Let us begin, gentle readers, with an entirely outrageous, white privileged, racist, sexist–fill in your favorite ist here–proposition: some people are smarter than others. In fact, some people are smarter than others pretty much from the moment they slide out of the birth canal into a bright, annoying world. They learn faster, retain what they learn, are bright, inquisitive, witty, and self-motivated. I have found this to be true of any race, though some races, for what appear to be primarily cultural reasons–hard work helps–tend to have a higher proportion of such people, which is a topic for another time.
Let us add another proposition: people who aren’t in this relatively small group resent and hate them. This resentment is expressed in a variety of ways, subtle and gross, but one thing is certain: the less smart cannot admit they are less smart. To do so would be to admit some people are smarter than they—to recognize reality–so as in the old Japanese axiom—“the nail that sticks up will be hammered down”—the smart must be brought low, and by any means necessary.
Quixotically, this is not true in athletics, which, in comparison to intellectual pursuits, is far, far more important, or at the very least, more profitable. No one worries about the hurt feelings of little Johnny, who at 5’4” and 135 pounds, will never play on the varsity basketball team, or of all the girls that will never play on any football team. In athletics we accept, without question, that some people are bigger, faster, stronger and more capable than others. It’s the natural order.
But when one is discussing intelligence and the abilities that spring from it, that’s another story. That’s somehow more personal. It’s surely politically incorrect.
This brings us to Advanced Placement classes, also known as Gifted And Talented (G/T). The concept, untrammeled by political concerns, is simple: some people are smarter than others. They are far more interested in intellectual pursuits, and are terminally bored in normal classes. They are capable of working faster, more deeply, and in more detail. They routinely engage in pursuits that, these days, are all too rare: reading and thinking.
Just as we have special classes and accommodations for “special needs” kids, it would seem unremarkable to have classes for AP and/or G/T kids, to meet their special needs. Having taught both groups, I can attest to the extraordinary differences between them. The smarter kids do more, do it faster, learn and retain more, and accomplish more. Where a regular English class might manage to read two books in a year, an AP class can manage ten, to say nothing of the books the kids read outside of class. Where a regular class, for the most part, cares little about the lessons of a given book, an AP class is interested and ready to debate those ideas. Yet AP and G/T classes tend to be objects of educratic manipulation and public disdain, nails to be hammered down.
Arguments regarding them tend, these days, to fall into two categories:
1) These classes must be abolished so no one feels less smart than the smart kids (everyone knows who the smart kids are, which is a non-admission admission).
2) The classes must be open to everyone, so everyone can have the G/T experience.
What, one wonders, will become of us if we don’t help the smartest among us develop? From where will come the technologies and cultural contributions that make life not only confortable, but rewarding? I do not, for a moment, suggest that people whose work or interests do not entail intellectual or artistic pursuits are in any way inferior, or their work unnecessary or to be sneered at. I suggest only that people have different priorities, different desires, and different skills, and that all of those factors make our advanced society worthwhile.
One would hope that the fallacy of the second position would be obvious. Most kids just aren’t up to the pace and depth of G/T classes. They aren’t interested, aren’t sufficiently self-motivated, and don’t have the necessary academic background to succeed. Thus do we find kids that would be passing, and benefiting from, a regular English class, struggling, even failing in a G/T class, and gaining little or nothing from the effort.
We also see this in the “everybody should go to college” mantra. It’s why colleges have remedial high school programs on campus, programs that grant no credit, but garner full tuition. It’s why so many people unprepared for college spend tens of thousands of dollars, and leave, feeling themselves failures, without a degree. All too often, they leave with enormous college loan debt, and no skills to pay it off.
College isn’t for everyone, and neither are G/T classes. What some see as egalitarianism is in reality, cruelty.
With this background, gentle readers, we arrive at the point of this article: AP versus college English (or math, science, etc.) classes. The theory of AP classes is simple: they’re classes with a much more advanced focus for more advanced kids. One might think of them as college level classes in high school. If this were the focus, if teachers and students were left alone to teach and learn, this would be a good and useful, even noble, thing. However, insert testing, and nobility degenerates into perversity.
