Annie Abrams’s recently released book, Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students, is a deep dive into the history, theory and practice of the College Board’s Advanced Placement program and how it has come to damage the overall ecosystem of liberal arts education in the United States. In my opinion, it’s a book that was long overdue, and I’m pleased it’s here to kick-start a debate we should be having at the program and institution level.
Over email, I had a chance to ask Annie a few questions about the book and its genesis that I was curious about. Shortchanged was previously reviewed by IHE’s Scott Jaschik.
Full disclosure: Annie Abrams and I share a publisher (Johns Hopkins UP), and we’ve previously exchanged information and feedback regarding our writing and mutual interest in challenging existing educational structures.
John Warner: Because I’ve written on the problems of AP exams in the past, I’ve noticed that lots of folks have a fairly simplified notion of what AP courses are and what they do, essentially that they’re a way for high school students to get college credit. What’s wrong or incomplete about this view?
Annie Abrams: AP represents a huge consolidation of academic, economic and political power.
AP exams cost between $97-$145 and, last year alone, the College Board sold over 4.7 million of them. Twenty years ago, the company sold only 1.7 million exams. Twenty years before that, only 211,160. Expansion might seem great, but the program’s substance has changed. An increased focus on testing justifies narrower, more prescriptive curriculum, mechanical assessments and unnerving data collection policies, at scale. The AP African American Studies disaster started to expose some of the model’s danger—politicians influencing how a corporation steamrolls scholars and teachers—but there are other concerns. Holden Thorp, editor in chief of Science magazine, recently called for more scrutiny of the company’s power in an editorial in which he concludes, “The corruption of the College Board is appalling. It simply cannot be trusted, and academia must stop relying on it to make important decisions about education.”
At the same time, Advanced Placement has been enshrined in law or systemwide policy across states. Public colleges and universities must grant AP credit, which means that most faculty’s thoughts about the program’s academic merit don’t matter much. Still, it’s important to understand AP as college, and to think about the company’s prescriptions in terms of setting college curriculum, standards and pedagogy. If we want to expand access to college, why aren’t we doing that by employing Ph.D.s? If we want to support high school teachers and strengthen curriculum, why aren’t we fostering collaboration? Instead, we’re outsourcing that work.
The current CEO of the College Board is a McKinsey alum, and the company’s recent turn is in line with the consulting company’s ethos: maximize profit, automate whenever possible, conceal decision-making. The company’s opacity, investments in ed tech and capacities for lobbying and marketing threaten to undermine both public schools as civic institutions and public colleges as sites for free inquiry. I emphasize “public” here because many elite private schools and universities have either withdrawn from the system entirely or have curtailed their participation.
All of this means, of course, that the student experience is far from the best we could do.
JW: One thing that’s clear from your book is that today’s Advanced Placement is definitely not part of the original vision for the program, and even quite different from what people my age who went to high school in the ’80s and ’90s might recall. What happened over time to change the program and how it’s situated as part of our educational systems?
AA: AP has been both responsive to and responsible for policy that’s remade American education. We’ve put a lot of money and a lot of faith in public-private partnerships. Currently, Advanced Placement reflects the corporate reform movement. The increased focus on testing, the language of accountability—it’s all of a piece with a much broader policy push. I think the money could be better spent.
JW: So, you’re sitting there teaching your AP classes, knowing what you know about the problems with the exam and the curriculum. At what point do you decide, “I’ve got to write a book about this”?
AA: It was a slow process. I didn’t know I’d write a book about it until I was waist-deep in the project. In graduate school, I took methods courses in both archival work and in writing for a broad readership. One term, we wrote object lessons: choose an artifact and write to general readers about its context and its import, try to get it published. That’s how I started writing the Blackmer chapter—I ordered the original edition of General Education in School and College online, tried to piece together how that book came to be, and to think about why anyone might care about it now.
