Sunday, January 13, 2013

There's an AP for That

Here is how we got here. Well, my version at least.

In the beginning, there was college. You went there to take advanced courses in literature, philosophy, science, the arts, and theoretical mathematics. Having done so meant that you could function as a contributing member of society and engage in scintillating conversation at dinner parties.  Despite the array of disciplines you might specialize in, you were primarily there to learn to read, write, and think (yes, Kristen, I stole this from you and didn't even provide a footnote--I'm sorry).

In your spare time, you may also have joined a squash league, learned chess, and started to smoke a pipe. If you were fortunate, you made lots of friends who were forged in the same fires that you were. If you were particularly fortunate, as I was, you married one of these friends (note: it was a girl, but I get what you're thinking).

Eventually, people wanted some sort of proof that they'd been through the experience, and so there came to be diplomas. As these diplomas became increasingly valuable, the number and complexity of hoops students were made to jump through increased. Students could be expected to sit for nastily exhausting examinations, write lengthy and/or well-researched papers, and take a specific slate of courses--all of this because the teachers and administrators who determined the requirements also did these things (for more on this, see also: graduation projects and cults). In fact, as you may recall, The Wizard of Oz believed that a diploma was sufficient in and of itself, and conferred a degree in thinkology in lieu of actual learning.

Eventually, some students felt that they were already plenty knowledgeable about stuff, and asked for the final exam on the first day of class. Before long, the College Board® came up with a scheme to make the tests standardized (see also: Standardized Testing). This way, students across the country could take the same test on the same day and have this test count for college credit in any college that would accept the tests. The next logical step is to teach courses geared toward helping students to prepare to take these tests. These courses were by their nature very difficult--college-level content, taught at a college-level pace, geared toward taking a college-level test.

Meanwhile, students with excellent grades in co-ed cooking and guitar class were becoming valedictorian, because their colleagues in AP Chemistry were pulling all-night'rs to squeak out a C- on their lab reports. Funny thing about kids who take AP Chemistry, they know how to get something like this fixed, since they're also many of the officers in student government. Fixing this meant "weighting" grades, so that an A in a more difficult class is worth more than an A in an easier class.

In the nearly 20 yeas that I have been teaching, AP courses, weighted grades have gone from an obscure tie-breaker for #1 in the class to a central driving force in education. This has led to some unintended results:
  1. Gaming the system - Lately, there has been an uptick in students dropping out of  unweighted programs (like band) to improve their class rank, which means that they miss out on the thousands dollars in scholarships that band directors give out at the end of the year. It also creates the possibility that #1 in the class is the one most savvy to how the game is played, whether or not he/she also is the smartest kid in the class. 
  2. Grade grubbing - Advanced students are already prone to caring more about their grades than actually learning anything. Weighted grades, class rank, and AP courses do not improve this situation. If you ever give an A- to one of those folks, you will get a visit, phone call, email, meeting with the principal or some combination of all of it.
  3. Subjective aspects - The humanities have gotten into the AP game in a big way, but this isn't entirely a good thing.While the improved equality among students in the sciences and humanities is appreciated, AP tests can't include debates, research, oral presentations, class discussion, and any number of things that must be part of advanced social studies and English courses, but that don't work in a two-hour standardized test. Chorus, for example, is by its nature a collaborative learning experience, and therefore there will never be an AP test for chorus. We do have one for music theory, and another for art history, but these topics are slightly on the periphery of what we actually do most of the time. AP Studio Art is closer to the core of what art students do in class every day, but it is scored by submitting a portfolio, not by taking an exam. Perhaps this should be the model for more subjects that don't always have a clear right or wrong answer.
  4. Rigor - Allegedly, Honors and AP courses involve college-level work. They do. Most of the time. However, just as there is a fair amount of  variety from one college course to another, there is a corresponding variety in high school from one teacher to another. In my wife's high school they called it Chemistry with Iskowitz (difficult) and Chemistry with the Other Guy (less difficult). Neither was weighted, but everyone knew which one to take to be prepared for Advanced Chemistry the following year. It has been said that some teachers offer pretty much the same course at College Prep, Honors, and AP levels, even though the weight for each is different.
  5. Corporate profits- The real winner in the ever-increasing surge of AP courses is the College Board® (not to be confused with Educational Testing Service® or Learning Focused Strategies®) which collects $89 per student, per test. Technically, they are a non-profit, but that means they only earn $50 million on revenues of $580 million. It is tempting to rely on the test itself to ensure rigor, accountability, and quality in the courses. However, that is to cede control of these aspects to the corporation that manages the test. Turning over the educational equivalent of our testicles to these people can be rather...uncomfortable. 
  6. The long wait - Despite the profits in this industry, tests results aren't available until mid-summer (keep in mind that a beginning teacher, who makes something like $30,000 a year, is expected to turn all of their final exams around in less than 48 hours--lest we feel too sorry for the College Board®). That means that the two full class periods worth of testing won't count as the final exam, or be included in the course grade at all. We could tie weighted course status to this, but not for seniors, who will have already graduated, attended senior week, and spent the majority of their graduation party gifts on lava lamps for their dorm rooms by the time the test results are available.   
  7. Trickle down - It is possible for all of this to get started in 10th, or even 9th grade. There is an AP test for US History, which is a course generally taught in the sophomore year at my school. If 14-year-olds take an AP course, is it then by definition college-level work? Do you know many 14-year-olds? Should other honors level courses also be weighted in 9th and 10th grades, since their equivalents are weighted in 11th and 12th? What's next, and where does it end?
As with so many things, there's nothing inherently wrong with the concept of AP testing. There are lots of 11th and 12th graders who are more mature and intellectually capable of college-level work than are some college freshmen--keeping these folks engaged throughout high school is an important goal. Likewise, weighted courses are, perhaps, a clumsy solution, but are a legitimate attempt to correct a real problem. Any system we devise will certainly be met by students who are more interested in playing the system than they are at actually learning the stuff that we're trying to put out there. However, if you have been inclined to see AP courses as the one clear improvement we've made to education in the past 20 years, I'm sorry to take this one away as well.


