The AP Love Affair


You would be hard pressed to find a bigger cheerleader for Advanced Placement than Jay Mathews. Except possibly for the people at The College Board who run the extremely profitable program.1

For anyone who has not read the Post regularly over the past couple of decades, Mathews is well-known around here for writing full-throated, uncritical columns championing the AP program. Last month alone, three of his five columns centered on that topic.

The fall Education Edition of the Post Sunday Magazine published in October also featured an eight-page spread by Mathews that was ostensibly a profile of the director of the AP program. It was a sloppy wet kiss that a casual reader might have mistaken as nothing more than an “advertorial” paid for by the College Board, mixed in with the other ads for private schools, tutoring services, and military boarding academies.

And, of course, Mathews also is responsible for the farce known as the Challenge Index, an annual ranking that is embraced by schools and news media as a benchmark of high school quality. A measure that is based solely on the number of AP tests taken.2

In all of this promotional work (including at least three related books), Mathews rarely does much to address critics of the AP program. Mostly it consists of setting up very flimsy straw men and quickly knocking them down with a very dismissive attitude. Anyone who doesn’t agree that AP should be the foundation of a high school academic program is misguided at best.

Toward the end of the Sunday Magazine article, he mentions in one paragraph two rather prominent critics of the AP program, and then allows the subject of his piece to dismiss them with a couple of quotes containing no real rebuttal.

One of those critics is the 2009 documentary “Race to Nowhere”. In the film, produces look at how students are under increasing pressure to “succeed” in school, including by being pushed into taking more AP classes.

The other is a 2012 article from The Atlantic with the provocative title “AP Classes Are a Scam”.

Although I wouldn’t go so far to call the program a scam, the author, a former government professor at Boston College, makes some excellent points that deserve to be part of the debate. His last bullet point is one of my favorites.

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.

Which relates directly to some of my primary criticisms of the AP program, and especially the huge emphasis the classes receive in most high schools in this area.

For one, the whole AP program drives an assumption that the goal of every student should be attending a four-year college. Indeed, the entire curriculum is dictated by university officials who benefit from the stream of new customers. Too often, kids are given the impression that anything other than a brand name college represents failure.

Looking at the bigger picture, the AP structure reinforces the idea that a pure academic approach is the only way to understand any subject. That subjects can only be studied within their silo, a segmented approach to learning that was already an entrenched attitude in most of the high schools I’ve worked with over the years and now extending down into the lower grades.

That intellectual curiosity the professor spoke of is difficult, if not impossible, in a rigidly designed curriculum that leaves little room for exploration outside of the silo.

Anyway, after all that ranting, I wouldn’t advocate for high schools to drop AP classes entirely (as some schools are doing). I’ve both taken and taught AP courses, as well as spending a few summers scoring them and there is some value in the concept (if not the current execution).

Schools should be providing students with the option to participate. With the emphasis on option.

We need to help students understand and explore ALL their options during their time in K12 classrooms. Structuring high school entirely around a college-level program, which Jay Mathews appears to be pushing with his AP love affair, slams the door shut to those choices.

Image: Exam by Alberto G. Posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. They also own the equally profitable, and questionable, SAT and other related testing programs. You can find more data on the finances of the College Board and other “non-profit” testing groups at Americans for Educational Testing Reform.

2. If you want to torture yourself with it, I’ve written far too much about that crap in this space.

Look Behind the Graph

According to many excited retweets in my stream today, the number of females and “underrepresented” minorities taking AP Computer Science tests is way up. Like double up according to USA Today.


Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade (although a little rain today might be nice :-), but I’m also bothered by the unquestioned acceptance of statistics in the form of dramatic bar charts. So let’s take a closer look at that chart.

Notice that the bar to the far right combines two AP exams, the standard AP CS A exam, first offered in 1984, and the new AP CS Principles exam which was first administered in May of this year.

If you remove that new program, there is still a growth in both females and “underrepresented” minorities1 in the CS A class, just not nearly as dramatic as reported in the headlines. Even so, a very positive sign. It’s also positive that so many students are enrolling in the Principles course, which is far more accessible to those who are not necessarily looking at CS as a career path.

However, also missing from the analysis, both in the article and tweets pointing to it, is any information about how many of those new students actually did well on those AP exams. Five is the best score but three or four would also be respectable. We could discuss some value in earning a two.

I call this the Jay Mathews syndrome: attributing all success to just taking an AP exam, regardless of any measure of actual learning demonstrated by it.

Anyway, I mean absolutely no disparagement of the efforts to encourage more female and minority students to at least sample the study of computer science. And hopefully we’ll see this kind of steady increase when AP statistics are released next summer.

But anytime someone reports huge statistical increases, or decreases, especially in anything dealing with education, be skeptical and take a closer look. The story is likely much more complicated than the graph out front.

