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What’s Wrong With AP For All?

I can’t wait to read Jay Mathews’ interpretation of this new survey.

According to a study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, while enrollment in AP courses is way up, more than half of the 1000 AP teachers interviewed “are concerned that the program’s effectiveness is being threatened”.

Why are students flooding into these college-level classes?

According to their teachers, it’s largely not due to intellectual curiosity or passion for the subject matter.

“Only 32 percent attribute A.P. growth to more students who want to be challenged at a higher academic level,” the researchers wrote, leading the authors to conclude that students were often enrolling in Advanced Placement courses “for utilitarian or pragmatic reasons, not intellectual aspirations.”

And according to the study, it is not just the students who are motivated in that way. The researchers also noted teachers’ concerns about high schools’ seeking “to burnish their reputation by showcasing A.P.” For example, the study found that 75 percent of teachers believed that school administrators were expanding A.P. courses “to improve their school’s ranking and reputation in the community.”

Would that quest for improved ranking be motivated by the hyper-publicized annual “challenge” index which produces a headline-grabbing list of high schools based solely and completely on the number of AP tests taken, while ignoring the actual scores on those tests?

Just asking. :-)

Anyway, a majority of the teachers surveyed also said “too many students overestimate their abilities and are in over their heads” and “parents push their children into A.P. classes when they really don’t belong there”.

Of course, this is just the impression of one group of AP teachers. The people who are actually teaching the curriculum that, in theory, expects high school students to produce work equivalent to that required in an undergraduate college course.

They could be wrong.

However, there are many more problems with the excessive emphasis on AP courses, beyond the fact that too many unprepared students are being channeled into the classes.

For one thing, it continues to lock in the concept that the only path for a student beyond high school graduation is college.

And if that’s not the path that best fits your goals, there must be something wrong.

We also need to create better ways to enrich the student learning process that aren’t so totally dependent on a traditional university-style approach.


  1. Jay Mathews

    I posted my probably too-long column on this yesterday at washingtonpost.com. Just search for my name and my blog will pop up. I would post the link here but I am at home Sat. morning with just my laptop and incapable, as a technophobe geezer, of performing that operation with this equipment. Your excellent comment raised an issue I did not address in the column, and was not raised in the comments yesterday: the concern over kids taking AP for practical, college-applying reasons and not for intellectual substance. I say: so what??!! I have heard this one for many years, in various ways, the old complaint that high schoolers are taking this course or that course just to get ahead, or look good on their college ap. It seems to me anything that gets them into an AP or IB course should be applauded. Once they are there, a great teacher can introduce them to the intellectual thrills, but to expect 16 year old Americans to be acting like Socrates’ students, burning with a desire for learning, is just naive. Indeed, having reached the ripe age of 64, I don’t recall me or my friends actively seeking intellectual sustenance at any stage of our lives. We read for our jobs, we read for entertainment, and having been hooked in that way we do sometimes find stuff that makes us think. But the list of the subscribers to the New York Review of Books is pretty small, does not include me and is not the sort of fare that packs them in at Big Suburban High. We should be grateful for anything that gets kids into AP, and let the teachers do the rest. I understand their concern about the AP experience being watered down by the admission of lesser brains, but don’t you find it interesting that despite this seeming mongrelization of the students coming to their AP classes, most of those same AP teachers insist that nothing has been dumbed down at all.

  2. Jay Mathews

    Oh, and on the why does everybody have to go to college issue, everybody doesn’t. But I don’t think either of us want to leave the decision as to what they are going to do after high school up to 15 year olds who are two or three years away from graduating, and don’t really know themselves, or the choices ahead of them very well. The data indicate to get a good job or a spot in a good trade school right after high school you need the same skills and habits that you need to get into college. So why don’t we keep everyone on the college track (we can call it a vocational academy or something, as long as those college skills are still emphasized) until they are 18 and have more of a chance of making a mature decision.

  3. Catherine Laguna

    After recently reading The Element and A Whole New Mind, I’ve begun exploring ways to improve the ability for American children to actually be educated according to their strengths and interests as well as the possibility of actually making a living at careers that match their strengths and interests. Are there ways to create a culture in which artists, musicians, and athletes can hope to work in their natural voacations? What can we as educators do to create options for all people so that there isn’t so much pressure on kids to acheive at AP courses that hold no interest for them. It is always assumed that the only other option is trade school. As a previous “All kids should go to college” advocate, I’m having trouble imagining the options that I hope exist somewhere.

  4. Larry Pahl

    Jay- I am an AP teacher and I went through great stress because of all the freshman that got put in my AP world history class, and others not suited or skilled for the class. I definitely had to dumb things down and the many of them still could not keep up. Jay I’m going to repeat so you get the point: it caused me great stress. And I don’t believe for a moment those kids who got 1s and 2s were benefitted more than if they were in a regular world history class. Just sayin’

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