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Writer flunks AP exam

• Adam Peshek

When I was in high school, I wasn’t exactly sure what Advanced Placement courses were. All I knew was classes with “A-P” in front of them carried a level of rigor that underachievers shied away from. As a student who foolishly avoided valuable courses like the plague (i.e. math and science), I decided to hedge my bets with a couple AP courses in history and government. The courses proved to be valuable in many ways: more rigorous curriculum, more engaged peers, back-end financial savings, and a leg-up on college courses.

It seems like my experiences contrast sharply with the experiences of John Tierney, who wrote a recent piece in The Atlantic calling AP classes “a scam.” The article has a number of attention-getting embellishments, like characterizing AP as a scam as big as Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and accusing the AP’s non-profit parent organization – the College Board – of the “mentality of a voracious corporation” for charging $89 for each course and accompanying exam. But hyperbole aside, Tierney’s gripe with AP boils down to two arguments:  (1) the participants are self-selected self-starters who will succeed in college regardless of AP and (2) the courses are not rigorous enough to prepare students for college-level courses.

Tierney admits studies have shown high performance on AP exams leads to better grades and higher graduation rates in college. But, he refutes this by using the most pervasive fallacy in education policy: the “creaming” argument. In essence, he claims AP courses attract the best and brightest and that these students would be successful in college regardless of AP. He states it is “the same as saying that students who do best in high school will do better in college and are more likely to graduate.” However, research has found after taking AP math and science courses, students perform at higher levels in college math and science courses than students with the same SAT scores who did not participate in AP math and science in high school.

Nevertheless, Tierney contradicts his own claim a few paragraphs later when he says “the scourge of AP courses” spreading across the country has resulted in many more students taking the exams than should be. His own experiences teaching AP American Government led him to believe that two-thirds of his students in the class “did not belong there” and “dragged down the course for the students who did.” So, on the one hand the author is claiming AP courses are made up entirely of self-selected students who would be successful regardless, and on the other hand he is claiming that open-enrollment AP policies in schools are bringing in too many low-achieving students that don’t belong there. So which is it?

Most of the students in my AP classes were there because they could handle the curriculum. Those who may have fit into Tierney’s category of “not belonging there” shared one important characteristic – they actually wanted to be there. In fact, the most valuable aspect of my experience with AP may have been the noticeable absence of the typical “history is boring” and “who cares about some rich Italian family in the 16th century” rumblings that typically accompany high school history classes. My peers chose to be there, regardless of their ability to succeed in the more-challenging course.

Like a Treky who has the freedom to let his nerd flag fly at a Star Trek convention, AP courses allowed me to surround myself with peers who were at least moderately interested in things like the Medici family and the morality of dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima – without the heckling from the back rows. (It should be noted that I was an active heckler in the aforementioned valuable math and science classes).

Based on his own logic, Tierney should have passed on his pricey alma maters, Johns Hopkins and Harvard, and enrolled at much cheaper state universities, since his likelihood of succeeding at any college (and subsequent career) should have resulted in a fairly simple weighing of the costs and benefits. Perhaps the caliber of peers and recognition of excellence weighed on his decision.

Tierney also seems to contradict his second argument – that AP courses do not translate into college-level rigor. First, by arguing that some students do not belong in these courses and drag down the quality for students who do, Tierney is implying that while these courses may not meet his definition of college-level, they are certainly more rigorous than the regular high school alternatives.

Secondly, Tierney attempts to back up the claim that AP courses are not college-level by stating that “[i]ncreasingly, students don’t receive college credit for high scores on AP courses; they simply are allowed to opt out of the introductory sequence in a major.” Even though he provides no evidence for the claim, let’s accept this point for a moment. What he is saying is that if you pass AP Calculus, colleges will allow you to opt-out of college-level calculus, but they are beginning to make students take on an extra elective to make up for it (and perhaps pay for it?). This seems to be less about college-level proficiency and more about the 120-credit hour college experience and the larger debate on college affordability.

In my case, AP courses played a factor in my choice to double major in college in lieu of taking “easier” electives, which alone was worth the time and effort in high school.

A Policy Solution to the Participation Problem

For states looking to increase AP courses in public schools (or those considering it), Florida’s experience with the participation question has proven to be an effective model. The Sunshine State has long incentivized participation in AP courses through teacher bonuses, professional development and free diagnostic tools used to identify students with AP potential. Since these incentives use tax dollars, Florida lawmakers wisely attached accountability to the funds: Florida high schools are now held accountable for the number of students who take and passAP exams.

If Florida schools were only held accountable for the number of students who take an AP course, the state would have incentivized schools to push students into courses that they were not prepared to succeed in. If the state chose to only hold schools accountable for those that pass an AP exam, they would have been encouraging schools to only allow in the select number of students who would certainly pass the exam. But by factoring in both participation and success, Florida lawmakers are rewarding schools that can identify potential students and work with them to ensure success in their studies. The more students that take and pass the exam, the better the school looks.

The kind of rigorous, customized courses Advanced Placement offers is seriously lacking in our public schools. Instead of lambasting them, we should endorse programs that allow motivated students to take on tougher courses of study. When it comes to my experiences with AP, my only regret is that I didn’t take more.

About the author

Adam Peshek @AdamPeshek

Adam Peshek is Managing Director of Opportunity Policy at ExcelinEd, where he provides strategic support to state leaders interested in developing, adopting, and implementing policies that increase educational options for children. He has provided expert testimony in more than a dozen state legislatures and is a frequent commentator on ESAs, school choice, and education policy across the country. He is also the is the co-editor of the first published volume on ESAs, Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice. Adam currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia and is a Senior Fellow with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.