. There were some good classes in there, but many of them focused only on teaching to the test. To anyone and everyone out there older than the No Child Left Behind generation: teaching to the test does not work. You do not learn anything except how to take a test, a 100% useless life skill. The actual information covered by the class, be it chemistry or history, is taught as a series of bullet points to memorize and then regurgitate in a standardized format. You don't actually learn the concepts on a deep level, and you don't learn the critical thinking skills which are supposed to be what college level courses are all about.
    In my school district, dual-enrolling at the community colleges was an excellent option. The range of classes was much greater, they were much better taught, and they were treated as a much higher high school credit per class, so you weren't stuck taking a massively overburdened course load. As long as you took less than or equal to a standard high school credit load, the school district also paid for the courses completely. If you started taking full-time community college classes in your junior year, you could get an AA and your high school diploma at the same time, for free. All the state schools were familiar with the local community colleges and accepted transfer credits with no hassle. Additionally, as a high school student, I found the social environment of the community college wonderful. There was a huge range of students, from high schoolers to young adults to people in their 50s who could finally afford to get a college degree. There were people who'd been working retail for 20 years, people who already had a masters taking certificate programs in a new field, locals and exchange students. And everyone actually talked to each other, in an open and friendly way. I've been in statistically diverse schools before, but that was the first experience I had in which people actually formed friendships freely across demographics. At my high school, and now the state university I attend, people are friendly enough - but the spirit of openness at the community college far surpassed what I've encountered elsewhere.

    1. To be honest, I'm pretty disillusioned with academia and a lot of the things it values. Test scores don't actually matter that much, they're more likely to measure your ability at logical analysis in a timed setting than whatever subject your supposed to be studying. This is a known and economically exploited fact - the very people who write the tests publish "test strategy" guides which significantly raise scores. Academic elitism doesn't actually sort out the "smartest" students, it just filters out a handful who do well in the academic environment we've already built, pours more resources into them, and leaves other students behind in the dust rather than figuring out what would work for them. If you want to prepare students for college, provide tutoring and study halls and advanced materials for bored students on any given assignment, mixed in with a regular class. Cut the busy work. Stop making us write the horrible formulaic essays that get pounded into kid's heads these days for the SAT essay section - I guarantee you, no college teacher will accept that paper. It turns out that the best way to prepare kids for college is to actually give them a high school experience that works its way up from middle school level to college level gradually, with extra support for those who need it and extra challenges mixed in for those who are bored. Not to drop them in the deep end weighed down by 20 pounds of homework and let them sink or swim.

    2. (this was supposed to be a continuation of the comment below, had some publishing errors)

    3. I think because of the length, the Blogspot host computer filtered it out as spam, so I had to rescue it from the spam filter.

      A very thoughtful comment.

  9. Most of high school is learning how to spit out what the teacher wants you to spit out to pass the test. I took AP classes and they helped null some of the boredom... but I really came alive when I ended up in a technical program that provided for self-paced learning! The true students were able to excel and most of the rest just struggled (some for lack of effort) to make the required minimum.


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