  1. I found your blog when searching for YOUR GUIDE TO SLIDE: THE SLACKER'S GUIDE TO COLLEGE by Brady Lessard, a book I recommend you read given the title of your blog. I appreciate your concerns about AP but ultimately disagree with the thrust behind them. To quote Lessard:

    "After I graduated, I had a major surprise. My new employer offered me a job for fairly decent cash, and he never once
    1. asked about my college;
    2. asked to see my diploma.
    Would he be paying me more if I'd gone to Yale or Harvard?"

    "I know I could apply for a hundred jobs, each time claiming a different college as my alma mater, and never get caught. If nobody checks, how important can it be? [...] And what about those other hassles -- grade point average, attendance record, class rank? Meaningless. Corporate interviewers want to know if you can turn a profit for the company. They don't care how you did in Biology 101."

    "But enough philosophy. In their way, your parents and teachers were right: If you want a well-salaried career, get a degree. The days when you could work your way up from the mail room to corporate mogul are long gone. [...] (The bad news: You wanna ride the train, you gotta have a ticket. The good news: Once you have it, nobody looks at it.)"

    As a first generation college graduate who completed a mechanical engineering degree in 1988 at a state university and eventually earned a graduate degree in both engineering and business many years later, I can honestly say that my experience corroborates Lessard's thesis. The degree represents a ticket to ride the train. What matters most are college credits on a college transcript leading to a college degree to gain entry to the career of one's choice. Any learning that happens occurs purely as an accidental byproduct of that process.

    Given the skyrocketing costs of college, any able student at any age would be foolish not to take advantage of all the college credits one can earn in high school or even middle school. I recently took and passed the Astronomy and Geology DSST tests to prepare for a planetary sciences program. In retrospect, I wish I had known of these when I took Earth Science in eighth grade. They are just not that hard yet they each earned me three hours of undergraduate college credit.

    My point is that I see "gaming" the system as good and not bad. Too many college professors have huge and sometimes "cultish" egos as your references imply. I am more than happy to encourage high school students to do all they can to bypass these irrational obstacles altogether with placement tests. As it stands now, college instructors often want to flog students intellectually while demanding those students pay for the privilege to boot. Placement tests provide an exit strategy from that torture and save loads of dough to boot. See for my video on how to slash tens of thousands of dollars and years from college with placement testing.

  2. I appreciate your thoughtful and extensive comment. I also appreciate that you are engaged enough in this topic to have produced a 42-minute video laying out your ideas.

    I'm not sure I'm with you, however, on the ultimate purpose and goal of higher education. While there are lots of reasons to attend college--including just to have piece of paper to show for it (as Andy Borowitz illuminates here: )--hopefully the real goal is to actually learn things.

    In some fields, perhaps especially in mathematics and the sciences, learning can be proven through placement tests, therefore negating the need for classes. My point is that not all learning lends itself so well to this process, and the liberal arts are in some danger if we succeed in convincing everyone otherwise.