I admit it. I have been, for nearly a decade and a half, an active, even enthusiastic, participant in what I have come to understand is not only a fraud, but a national outrage. I’ve been able to get away with it because it was not until recently that the overt, unmistakable signs of fraud became obvious. There was always reason to be concerned, but now, the truth is undeniable.
I refer to Advanced Placement–AP–courses, primarily in high school.
The mere mention of AP courses doesn’t seem to inspire outrage? That’s not particularly surprising. Most people know little about the theory, fewer, the reality.
Stanley Kurtz, writing at The Washington Post, explains:
Emerging around the time of the 1957 Sputnik launch, the early AP program highlighted the national interest in cultivating the very best students. In the 1980s and ’90s, worries about failing schools and an interest in maximizing opportunity for all spread AP courses from a few elite institutions to schools across the country. Initially, the focus was rightly on finding and educating talented students, regardless of income, ethnicity or race. Gradually, however, AP came to be seen as a method for quickly overcoming the achievement gap between poor and minority students and others, regardless of preparation.
Just as some people have athletic abilities beyond most, some people are just smarter and more academically capable than most. While we have always had no difficulty whatever admitting the athletic superiority of a few and catering to their needs, Americans have always been reluctant to admit that some people are just smarter than others. Admitting that we are not intellectually equal seems somehow unfair, it forces us to admit that in the qualities that matter most to long-term success, some–actually, most–begin the football game of life without cleats or a helmet. On the other hand, we waste not a moment worrying about the self-esteem of the children that will never play on the varsity football team because that’s sports. Unlike academics, that’s really important.
Indeed we are hypocritical, perhaps even a bit deranged, in our priorities.
The establishment of Advanced Placement classes was a reasonable and logical step to address this national unease. We spend enormous amounts of money giving the athletically talented everything they need to develop those talents. Should we do less for the academically talented? Why should they be forced to sit in classes far below their levels of ability and interest? One of the fundamental axioms of education is that each student should get the instruction they need to maximize their potential, so AP classes are, in the most real sense, a no-brainer.
Genuine AP kids are different. They have a substantially larger and more varied knowledge base. They know more, have more frames of reference, get more jokes, think and understand on higher levels, have larger vocabularies, and most are actually willing to read. Their skill levels are also higher than their peers. They need additional, higher-level intellectual stimulation.
Unfortunately, politicians got involved, and things began to go the wrong direction. Kurtz again:
In the 2000s, politicians of both parties jumped onto this expansion bandwagon. Federal and state governments began subsidizing AP testing fees. Several states mandated AP courses in all schools. Meanwhile, the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations moved aggressively to expand AP participation.
As a result, the proportion of public high school graduates who took at least one AP exam rose from 18.9 percent in 2003 to 33.2 percent in 2013. The College Board has argued that all students who score a certain minimum on the PSAT would benefit from AP classes, regardless of preparation and eventual performance on the test. By College Board reckoning, 42.6 percent of 2013 graduates ought to have taken at least one AP class. A few schools have even begun to automatically enroll most students in AP courses. There, as in Lake Wobegon, all children are above average.
I teach Pre-AP Sophomore English. This is an introductory course to the full rigor of AP classes in the junior year, though there are AP classes of a sort in the lower grades in many schools. The primary differences between a pre-AP class and a “regular” English class is that more is expected of PAP students, faster, and to a higher level of accomplishment. For example, a regular class might read four novels, and two-three plays in a year. Why so few? Two months, minimum, of mandatory high-stakes test preparation, but that’s another article for another time. A PAP class will read 14 books in a wider variety of genres, 4-5 plays, and write more with significantly higher expectations for their writing.
There are, in my “regular” classes, many kids that could do very well in an AP class, but the choose the lighter load for scheduling reasons, because they can only handle so many AP courses each semester, or simply because they don’t want to exert themselves. Such decisions, while perhaps a bit disappointing to teacher and parents, are rational.