The College Board is a mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity.
Founded in 1900, the College Board was created to expand access to higher education. Today, the membership association is made up of over 6,000 of the world’s leading educational institutions and is dedicated to promoting excellence and equity in education.
Each year, the College Board helps more than seven million students prepare for a successful transition to college through programs and services in college readiness and college success — including the SAT and the Advanced Placement Program. The organization also serves the education community through research and advocacy on behalf of students, educators and schools.
It’s that College Board: the SAT people, but also the AP people. They are “not-for-profit, but somehow they manage to profit nicely. Their 2014 revenues were over $840 million dollars. I do not begrudge anyone making an honest profit, but being non-profit is apparently quite profitable.
It is the College Board that produces and scores the AP tests for every subject. The system is supposed to work like this: teachers prepare kids to pass the AP tests (they have to pay to take them) and depending on their AP test scores, they can earn college credit. Sounds great, but there is, as always, a catch—or two.
Once the point of any class is passing a test, the nature of instruction changes. It no longer becomes about intellectual inquiry and growth, but test drill. Indeed, teachers try to combine both, but because high AP test scores become a measure—accountability, you know—of schools, passing the test, rather than truly meeting the needs of the kids, becomes the point.
There is an alternative to AP classes: college courses conducted on high school campuses. Instead of taking AP English, kids can take College English, which is a great opportunity.
High school teachers teaching college courses are essentially dual credit teachers. Their students simultaneously earn not only high school English—or other classes—credit, but college credit. They must, of course, pay college tuition for the course, but as long as they pass, they earn that credit. A college English class is essentially identical to an AP class only as long as the AP class is not all about test drill, which most are.
The problem is secondary school educrats tend to do everything they can to convince kids to take AP classes rather than dual credit classes. The mere numbers of kids in AP classes look good on their accountability measures, and if the kids pass, even better. Unfortunately, this is great for educrats, and not so hot for kids.
While it may cost more to take a dual credit course, as long as the student passes the class, they earn high school andcollege credit, which will almost always transfer to any college anywhere. They also get essentially the same level of instruction as an AP class, and if the AP class is all about test drill, a higher level of instruction and better learning opportunity.
What about an AP class?
As long as they pass the class in high school, they’ll earn high school credit toward graduation, but in order to earn college credit, they must take the appropriate AP exam. These tests are not scored with percentages, but by levels. Colleges may, as they choose, accept or not accept these test scores for credit. The tests are scored on a 1-5 scale with 5 being the highest score. A “2” would normally be considered failure, though some colleges will accept no less than a “4.” While many institutions will agree that a “3” will earn credit, they may rescind that decision at will. In other words, a year of effort may earn only high school, not college credit. And even if college credit is granted, that will be true only of some colleges, not others.
The College Board does offer a variety of potentially useful services, but their tests are far from foolproof, and significant errors have occurred, invalidating scores and requiring students to retake tests.
The question is, will a G/T student benefit most from a dual credit course, which guarantees credit with successful completion of the class, or an AP course, which offers only a chanceto pass a test, which score may or may not be acceptedfor credit at a given college?
Consider the experience of one of my favorite students. A very bright girl, by the time she graduated from high school, through taking dual credit courses and actual college courses off campus, she completed her freshman and sophomore years of college. She entered college as a junior after high school graduation, and is currently finishing medical school. It’s possible she might have scored highly enough on AP tests to earn the same credit, but not, by any means, certain. Nor is it certain her chosen schools would have accepted those AP scores for credit. Excellent students failing such tests is common.
Given the choice between AP and dual credit courses, I would advise anyone to take the dual credit course. It’s the same level of material, not narrowly focused on passing a particular test, and as long as the student does their part, college credit is guaranteed.
Fun facts to know and tell for any parent and student.