The Politics of AP

Do you remember all the politically-motivated outrage, mostly centered in Florida, over the Advanced Placement African American Studies pilot course? I know that was a few months back, an eternity ago in internet time, and we’ve moved on to other faux crises, but…

Anyway, one of my first thoughts when all the stupidity from the governor and his rabble was to wonder what Jay Mathews would have to say.

I guess I’m just weird. But another reason that question popped into my head was because he is without a doubt the loudest cheerleader for the College Board’s AP standardized testing program in the media.

And right on time, Mathews recently returned to the Washington Post RSS feed1 with his thoughts on the controversy. Sort of.

Actually, instead of addressing the content and value of the proposed curriculum, or whether the claims being made by Florida Guy were valid, he was upset that everyone involved didn’t revere the AP program the way he does.

I am waiting in vain for those engaged in the raging argument over the good or bad of Advanced Placement African American Studies in Florida to explain how AP courses work. That would require a discussion of depth and detail, two factors important in education that political combatants consider annoying and irrelevant.

Those questions overlook why AP courses, and similar programs such as International Baccalaureate and Cambridge International, are so much better than other high school offerings. AP courses give pupils much more to read than usual and prepare them for exams much more demanding than anything else they are going to get in high school.

And, of course, Mathews throws in a plug for his “challenge” index, a ranking of “best” high schools he compiles annually based only on the number of AP tests2 administered. The index now even has it’s own website.

However, one important point that Mathews, and the news media, seem to miss is that Advanced Placement is little more than a highly-profitable standardized testing program. While the classes offer some benefits for a small group of college-bound students, they are not at all a miracle cure for most students as he frequently trumpets.

Mathews also likes to claim that “AP teachers are more motivated to improve student thinking and analysis” in their instruction. Except that most AP teachers are laser-focused on getting their students prepared for the tests, leaving little time for any thinking or “analysis” that a specific part of the curriculum.

As to the AP African American Studies course, the second year of the pilot will go forward, with or without Florida high schools. Three Virginia divisions, including our overly-large school district, will offer the class, regardless of any noises made by our autocrat wannabe governor. Assuming they have enough students register, of course.

Because the bottom line when it comes to a high-profile, profitable program like Advanced Placement, is that everything is based on demand. Regardless of politics.


Another part of the AP infrastructure is the multi-million dollar business of providing test prep materials and tutoring for the tests. Some parents are willing to pay a lot to help their kids get a higher score on the tests.

1. Mathews regular column pretty much disappeared from the Monday print editions of the paper after the first of the year. Not sure if he decided to retire or if the Post is doing more “cost cutting”, but he’s still listed on the website.

2. A few years ago he grudgingly included IB and Cambridge tests, even though the three programs are not at all equivalent.

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