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Revisiting Advanced Placement

The best intentions in education too often have unintended consequences.  Advanced Placement is a case in point ("More schools opening Advanced Placement courses to all students," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 10).  

Conceived in the early 1950s by three prep schools and three universities, AP was originally intended to give college credit to high school students who demonstrated their academic ability.  But in an attempt to create wider access over the years, schools have diluted rigor by enrolling students with marginal academic credentials.

I wouldn't go nearly so far as to characterize AP courses as "one of the great frauds currently perpetrated on American high-school students," but what is taking place sets up too many students for failure when they get to college ("AP Classes Are a Scam," The Atlantic, Oct. 19, 2012).  That's because with some notable exceptions, AP classes are no longer the equivalent of college classes. The result is reflected in the data.  Students in the class of 2012, for example, failed nearly 1.3 million AP exams during their high school careers. 

Nevertheless, the College Board, which owns and operates the lucrative AP classes, hastens to point out that the percentage of students who pass at least one AP exam has been steadily rising.  But the datum is misleading because so many students take more than one AP class.  As a result, the overall pass rate dropped from 61 percent for the class of 2002 to 57 percent for the class of 2012. I expect to see further declines if the present policy of virtually open access is continued.

There are those who argue that students who are willing to push themselves to the limit can succeed in passing AP exams.  I respect them for their achievement.  But I think these students are aberrations.  I say that because AP was never intended to be for everyone.  It is not a reflection on a student's worth by any means to be denied entry into AP classes.  These students likely possess other talent that is every bit as valuable in the long run.  Success in life is not strictly a matter of academic mastery. 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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