This spring, millions of students across the country and the world have taken Advanced Placement exams with an eye on earning college credit. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic canceling in-person exams, the College Board has been administering AP exams online. There have been controversies, including reports of cheating rings and testing glitches. Yet the College Board remains confident that most higher education institutions will continue to award credit for AP exams.
It is time to end the charade that an AP course is equivalent to a college course. Students would be furious if they took an AP course when they arrived at college. Everybody knows that a college course differs in important ways from an AP course. AP courses should only count for high school credits and no more.
The AP program casts a large shadow over the American education landscape. In 2019, 2,825,710 students took 5,098,815 exams in subjects such as biology, English language and composition, and United States government and politics. The federal government provides funding for AP exams, and states such as Washington, Texas and Illinois require public colleges to award credit for AP exams. New York City has launched an AP for All program. According to an article in Education Week, the AP has “quietly emerged as a below-the-radar national curriculum for able high school pupils and top-notch teachers.”
Touted benefits of AP exams include enabling students to strengthen college applications, bypass introductory courses, make headway on pursuing a double major and increase the likelihood of earning an undergraduate degree within four years.
Let’s be honest. Students take AP exams to save money. Earning 10 AP credits correlates with a reduction of about $1,000 in student loan debt. One student at the University of Southern California says that AP credits saved her family nearly $60,000 in college costs. Few families can afford to ignore costs when paying for college, particularly when COVID-19 has put a burden on many families’ budgets.
An AP course, nonetheless, is not like a college course. The goal of certain Cold War-era education reformers was to design the AP program to provide a “teacher-proof curriculum.” Under the leadership of David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core, the College Board is achieving this goal.
As a college professor, I write my own syllabi, articulate my own learning objectives, choose what to emphasize in any given semester, select reading materials and craft exams that cannot easily be graded on a rubric. Likewise, students have the freedom to choose their own courses and expect to have opportunities to do independent research in their courses.
The AP program, on the contrary, requires teachers and students to follow a strict regimen that culminates in an online exam that can be as short as 50 minutes long. Course descriptions tell teachers and students what to do virtually every day of the school year leading to the exam.
Ten years ago, AP teachers were given a course description with a brief curriculum outline and sample exams to study. They were given a fair amount of autonomy that replicated the academic freedom of a college professor. That is no longer the case.
I have read the 180-page AP U.S. Government and Politics course and exam description. The document identifies material that high school students should learn; the problem is that the methods and content are all geared toward high school students, not college-level coursework.
The course description states, “The AP Program unequivocally supports the principle that each school implements its own curriculum.” In order for a school to designate a class as AP, however, it must pass an AP course audit. Though teachers may choose their own college-level textbook, this freedom is belied by a demand that the syllabus include all of the required content in the course description.
The first class of the year is on ideals of democracy. The page for that class identifies a suggested skill, an enduring objective, essential knowledge and a link to an analytical reading activity, designed by high school teachers, with passages and assignments about the Declaration of Independence. The College Board also supplies personal progress checks, online tests that replicate the kinds of questions that will be on an AP exam.
Students can learn content and skills in an AP class, but it is not equivalent to a lecture or a seminar with a college professor. An AP class is a generic curriculum taught by high school teachers, offered in a high school or online, taken with other high school students, where the goal is to do well on a standardized test.
In the spring of 2018, eight private schools around Washington, D.C., announced that they were no longer offering AP courses. “The truth is that college courses, which demand critical thinking and rigorous analysis, look nothing like AP courses,” they said. Instead, they will develop courses that allow for “authentic engagement with the world” and respect students’ intellectual interests.
Educators and policy makers should take note. If high schools want to give students a taste of college, then they should ignore AP courses and create courses that respect the judgment of teachers and students alike.