What is not rational, and what has nothing to do with educating children, are the political and business aspects of the AP program across every curriculum. AP classes are a brilliant business innovation. The College Board, a private, for-profit, corporation, writes and scores all AP tests, charging students for the privilege. In addition, they publish study guides and variety of other supporting materials. This is a very profitable enterprise, and there is nothing wrong with making an honest profit.
Politics enters into the picture when politicians use public money to pay testing fees for kids, or to buy College Board produced materials, or to “encourage” the College Board in the less open and above board ways common to politics. Politicians can also demand changes in curriculum to better suit their political needs, which means a substantial shift to the left, turning AP classes into blatant left-wing political indoctrination. Much of academia, particularly at the collegiate level, is very leftist, and it is such people upon whom the College Board depends as advisors.
What the College Board tests is what AP teachers across the nation must teach. Progressive indoctrination affects the English curriculum primarily by means of the literary works tested, the kinds of questions asked, and the required philosophical emphasis of those grading the tests. But it is the US history test that has alerted the public to the unholy College Board/politician/academics progressive alliance.
In my high school, as in many, kids have the choice of taking AP English or College English. In AP English, kids work on an AP curriculum designed to give them the maximum chance of passing the AP English test. A sufficiently high score might earn them a semester of freshman English credit in college. Might, because there are no universal standards. College A might require a “5” for credit, while College B requires only a “4.” College C might provide no credit at all.
In a college English course, however, students complete a Freshman English curriculum and if they pass, earn guaranteed college credit for that course.
This is where the problems begin. Genuinely AP kids have the choice of what will surely be a guaranteed college credit and one less class to take in college, or an AP class which will have a significantly different, and perhaps, more useful and interesting curriculum, but no guarantee of anything. Unfortunately, because of the more commonly leftist change in AP curricula, and because of the changes in materials necessary to pass those tests, AP classes, more and more, no longer exist to meet the needs of individual, academically talented kids, but to produce profits for the College Board, and to meet the political needs of its patrons and fellow travelers.
A related problem and national disgrace is the politically driven push to get as many kids into college as possible where most–who have no business trying to do genuinely college-level work–drop out without a degree, carrying massive debt they have no skills to pay off. The same political dynamics are involved.
Kurtz on the changes in the AP history curriculum:
And as a result, by replacing its traditionally minimalist course guidelines with detailed curriculum frameworks, the College Board is now in a position to create a de facto national curriculum.
The massive increase in revenue from government-subsidized testing fees has also allowed the College Board to take over the sort of teacher training once managed by states and districts. Since it writes the exams, signs off on every AP course syllabus, controls teacher training and manages the revision of approved textbooks, the College Board is capable of exercising exceptionally tight control over the curriculum. In effect, the College Board is becoming an unelected national school board, independent of district or state control. Critics have rightly warned that Common Core takes us far down the road to a national curriculum. The College Board, presided over by Common Core architect David Coleman, is swiftly transporting us to the terminus of that highway.
While this summer’s revisions in the AP U.S. History framework eliminate the most biased passages, the broader emphasis remains on themes such as gender and the environment, at the expense of military, diplomatic and political history. Equally important, textbooks and course syllabi were revised with the controversial 2014 framework in mind. They have not been redone in light of the 2015 changes, which would necessitate few additions in any case. So the 2015 revisions are largely cosmetic, designed to mollify critics while forcing minimal changes to the course itself. The College Board can stage-manage this response precisely because it controls every part of the curriculum.
The solution to this problem is not to eliminate AP classes, but to change their focus. The teachers providing AP instruction are no less capable if their focus is no longer test preparation. Focus instead on meeting the higher intellectual, developmental needs of AP students. Do more, faster and to a higher level of accomplishment, and the College Board be damned.
Let’s see how capitalism really works, bold, bald supply and demand, without governmental mandates and taxpayer money. If the products provided by the College Board are truly an essential part of every AP curriculum in every American school, if AP kids can’t properly learn and develop without College Board AP tests and supporting materials, the market will provide vindication. If not AP kids are going to learn a great deal more, without political indoctrination, and will earn college credit in the bargain.
And the best part: at least a part of a high school education will no longer consist in large part of preparation for a single, expensive, unnecessary test.