I Wish I Could Say More Against AP Classes

I just got done reading all of my best arguments against AP classes. The problem is that I didn't write the article first. What I will do is summarize a bit of what the writer did say, adding my own commentary to the argument. Here's the original article by John Tierney: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/ap-classes-are-a-scam/263456/

Let's start with some arguments the author does not mention: one is that school ranking systems that use AP classes as a major criteria have led to schools adding more and more offerings in order to stay competitive with other schools. I know this was a push in my own district, and I know we cut back on honors classes in order to make sure we offered an AP version, which was likely repeated in other departments. However, if AP classes were great for students, I could probably accept the negatives. The problem is that I have seen little to say AP classes are good for anyone except College Board. Another argument I'd make is that the classes are endless facts with no purpose for those who DON'T take the test, and not everyone will take the test. I can barely imagine how worthless it must have seemed to the other kids in my class who did not want to attempt the test. At least with the test, there's a purpose to the awful class.

Responding to some of John Tierney's concerns in the linked article, I will add my own views. I took an AP test as a senior in high school and taught non-AP English at a suburban high school for over a decade, so I have a background in hearing a lot about the AP. As a student, I bought into the getting out of a class aspect, so I took the test. I barely studies after barely learning anything in a class of less than 10 students at one of Milwaukee's roughest schools. However, I still got a 3/5 on the test, which meant I got out of taking an elective in college. I would have needed a 4 or 5 to get out of history. So I got to skip ballroom dancing or camping class, so the test saved me a few hundred dollars, I guess, and that's about how I saw it. When I took actual US history in college, it was much more specific and in-depth, with a professor who though he was the next Howard Zinn. It was nothing like my AP class, and all of the grades were based on papers, not SAT-style tests of memorized facts.

  • "AP courses are not, in fact, remotely equivalent to the college-level courses they are said to approximate." As I mentioned, this first argument by Tierney proved true for me, but it's not always for the reasons we might think. Generally, high school teachers are pretty good at teaching, even if they lack a bit of the knowledge, while college professors are very well schooled in a few specific subjects, though I have not run across too many who are all that great at teaching. In theory, you could give a college curriculum to a high school teacher in order to get it taught in a way that makes sense to kids, but the practice is to just list all facts anyone could ever need about the subject. It's like a trivia class, and there is little to no analysis or synthesis, which IS what college professors will expect from students.
  • "The traditional monetary argument for AP courses -- that they can enable an ambitious and hardworking student to avoid a semester or even a year of college tuition through the early accumulation of credits -- often no longer holds." My own experience in 1994 was that a 3/5 only got me an elective. I could have studied and gotten a higher score, but the point is that so could all of those other students going to all of those high schools trying to look good with more AP offerings. And colleges don't want to give money away, so those institutions will adjust to how many kids get which scores. I'm sure my 3 is worthless today, and you probably need a 5/5 at many colleges to get any credits at all. And what's point if it's an elective, anyhow? I took the test on US History, not college gym. Also, I got to take it for free because only a few kids at my school even bothered. If you have to pay $100 and can only maybe sometimes use the results, why bother?
  • "Studies show that increasing numbers of the students who take them are marginal at best, resulting in growing failure rates on the exams." There's a lot of pressure to take the stupid test if you took the stupid class, basically. Parents and schools want kids to take the test and do well, either to save money or make the school look good. The problem is that even doing really well on the test barely demonstrates any college aptitude. And what are all the kids who fail or don't get a high enough score to get credit going to think about going on to college? A lot of majors don't force you to memorize trivia.
  • "Despite the rapidly growing enrollments in AP courses, large percentages of minority students are essentially left out of the AP game." So this great opportunity to save on college is reserved for kids who would traditionally go to college, anyhow. I'm not going to say it's wrong, but there's a lot of rhetoric about closing achievement gaps, and allowing 10 white kids in a mostly black school to take an AP course seems like a waste of resources, maybe. I'm not always sure where I stand on this one.
  • "The AP program imposes "substantial opportunity costs" on non-AP students in the form of what a school gives up in order to offer AP courses, which often enjoy smaller class sizes and some of the better teachers." I can attest to this as a student. As a teacher, I can't say that the AP teachers were any better, and I know they were not as creative because of the intense curriculum, but they did get small class sizes. That means I got 30 10th graders while someone else pleasantly enjoyed 15 juniors. And then took a month off after the AP test.
  • "To me, the most serious count against Advanced Placement courses is that the AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification -- a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry." I can tell you that probably half of my lessons I sell online would never make it into an AP course, though most of them would be fine in a college course. It's like a national curriculum, more stringent that the standards we've gotten used to applying to our favorite assignments. And there's a lot, so people look for shortcuts. For example, my teacher told me the essay would NEVER be about a certain time period (pre-Revolutionarry?), but then my year was the exception. But I can see why folks try to get advantages in studying, since it's simply a long list of stuff to know (and later forget).

The problem is that the AP is a big money maker, it save some students/parents some money, it looks good on school documents, and there's no replacement right now, so it's not going away until all colleges refuse to acknowledge the scores. It's not up to high schools to fall behind other local schools or students to want to take an extra college class. This one is fully up to colleges to just come clean and tell us that the classes are not like the college versions, the tests are fairly irrelevant to college performance, and the number of AP classes at a given high school should not be a factor in determining the worth of that high school. And the colleges could make students take more required classes, so it seems to make sense. Money, power, politics, and probably tradition may play roles in keeping the AP around for another generation of suckers.

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