John T. Tierney gives the case against AP tests:

AP courses are not, in fact, remotely equivalent to the college-level courses they are said to approximate. Before teaching in a high school, I taught for almost 25 years at the college level, and almost every one of those years my responsibilities included some equivalent of an introductory American government course. The high-school AP course didn’t begin to hold a candle to any of my college courses. My colleagues said the same was true in their subjects.

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. Increasingly, 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. And more and more students say that’s a bad idea, and that they’re better off taking their department’s courses.

The scourge of AP courses has spread into more and more high schools across the country, and the number of students taking these courses is growing by leaps and bounds. Studies show that increasing numbers of the students who take them are marginal at best, resulting in growing failure rates on the exams. The school where I taught essentially had an open-admissions policy for almost all its AP courses. I would say that two thirds of the students taking my class each year did not belong there. And they dragged down the course for the students who did.

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. Schools have to increase the sizes of their non-AP classes, shift strong teachers away from non-AP classes, and do away with non-AP course offerings, such as “honors” courses. These opportunity costs are real in every school, but they’re of special concern in low-income school districts.

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. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.

Michael Williams talks about his own experience, concurring.

I personally do not have any experience in the way of taking AP courses. As far as my school district was concerned, I was closer to “remedial” than “advanced” despite my being a top performer in most of the (non-honors) classes I took. In middle school, my math teacher inquired about putting me advanced math, but was denied on the grounds that I had been tagged a near-remedial student (I was actually making mostly A’s and the rest B’s at the time, but that wasn’t what they were looking at). Honors classes were out of reach in high school, and AP classes moreso. The colleges took a different view, and I was being recruited by a directional school specifically for their honors college. Southern Tech, where I did attend, accepted me unconditionally into its Honors College.

When I got to Southern Tech, they had me take a placement course. This wasn’t for college credit, but was for bypassing the sequence as Tierney mentions. I scored into the highest English and Math courses, though it turned out not to matter: The Honors College required that I start at the bottom floor in English and the College of Industrial Technology required that I take specifically designed “technical math” courses, which were not appreciably different than the sophomore and junior high school classes I did take. I could see why I otherwise would have tested out of them.

I am, on the whole, glad that I did not take AP classes. It may not have done me any good for math and my Honors English classes were awesome. The only ones I would have wanted to test out of are those that I might not have (namely, science) and ones I would have (Social Studies, English) are ones I was glad to take at the collegiate level.

Tierney points to what I consider to be some solid reasons why AP classes have gone off-track, as far as that goes. On the other hand, some of the same arguments can be used against tracking (Honors/Standard/Remedial/etc) and I am a fan of those. The bit about intellectual curiosity comes is interesting because my impression from my friends – many of whom took honors classes – were that it was much more freewheeling than the classes I was taking. Without thinking about it, I would have guessed AP classes would have been the same. But if the class itself is geared towards preparing for a specific test, I suppose that makes sense. It does seem a little bit odd to me that the best teachers would be teaching these classes, though. I’d have thought that teaching to a test is something that they would avoid (and, along those lines, that non-AP honors classes were considered better because the framework was not as rigid).

Category: School

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7 Responses to Advanced Placement

  1. Fnord says:

    There were some courses I have no regrets about skipping via AP (including, contra Mr. Williams, the first semester of Calculus), and some classes I’m glad I wasn’t allowed to skip. The course I’m most glad I tested out of was introductory computer programming, which I got out of via placement test rather AP, and my knowledge was primarily derived from a non-AP course I took in high school (as well as personal interest).

    With that in mind, I’m not sure a formalized AP program is necessary, rather than simply using placement tests, and some of the criticisms of the formalized AP program seem reasonable. My AP classes were not as “taught to the test” as Mr. Tierney seems to be implying, but they were less freewheeling than non-AP honors courses.

  2. rob says:

    Teachers probably like having AP classes for the better students despite having to teach to the test.

  3. trumwill says:


    I think there is something to be said for placement tests, though many of Tierney’s criticisms would apply there as well.

    One of the things that I didn’t really get into was that I have recently commented elsewhere that not enough is being done to keep the costs of college done. I don’t mean the tuitions paid by the students, but overall costs. Whatever their faults – and I am at least with Tierney about AP classes not being a very good substitute – it does allow people to graduate sooner.

  4. Φ says:

    I wholeheartedly support Tierney’s point in the second paragraph. As I may have related in the forum before, back when I was advising undergraduates, I saw many students enter with AP calculus credits and proceed to flunk out of Calc II or III. I never looked at this statistically, but I saw it happen enough to notice the pattern. It was pretty clear to me that 3s and 4s on the AP test were no substitute for college level wok in a cumulative subject like calculus.

    So . . . why do they persist? Let me throw out a couple of possibililties. One is that it serves as backdoor for affirmative action. Many schools give a +1 GPA boost for AP classes. When these classes are taught in, um, non-competitive school systems, the students there seldom pass the AP tests, but still get the GPA boost. This puts their GPA on par with students from more rigorous schools where AP access is strictly controlled. This, despite vast differences in actual preparation.

    More later this weekend . . .

  5. trumwill says:

    I don’t know how it works elsewhere, but at my district Honors/AP and Honors both gave you that +1. So the AP wasn’t necessary. Maybe my state is unique?

    My guess as to why they persist is primarily financial and positional. As long as kids *want* to do this, nobody has a real incentive to stop them and testing companies have incentive to keep doing it. And, as long as there is the possibility of getting to skip college coursework… why not take an AP class instead of a vanilla Honors one?

    I think this falls into the category of things that has much more vested interest in one direction than the other, even if on the whole they are a bad idea.

  6. Φ says:

    Sorry, I was falling asleep trying to write last night.

    A potential alternative to AP classes, for those of us who have access to them, are actual college classes. Even small cities often have junior and community colleges that offer “core” academic classes. If the sstudent is properly prepared, why should he not just take calculus there instead of screwing around with inadequate AP classes?

    To answer my own question: one big reason is that most colleges limit the amount of college courses you can take before they stop considering your application as a freshman and instead treat you as a transfer applicant. This is especially true for highly selective universities. The reason this is bad is that transfer slots only open as students drop out, and very few students drop out of highly selective universities. So the very students ambitious enough to be interested in college level work while still in high school would hurt their chances of admission to the colleges they would be most interested in attending.

  7. trumwill says:

    Phi, we’ve discussed this before, but my impression of transferring in is that it is generally easier than getting in straight out of high school (at least at the schools that matter to me – public ones, even the competitive ones). My state may be an abnormality, I guess. At some point I will have to investigate further.

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