Are A.P. Classes a Waste of Time?

From The New Republic:

In 2019, an anonymous high school student posted on Reddit that they had worked out a “nice formula” to game the Advanced Placement English language test, one of the 38 subject areas in which the College Board, a private company, sells high school students a chance to take exams for college credit. By “very deeply analyzing the organizational patterns of high scoring previously released essays,” the student found, one could avoid the kind of independent analysis the A.P. language test is meant to measure. “Even though it’s kinda weird imitating other people’s styles of expression,” the Reddit poster writes, “it definitely may improve your score nonetheless because you’d be writing exactly as they want you to.”

At Colby College, where I teach, we don’t accept A.P. English Literature for credit or for placement, nor does Colby’s Writing Program accept A.P. English Language in lieu of the college’s first-year writing course (W1), which all matriculating students are required to take. But many students arrive here and elsewhere having taken A.P. classes; in 2022, the College Board boasts, roughly 1.2 million students took more than four million A.P. exams in public high schools throughout the country. And when I teach a first-year writing course, or an introductory course in the English major, I inevitably spend the first few weeks undoing the damage the A.P. system does to how students understand both writing and the study of literature.

The damage is familiar to college faculty across disciplines: writing as a form of Frankfurtian bullshit for which it’s more important to be superficially convincing than rigorous or factually correct; the study of literature as exercise in literary device-hunting, a trick-mirror image of literary formalism from 75 years ago. If you want to ruin an English professor’s mood, just say “logos, pathos, and ethos,” which show up every year in a preponderance of first-year student essays, regardless of subject matter. In more concrete terms, the A.P. English exams make it harder for college faculty to teach students how to write for the rhetorical situations they’ll actually face—such as writing the City Council to get a dangerous intersection fixed or explaining to a co-worker what’s misleading about a client’s data visualization—and how to engage with literature for a lifetime rather than for a mark meant to exempt them from college-level work.

As Annie Abrams documents in Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students, the choice not to accept A.P. English and other A.P. exams for credit or placement is the norm at highly selective colleges and universities, like Colby, in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, the Ivy League, and at other perennial targets of the nation’s most privileged high school students. Private academies that aim to place their students in highly selective colleges and universities also eschew A.P. in favor of a more substantive and autonomous curriculum.

The result is that, although the A.P. program is meant to create egalitarian pathways to a rigorous and rewarding education, it ends up encouraging still more rote learning—especially in less privileged high schools—replicating the system it was meant to replace. Today’s A.P. system may purport to scale advanced learning opportunities beyond the elite, to give as many students as possible a chance at college-level work in high school, but what it really teaches is which boxes to tick so you don’t have to do college-level work in a given subject. What’s supposed to be the beginning of inquiry too often becomes its ending.

A.P. emerged in the mid-twentieth century, in the wake of World War II, when many of the nation’s leaders had an eye on how to reform education to promote democracy. Harvard president James Conant, among others, was an influential proponent of “general education,” which Abrams tells us was a synonym for a “liberal education” that was “soulful, democratic, and multidimensional.” Gordon Chalmers, then president of Kenyon College, wanted education reform as, in Abrams’ words, a “response to concerns about the Korean War, Communism, and increased demands for a well-educated polity.” Chalmers partnered with the Ford Foundation to promote “intellectualism and individualism” as twinned public goods, providing institutional and financial backing to committees to study education reform.

One such body, the Blackmer Committee, was initiated by Andover headmaster John Kemper after lunch with popular Andover English teacher Alan Blackmer. The goal was to figure out how best to coordinate between schools and colleges. One of Kemper’s suggestions was that “schools could take full responsibility for liberal arts, while colleges could focus on specialization.” Another was to “somehow shrink the last two years of high school and four years of college into four years total.” In 1951, Andover would join a group of prestigious schools and colleges—Exeter and Lawrenceville, along with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—as part of a study of the relationship between school and college curricula.

From the beginning, Abrams shows, A.P. was explicitly designed to serve the most advanced and elite students. “The program was more concerned with reproducing habits of mind in the emerging ruling class,” Abrams writes, “than it was with understanding the American education system as a mechanism for rapid social restructuring.” Hence the schools and colleges in the inaugural study were a sampling of the most elite institutions. And the final report of the Blackmer Committee explains its intentions to improve education from the top down, starting with the most elite with the hope that the benefits would ultimately extend further through the system: “We believe in the ‘Jacksonian’ ideal of extending the benefits of education as far down the scale of ability as it is possible,” the authors declared. “But our task in the present study is to emphasize the ‘Jeffersonian’ concept of the right of every able student to the best education from which he is capable of profiting.… While we have tried to outline a program of study which would offer all students of college caliber a better education, we have been particularly concerned about the superior student.”   

