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Missing the Point: The True Value of Advanced Placement

Earlier this month, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire made waves by instating a new policy that students could no longer gain college credits from high scores on Advanced Placement (AP) exams. A spokesperson from Dartmouth explained the college's reasoning--that too many students, despite coming in with AP exams under their belts, lacked the necessary knowledge to skip the introductory-level courses (which AP exams would traditionally allow students to place out of), as determined by somewhat questionable metrics. High schools and education commentators across America are crying "elitism," citing the decision as an example of Dartmouth's disinterest in providing opportunities to low-income students, who may have been able to save thousands of dollars on tuition through obtaining AP credits.

I read this series of articles while shaking my head. My first thought was that, while I could see a lot of middle class students losing out on the chance to save thousands of dollars on AP credits, that situation simply wasn't the reality for most of the kids in my class, when I taught AP English Literature & Composition several years ago. In a small, inner-city public school, our AP program wasn't developed or varied enough that we'd have students accumulating tons of AP credits (who now would be unable to use them); as a school, we only offered a maximum of 4-5 AP courses in a given school year, some of which could not be taken simultaneously. Very few students qualified or even opted to take the courses, and fewer yet received passing scores. There was no way our students could have accumulated the amount of AP credit across the board to make a sizable dent in any private college tuition.

Nevertheless, I felt irked at Dartmouth for implicitly devaluing the meaning of the experience my students had had several years ago, and it reminded me of something that took place about three years ago, when they were all taking their AP exams:

Going into that season, my expectations (as the teacher of one class, and the unofficial AP coordinator for the school) were somewhat limited. The class valedictorian's SAT scores were around 1500 out of 2400. Given the high correlation between SAT scores and AP scores, I found it difficult to believe that very many kids would pass their exams with 3 or above.

Nevertheless, my own optimism increased when I saw the enthusiasm of the students. Though they offered the usual complaints about having to write practice AP essays over and over, they threw themselves into the preparations with uncharacteristic excitement. They high-fived each other over good essays. They worked together to prepare flashcards of literary terms and make outlines of books. They teamed up gave each other little presentations about different types of literary criticism. Most stunning, the AP statistics seemed to provoked a kind of religious awe: They would ask me again and again what percentage of students received a "5" on a given test, and when I answered, they'd look at each other in open-mouthed wonderment as though I'd just given them a secret formula for cold fusion. The statistics didn't bother them, I realized; they were just excited to be undertaking something so hard.

On the morning of my exam, all but one of my students showed up. I called his house, but got no answer. Around 10am, he rolled up into the building looking nonchalant and came to find me.

"Miss," he said, before I even had a chance to ask, "I have a good excuse for being late."

"You do?"

"Yeah. My house burned down."

I looked at him aghast. I couldn't decide if he was pulling my leg.

"Really?" I finally asked.

"Yeah. The police think it was arson. I took my grandma, and left her with my cousins; then I didn't have anywhere else to go, so I came to school."

And then he added, "I'm really sorry I was late. Can I make up the test?"

As though he has anything to apologize for, I thought, as I took his arm and walked with him to the social worker's office.

Later, I called the AP office, and ordered him an extra make-up test. The form to get a make-up was relatively simple. The only stipulation was that you had to do it on the date mandated by the College Board.

Unfortunately, that make-up date was also the date he was to depart with the rest of his class on the senior trip. The kid in question had already painstakingly earned and deposited his payment for the trip. There was no way I was going to bar him from going. So, we gave him the make-up AP test after he returned from the trip--not what AP Central had in mind, as they told me in several calls asking why I hadn't returned his test yet.

Ultimately, because it wasn't given on the date instructed, his make-up test was invalidated. (And I cried in class when we found out. He didn't, though.)

The entire incident left me with a twisted up feeling in my stomach, something to the effect that--whatever one could say about the value of running AP programs in inner-city schools--the College Board really didn't have "us" in mind, and this situation epitomized that.

Nevertheless, when I talked about this feeling with many of the kids after the fact, including the one who had to take the make-up test, I realized they didn't share my sentiments. Despite the fact that almost none of them passed their AP exams, they had all found the AP program to be a resoundingly positive experience; they felt they'd learned a lot in the courses, and that even the process of studying for and taking the tests had itself prepared them for college. They appreciated the challenge of AP. While they would have liked to get passing scores, and some were admittedly disappointed that they hadn't, overall they still felt that all in all it was a worthwhile and enjoyable experience to take AP. Years later, they still email me when they are able to bring up some point we'd discussed in their college classes, or re-read a poem or book from our course syllabus. They're still proud of having undertaken the challenge of AP English.

I think what irks me the most about Dartmouth's decision is the implicit undermining of the work done in AP classes across America, the rigor of that course material, and the herculean task undertaken by students who--despite enormous obstacles--still choose to challenge themselves with these courses. My students knew, going in, that the tests were extremely difficult. But the premium placed on high scores on those exams and the idea that merely attempting college-level work was something to be proud of were together tantalizing enough to focus them, and give their endeavor meaning.

I maintain that AP exams, with all the technicalities and fine print involved in their administration, still aren't designed to accommodate the needs of most inner-city students. But Dartmouth undermines the hurdles our most motivated students jump over by casually disregarding the value of the exams, and of AP courses on the whole. My students would have been offended, and by that token, it bothers me as well.

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The opinions expressed in View From the Bronx: An Urban Teacher's Perspective 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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