I continued digging into the archives, mostly because I could not believe what I was reading. At the same time, I started to read about education reform. Your book, Why They Can’t Write, really helped me feel less isolated. I found other people whose work touched on some of what I had been thinking about. In an attempt to make sense of all of the information, I started writing short pieces—like the one for your blog! And then I started elaborating, trying to rethink the problem from different angles, and then in academic writing.
I had a pretty terrible, drafty version of the manuscript by the time I sent off the book proposal. I didn’t like what I’d written, but I thought I had enough to say that it seemed worth trying to consolidate it into a book instead of publishing independent articles or essays.
JW: This is me projecting my own anxieties on you, probably, but I’m curious if you had any moments where you were thinking, essentially, Am I the person who should be writing this book? Speaking for myself, I let my lack of status within the academy shape how I saw my own potential. It took me a while to recognize that my status as a practitioner teaching writing was in reality a unique insight into the problem of how writing is taught. Do you have any advice for others who may be struggling with this?
AA: I had a lot of those moments. After watching the academic job market destroy more than a few friends, I never gave it a real shot, which I sometimes think is, weirdly, how I maintained the degrees of ego and agency necessary to undertake this project. But sometimes I still wonder how it fell into my lap.
The relative quiet around AP scared me. And the urgency, the desperation to say what I had to say out loud, was bound up with my experience teaching both college and high school, and the understanding of the best of the American political tradition that I’d developed through my own course of study. Thinking about all of it still makes me want to scream. Which seems like as good an occasion as any to write. I was lucky to have friends around who encouraged me
All of this to say, I think that if something that you want to be legible to other people has not yet been published, it’s a good idea to try writing it yourself.
JW: I think I recall Ron DeSantis in Florida saying that he intended to develop an alternative to the AP program, which I’m certain is just talk, but what is the alternative to the AP program? Lots of students and their parents see it as a necessity, both as a way to prove their children’s superior credentials, and as a way to save on college costs by getting those credits before matriculating. What does the better case scenario look like?
AA: HB 1537 both outlines expectations for history courses and explicitly sanctions courses “offered through the Advanced Placement Program administered by the College Board.” Looking over the legislation, I’m not sure how different a Floridian alternative would be in terms of structure and policy, or even in terms of substance.
There is no handbook for moving forward. In the book, I said I expected to be panned for failing to offer a clear path out of this mess. I meant it. We need more robust conversation about what education is for—part of the problem with the power of the AP brand is that it undermines such a dialogue.
One potential better case scenario looks like renewed attention to the notion of liberal education. In terms of college credit, what if we thought of the best college seminars as the alternative to AP? Here’s the AAUP statement on academic freedom in higher education. Here’s FIRE’s press release about the Stop WOKE Act; here’s the ACLU’s. The conditions under which students learn in AP, in Florida and everywhere else, do not reflect the conditions under which they learn in college. We should not bring these experiences into closer alignment by making college more like high school, which has been subject to some awful ed policy.
JW: And then what’s the best case scenario?
AA: I think there’s a dangerous degree of cynicism in AP now. America’s a work in progress; our education system is, too. In my view, the thing to replicate from the original plans was the empowerment of committees of educators collaborating on meaningful experiences for their students. Protecting vulnerable students is necessary. So is helping students to achieve their fullest potential. I would like for institutions, professors, teachers and students to be able to make choices about this work in alignment with their communities’ values, not with a corporation’s. I went to a large public high school on the Dewey model. Opening such a school now feels like a near impossibility. I would like for that to change.
I would like for everyone who is interested in setting aside time for reading, writing, thinking and talking openly about books with other interested people to be able to do it. History can provide a powerful counter to branding, nostalgia and other fictions, and I’d like for a broad range of students to be able to experience the discipline as meaningful and dynamic. It would be great if teachers had more time to think about what they’re teaching and why it matters.
Not everyone fits into neat boxes. And fitting into boxes isn’t always so great anyway. Best case scenario is that our public education system—which is to say, our public—acknowledges that.