. . . .

The first of Abrams’s two major theses, then, is that the reality of A.P. today—mechanistic, superficial, increasingly delivered through an artificially paced, software-forward program, and with too many constraints on those trying to teach it—neither democratizes elite education nor achieves any of the liberal humanist ideals of its founders. One of those founders, Henry Bragdon, wrote in 1968, “Tests too often encourage bad pedagogy,” therefore “teachers should emancipate themselves from the tyranny of testing-cum-grades and try to evolve a variety of intellectual exercises in which grading is subordinated to training in reading, writing, discourse, methods of inquiry, and critical thought.”

Today, however, the A.P. test score is the alpha and omega of students’ experience with A.P. coursework, with lesson plans and pacing shoehorned into test-preparation packages dictated by the College Board.

. . . .

From my experience as an English professor, I think Abrams is right to raise concerns about this system. Most of the damage control I have to do in my introductory college courses involves disabusing students of the truisms they learned from a test-driven A.P. curriculum. One is that writing is a “soft” exercise of rhetorical flourish in which factual accuracy, sound reasoning, research and data-gathering, and appropriate treatment of evidence don’t matter. Another is that literature is purely subjective, so literature’s facts—whether contextual or within the fictional world of a novel or a play—don’t matter; a text is just a prompt for expressing your opinions. 

One problem with such impressions is they reinforce for students the false notion that studying literature or history—or forming an argument in writing—is neither real nor applicable analytical work; that it doesn’t matter if you read carefully or develop a knowledge base that informs what you’re studying and what you get out of it. A more serious problem is that, emptied of the stakes of being right or wrong, accountable or not, there’s no joy in studying something that seems pointless. You write “exactly as they want you to,” you tick the box, you move on. It’s a waste of everyone’s time.

. . . .

Broad-based access to quality higher education is both essential and extremely complicated to achieve. A.P. was not designed for such challenges—certainly not the ones we face today—and there’s no good reason to empower it with such influence over high school and college curricular decisions.

Link to the rest at The New Republic

3 thoughts on “Are A.P. Classes a Waste of Time?”

  1. At least back in the days when having a slide rule in class (and knowing how to use it) was an advantage, the AP exam (there were only a dozen when I was in high school — the Calculus BC exam including basic multivariate calculus had just been introduced, but the calculus course offered was only for the AB exam and only two of the twenty-one students in the class, with a graduating class of around 400, sat for the exam) was entirely separate from the courses. My high school offered exactly three AP-subject-matter-and-level courses; the exam got exactly zero attention or support, and was annoying to the calculus teacher because it was on the same day as his exam (you can tell how much priority the AP exam had!).

  2. If literature is purely subjective, how are literary prizes to be awarded?
    Why is the Nobel Prize for Literature regarded as important?

    Aggregates of subjective opinions and evaluations. Just count ’em.

  3. AP is a huge deal where I live. Since 2015, Texas public universities have been required by law to accept passing (a score of 3, 4, or 5) AP test scores for college credit. My oldest child, who graduated from high school in 2019 with 36 AP and dual credit hours under his belt, finished college in 3 years, a savings for him of over $25,000. My younger two kids are in the process of doing the same. The local high school offers AP classes in English, History, Human Geography, AB/BC Calculus, Spanish Language, Spanish Lit, Economics, Government, Psychology, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Statistics, French, German, Computer Science, and many more. Based on what I’ve seen at home, these classes are doing an excellent job of presenting college level material to students who have the intellectual drive to take them and saving each student a ton of money.

    My kids are also taking “On-Ramps” classes– which are designed as dual credit high school and University of Texas at Austin classes. The students get a grade from their high school teacher and a separate grade from a UT professor. At the end of the semester, if they pass the college level, they get credits on a UT transcript. The classes offered via On-Ramps include “Rhetoric and Writing” and “US History”– the classes the OP is complaining about. I guess if there are issues with those AP tests, Texas has already found a way around them.

    As expensive as college has become, being able to knock out core classes for $100 per AP test is a bargain. The On-Ramps classes, at $300 each, are more expensive, but they’d cost quite a bit more down the road. And students who can’t afford the full costs can apply to take the classes/tests for free or at reduced prices. This puts college level courses in reach for every high school student in Texas who wants to take them.

    The classes for both dual credit and AP are taught at the same pace as university classes. They are extremely challenging. My oldest was more than ready for upper level course work when he arrived at university. His younger siblings will be, too. I estimate the overall savings for our family will be around $75,000 even after subtracting the costs of the dual credit and AP classes.

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