In a recent article in The Atlantic, John Tierney claims that “Advanced Placement courses [are] one of the great frauds currently perpetrated on American high-school students… The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.”
Like most other provocative essays, Tierney’s piece is a bit over the top, making its point in an extreme way. But he does have a point. The AP program is excessive in many ways. There’s a reason I haven’t taught an AP course since 1979.
As I wrote in my post of October 7, I teach in a school that is known for the number of AP exams taken by its students. It isn’t sheer quantity: we’re not one of those schools that encourage hundreds of students to take AP courses even though the majority of them earn a 1 (the lowest possible score). Our students do quite well. In some courses we do very well; in AP Physics and BC Calculus, for example, far more than half of the students earn a 5 (the highest possible score), and in some years all of them do. But those, of course, are low-enrollment courses. It’s rare for a student to sign up for them without having the capability and drive to do well. In general, however, we have far too much pressure for students to take AP courses — and one or two won’t do.
Tierney condemns the AP program on several grounds, not just the one I quoted in my first paragraph above. In particular, he observes that most high-school AP courses are not equivalent to college courses, despite that stated intention. Surely, for example, an AP World History course taken by tenth graders can’t possibly be equivalent to a course in very many colleges. But it does depend on the college, and to some extent it depends on the high school (although the College Board’s tight control over the AP trademark reduces that risk considerably), and to a large extent it depends on the students taking the course. But some AP courses can be equivalent to top-ranked college courses; the AP U.S. History course I took in high school, for example, was richer and deeper than the majority of the courses I took at Harvard.
The blog “Gas station without pumps” has a response to Tierney that’s definitely worth reading. In fact, I’m going to stop after one more sentence, as that article says it all better than I could.
I still urge caution.