Challenging Clickbait

Last week the education RSS feed from the Washington Post was spammed with at least seven stories about Jay Mathews’ “challenge” index. Of course, they were all written by Mathews, who never misses an opportunity to tell you how he created this annual list of the “most challenging” high schools in the US.

So, these posts were not so much news as general clickbait.

In one of the articles, Mathews lets us know that this year is the 30 anniversary of the day this idea first popped into his head. Next year will be the 20th year since the Post and a then paper-based Newsweek magazine first published his list.

And I’ve been ranting about it in this space for almost three-quarters of that time. So I’m not sure what’s left to be said about this simplistic, headline-grabbing, mess. But I’ll say it anyway.

For those not familiar with the “challenge” index, here’s how it works: for each high school that will send him the stats,2 Mathews adds up the number of Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) tests taken and divides it by the number of seniors who graduate. Any school with a score of 1 or higher goes on the list.

What? You were expecting more? Maybe like incorporating the number of students who actually passed the exams? Or other factors that go into making a successful high school beyond pushing kids to take more tests?

Mathews seems to think that his index has improved American education by pushing more schools into adopting the AP curriculum (after complaints a few years back, he grudingly included the IB program). Which assumes that those very limited programs, largely dictated by colleges and framed around the idea that college is the only goal of learning in K12, are appropriate for every student. It also ties nicely into Mathews’ love of charter schools, especially KIPP, many of which tightly embrace AP.

Then there’s the general idea in the public mind that this is a ranked list of the “best” high schools. I know, both Mathews and the Post will say that’s not the intent. They simply want to spotlight the schools that are “working hardest to challenge students from all backgrounds”.

However, that’s not how it works in the real world. Since the start, schools, especially those in the upper levels of the list, local media, public school critics, and others have trumpeted this “challenge” index as THE list of top US high schools.

For the Post, that also helps sell newspapers and magazines, and in the internet age, generates clicks.

A Very Simplistic Challenge

In this morning’s paper, the Washington Post wasted valuable space in the Metro section on Jay Mathew’s annual promotion of the fraud known as his “challenge” index. If you’re not familiar with this artificial ranking of school quality, take a look at some of my regular rants on the subject.

His premise in the column is that schools need to be more transparent, mostly by giving him their data on how many students take AP tests each year. Mathews is pissed that many private schools still don’t want to play along with his index and this piece is little more than him explaining why they are evading the noble purpose of his list.

However, I do agree with Mathews’ overall idea: schools do need to be more transparent. But with more than just numbers. We need to open schools by involving our communities in some basic discussions around what school is and should be.

Is the basic assumption, made by Mathews and many others, that every student should attend college a valid one? If so, is the AP program, created and marketed by a non-profit organization run by the colleges themselves, the best way to prepare them for that goal?

Are AP courses the best way to challenge students in high school, which is the core concept of Mathews’ index? And is publishing a list based only on the number of students who take a standardized test, ignoring completely their scores, a valid way to judge school quality?2

There are many more questions that need to be asked, as well as including other people who are not currently part of the conversation. Like students, who are most impacted by the decisions made by politicians, administrators, and teachers.

Bottom line is that preparing students for their future after high school graduation is a very complex issue. One that requires more options for students than just college. An issue that is far more complex than the simplistic approach promoted by Mathews, a columnist who gave up being a journalist many years ago.

Jay Demands the Data

I haven’t ranted about Jay Mathews’ writing in a while, in part because he’s no longer the primary education columnist for the Washington Post (fortunately, they chose Valerie Strauss to fill that role), but mostly because there’s really nothing new to discuss.

He loves the Advanced Placement program and is responsible for the “challenge” index, possibly the worst measure of high school quality ever created.2 What else is there to know about Mathews? He certainly doesn’t address many other education-related topics in his writing.

Anyway, his most recent column continues this AP romance by chastising a prominent local private school for not releasing to him data on how many students take Advanced Placement tests. So he can flatter them by including the numbers in the next round of the index scores, of course.

And that’s about it. Most of the piece is just Mathews complaining about not being able to include private schools like this one in his lame ranking of mostly public schools.

If he had only accepted the headmaster’s very rational justification for their policy, he would have had nothing to write about.

“We believe that parents and students are not helped by rating systems which purport to evaluate school quality based on test data,” Sidwell head of school Tom Farquhar told me. Independent Education, the local private school association, encourages all of its members to keep their numbers to themselves.

Good for them.

Two other minor points.

First, calling Sidwell Friends “our most famous private high school”2 because the president’s children and those of other politicians attend is a prime example of inside-the-beltway pretentiousness. In keeping with Quaker tradition, Sidwell likes to keep a low profile and I’m not sure they would consider themselves the most famous private school in the DC area, much less the whole US.

Second, the fact that his daughter graduated from Sidwell also lends a bias, and not a small dose of privileged attitude, to this column. In addition to letting us know that the Post must pay him very well since the school has always been one of the most expensive in a very pricy market.

Ok, I’ll now return to ignoring Jay Mathews.