In the beginning of Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheat Students, Annie Abrams recounts her experience teaching AP courses in a public high school in New York City.
It was 2016. She had just finished earning a Ph.D. in American literature at New York University, and so she expected to have few problems with the material.
“I was wrong to assume continuity between the experiences of teaching liberal arts courses and navigating the Advanced Placement program,” she writes. Teaching in college, she had learned “the point of marking essays,” which was “to help students refine their thinking while instilling in them the confidence that they were capable of intellectual growth.”
Abrams continues, “As a teacher of Advanced Placement, I tried to offer meaningful feedback” to her students. “But my literature course now had two goals: helping students take their own minds seriously and giving them specific—and often competing—tools to perform well on a high stakes test at the end of the year."
And she writes that, “overwhelmed by the volume of papers I was expected to grade and the limited time in which I was expected to do it,” she saw “the definite appeal” of using the College Board’s scale (then 1 to 9) “and using its canned commentary for each point.”
But “rubrics changed students’ relationships to their writing, and to me, as their reader.” Abrams writes that the “exercise became mechanical.”
Her criticism is applied equally across the disciplines, and she doesn’t focus on the recent controversy over the new AP course in African American Studies.
The creation “of the AP program itself” isn’t the problem for Abrams. In several chapters, she reviews the program’s history and finds “the founders’ intentions of aligning liberal arts education across high schools and colleges in ways they believed would protect democracy.”
The problem, she writes, is the “collateral damage caused by moving away from this vision” and to an emphasis on testing.
The most damning portions of the book are on the present state of AP.
In a chapter called “Copy Paste Classroom,” Abrams discusses the AP Classroom, a new digital platform created by the College Board, and how it has made instruction “a perversely dehumanized transaction.”
The classroom has such features as “topic questions” and “personal progress checks.”
“AP Classroom is a cheaper version of the real thing, and the quality of education it offers is likewise impoverished,” Abrams writes. “The presentation of information is clean, sterile and static.”
“The manual for U.S. history teachers is simultaneously dizzying and reductive,” she writes. “Everything is quantifiable: there are nine units and roughly 15 instructional periods per unit. Each day has an associated ‘skill’ from a list of six, a ‘reasoning process’ from a list of three and a ‘theme’ from a list of eight.” Of all these features, Abrams writes, there is not an emphasis on teaching. “Who knows? And, one suspects, who cares? What’s clear is that the insistence of systematizing desiccates the course’s meaning.”
She continues, “I am not a historian by training. But it came as a surprise to me that ‘American national identity’ was not a main concern from 1890 to 1945, nor has it been one from 1980 to the present. It has clearly felt like one of the country’s defining contests in my lifetime.”
While the College Board does not require teachers to use Classroom, Abram notes that “even if the AP Classroom does not instill uniformity in course content upon implementation, it almost certainly will over time.”
And Abrams contrasts that with the founders of AP: “The AP program’s founders argued that the key to stimulating genuine intellectual exploration and development was creativity and flexibility for teachers, something enjoyed in the college classroom that they expected AP classes would also manifest.”
What Is the Real Problem?
In an interview, Abrams discussed some of the challenges with fixing the AP program.
Many students, and many parents, believe that there is a direct relationship between taking AP courses (the greater the number, the better) and being admitted to a “good” college. “Despite statements from college officials that taking AP courses is one way to demonstrate a student’s commitment to taking rigorous courses, students and parents believe otherwise.
“People feel that they need the program,” Abrams said. “I do hope to reach some of those parents.”
Ultimately, Abrams argues that what’s needed is more money for K-12 systems, and not just for AP programs, but for quality investments at all levels. And also more funds for higher education. She said enough money is needed so districts can’t assume AP has the answers.
She acknowledged this isn’t going to happen anytime soon but said that is not a reason to hold back.
Abrams reached out to the College Board when she was conducting research for the book. She said she wanted information that was in the organization’s archives. She never received any answer.
The College Board’s Response
The College Board responded to Inside Higher Ed’s request to talk about the book with a statement:
“The great strength of the AP Program is the community of talented, dedicated teachers who care about their students and feel passionate about their subjects. We hear from thousands of those teachers every year, and their insights help make AP more effective and more inspiring for students. Annie Abrams’s Shortchanged offers one, limited view … We find her examination of the AP Program not reflective of the experiences of the broader community of AP teachers and the students they serve. If she had consulted with any of the thousands of AP teachers educating across a variety of subjects, she would have found that students from all backgrounds can excel when they have the right preparation, a welcoming invitation, and a genuine sense of belonging.”
The statement continued: “For schools across the country—urban and rural, large and small, well-resourced and economically struggling—AP provides a broad framework and a wealth of resources so that teachers at all levels can offer a college-level experience. AP frameworks are flexible by design so that teachers use their experience and creativity to expand and enhance the curricula. No two AP classes are alike, because they rely so thoroughly on the talent and commitment of individual teachers.”
As for Abrams, who is currently on leave from her teaching job, she said she wasn’t sure if, upon return, she would again teach an AP course.