The AP scam

I don’t know if AP classes are necessarily a “scam” but I really don’t think they are anywhere near the equivalent of the college classes they can give you credit for.  Okay, maybe that means they are a scam.  John Tierney:

  • AP courses are not, in fact, remotely equivalent to the college-level courses they are said to approximate. Before teaching in a high school, I taught for almost 25 years at the college level, and almost every one of those years my responsibilities included some equivalent of an introductory American government course. The high-school AP course didn’t begin to hold a candle to any of my college courses. My colleagues said the same was true in their subjects.
  • The traditional monetary argument for AP courses — that they can enable an ambitious and hardworking student to avoid a semester or even a year of college tuition through the early accumulation of credits — often no longer holds. Increasingly, students don’t receive college credit for high scores on AP courses; they simply are allowed to opt out of the introductory sequence in a major. And more and more students say that’s a bad idea, and that they’re better off taking their department’s courses.

Yep.  One of the great regrets of my own college education is that I had placed out of Intro to American Government at Duke by virtue of my 5 on the AP Test (did you expect anything less 🙂 ). I had a good class in high school, but I would have been so much better off with the level of complexity and challenge in one of my typical college courses than what I had in high school.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

5 Responses to The AP scam

  1. Mark says:

    I totally agree. I had tons of AP credit coming out of high school. Some of them were genuinely useful (for example, I got a 5 on the AP Calculus exam and didn’t have to retake 2 semesters of Calculus in college), but most gave me credit for classes I wish I’d taken, and it didn’t even help me graduate more quickly. I took both the American Government and Comparative exams, and got credit for two intro level political science classes that in retrospect I’d like to have taken. The same goes for stuff like history and even the hard sciences. AP Chemistry or Physics simply don’t approximate intro level college classes.

    The worst, though, is AP English. I’m not sure if the policy is still the same, but when I was in high school you had to get a 5 on the AP exam to get credit for introductory English. I’m very glad I didn’t, because that class was essential in teaching me how to write effectively and support arguments. Every college student should be required to take it. After being a TA for American government and reading freshman essays, it’s pretty appalling how terrible they are at grammar, basic argument, and simply writing coherent sentences (though that may have a lot to do with bad high school English instruction, which is a whole other issue).

  2. Alex says:

    I’m going to disagree here, in part.

    I know quite a few people who used AP credits to graduate early. For those that didn’t leave early, AP credits allowed them to take otherwise more interesting, in-depth, or rigorous classes later in their college careers that they wouldn’t have been able to if they’d spent all that time dealing with intro classes. (I count myself in this latter group.)

    And I never felt that the AP classes I took put me at a disadvantage compared to the introductory classes. Maybe I got lucky with my high school classes, but I don’t think the lack of rigorousness is a universal problem. In any case, if the AP curriculum doesn’t match the intro class curriculum, schools should advocate for change or refuse to grant credit (I realize this is easier said than done). If the curriculum matches and students are still unprepared, then perhaps that speaks to failures in the test itself. But, with some caveats below, I don’t think it means that the concept itself is flawed.

    When people complain that they would have been better off taking the college class instead of the high school version, I think that a lot of this stems from the fact that, in many cases, the next-level-up class is taught as if everyone is starting with the exact same background knowledge. The professors know exactly what is taught in the intro classes and teach around that. AP students lack that shared experience and can miss out, even if they are perfectly capable and know everything they should know. This is especially true in smaller schools where, for example, only one person teaches the intro class, or in programs where the intro classes are tightly controlled and have been taught the same way forever.

    Most of my APs were in math and science, so I can’t really speak to humanities and social science classes. It’s certainly possible that there are factors of those classes — bigger diversity of opinion, more possibility of discussion and for give-and-take — that make them less suited for high school than college. I’m not convinced, but I’m open-minded.

    Maybe it is bad to deprive students of this shared introductory experience in college, and maybe it’s wrong to expect schools to genericize their curricula to cater to AP students. But I think this problem can be solved in other ways. I totally agree, for example, that there should be introductory elements that no one is allowed to opt-out of — a specific first-year curriculum that helps introduce students to college. But I don’t think this necessarily needs to be a class that an AP exam already covers (though I’m sympathetic to the idea that an intro writing/English could occupy this space). One option is to create next-level-up classes for students who passed the AP exam that integrate some of these intro-to-college elements.

    I think Tierney has some valid points, especially about allocation of resources and the unfairness to students in lower-level classes and to students in schools without AP classes. But those are true of American high school education generally, and are not specific to the AP program. What I don’t think is true is the notion that AP classes, across the board, don’t actually help students when they get to college.

  3. Andrew says:

    I’m on Alex’s side with this one.

    I’m currently a college senior. I took 8 AP classes in high school, got 5’s on all of them except a 4 on English Literature. Of those 8, 6 of them have helped me avoid introductory classes. Have I missed out on higher quality college courses by taking AP course instead? HELL NO I HAVEN’T. Let’s take the example of U.S. history. How many times have I taken courses in U.S. history over my pre-college career? In my case: 5th grade, 8th grade, and 11th grade. Did American history substantially change over that 6 year period? No. For the love of the Connecticut Compromise, I already know American history perfectly fine. What more is there to learn (that I haven’t been alive for to experience myself!!!)??

    • Steve Greene says:

      Wow– I’m sorry to hear your college career has been so inadequate (I’m hoping not NCSU) that you think the only difference between HS and college is the sets of facts you learn. If your college’s courses are not clearly better than AP HS courses that’s truly unfortunate. In my experience– including what I teach– college classes are simply way better.

      • Alex says:

        I agree that college classes are better, on the whole. I also think the holistic university model is a good thing: I don’t think universities should just be vocational schools–they should be making well-rounded graduates who know about more than just their field and who are taught to think critically about the world around them. That’s what a diploma from an institution of higher learning really is about.

        But AP classes still have value. First, advanced college classes are better than intro classes–giving students the ability to get more serious in college is a good thing. Second, college is, for all its values, really expensive; to the extent AP classes help students get more of out colelge with less money, that’s a good thing. (Though I am fully aware that the people who have the most access to AP classes are the ones who feel the financial constraints the least. That’s a big problem.)

        I think AP classes aren’t perfect. They are weaker than college classes and provide false economy in a lot of cases. And they also sometimes encourage students to plow through college as fast as possible and to miss out on a lot of the advantages. But I think the positives outweight the negatives, and I think the negatives can be addressed through some reforms. Calling the system a scam is just a step too far.

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