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The Advanced Placement Racket

Advanced Placement courses harm students and enrich College Board executives.

Wikimedia, Creative Commons
Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Some years ago, I was invited to speak at a national convention of high-school teachers of Advanced Placement (AP) psychology courses. AP courses, as you probably know, are high-school courses supposedly run at a college level, for which students can in some cases get college credit. The invitation came because I’m author of a textbook for college introductory psychology courses.

In my lecture to the AP teachers, I described a method of teaching, which I call the idea method, that I had developed for my own college courses and had, years earlier, described in several publications (e.g. Gray, 1993, 1997) and at conferences on college teaching. The basis of the method is to view the course not as a set of topics or information or units to get through but as a set of big ideas having to do with the subject being taught and then to center the course around a critical analysis of each idea. Students would read about the idea and evidence supporting and refuting it, discuss the evidence in class, and then write an essay critiquing the idea based on their own research and thinking. My goal was to make the course a truly intellectual adventure rather than another time-wasting trip of memorizing trivia for a test and then forgetting it.

The teachers listened politely to me, but I could tell by their expressions that they were at least a bit perplexed. After the talk a couple of them came up to me and said, essentially: “That was interesting, but there is no way we could use your method in our AP courses. The whole purpose of the course is to prepare students for the AP exam provided by the College Board, and the only way students can pass that exam is to memorize lots of what you are calling trivia. We must cover an enormous amount of ground in the course, and if we stopped to think about and discuss ideas there is no way we could make it through. Students would fail the test.”

More recently, I happened to come across some articles about the College Board and its AP courses written by high-school students for their school newspapers. All of them were highly critical. Here are some titles (with links to the articles): Why everyone hates the College Board; Restrict AP classes for our mental health!; Social pressure to take AP classes harms prospective students.” This prompted me to look more deeply into critical reviews of the courses and the tests. In what follows, I list the six criticisms that I find most compelling, along with a brief elaboration on each.

1. AP courses are generally cram courses, lacking intellectual depth.

This criticism is, essentially, the one that I learned from those AP psychology teachers who attended my lecture. It applies not just to AP psychology but, apparently, to nearly all the 38 AP courses and tests offered by the College Board.

John Tierney, who had taught college courses for 25 years before teaching some high school courses, elaborated on this in an article in The Atlantic a few years ago (Tierney, 2012). He claimed that AP courses, though pretending to be like college courses, were, in his words, “nothing like them.” He wrote: “To me, the most serious count against Advanced Placement courses is that the AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification—a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.

I wish I could agree with Tierney that college courses are “nothing like” AP courses. Unfortunately, a growing number of college courses are quite a bit like those AP courses—killers of intellectual curiosity. But that’s a criticism of many college courses, not a defense of AP courses. Still, it’s fair to say that most college courses are far more thought-oriented than AP courses.

Here’s a quote from another professor, Nicholas Tampio (2020): An AP course … is not like a college course. … As a college professor, I write my own syllabi, articulate my own learning objectives, choose what to emphasize in any given semester, select reading materials and craft exams that cannot easily be graded on a rubric. …The AP program, on the contrary, requires teachers and students to follow a strict regimen that culminates in an online exam that can be as short as 50 minutes long. Course descriptions tell teachers and students what to do virtually every day of the school year leading to the exam. … If high schools want to give students a taste of college, then they should ignore AP courses and create courses that respect the judgment of teachers and students alike.

The point that I agree with is this. College courses, ideally and very often really, are taught by people who are scholars in the field of the course. The students are privy, therefore, to the thinking of a person who has spent years immersed in the subject matter and is probably in some ways contributing to it. More important than memorizing names and supposed facts, students are gaining insight into what it means to think like a psychologist (or a political scientist, or biologist, or….). That is not happening in the typical high-school AP course.

2. Pressure to take AP courses is causing immense psychological harm.

This, I think, is the most serious criticism of the courses. Students feel pressured to take them, often many of them. The courses may lack intellectual content, but they are nevertheless very intense, time-consuming, stress-inducing. It all comes down to one test at the end, and to have a chance of getting college credit a student must get at least a 3 (on a 5-point scale) on the test.

When the AP program first began, decades ago, the courses were relatively rare and only the most able students took them, but now, in some schools, many quite average students feel pressured to take them. They believe they must, to have a chance of admission to the college they desire. They also believe they will look like losers, to their high-achieving classmates, if they don’t take the courses. Some students take as many as 12 or even 15 AP courses in their high-school career, which leaves little time to think and hardly enough time to breathe.

A few weeks ago, I posted an article documenting the extraordinarily high rates of anxiety, depression, and even suicide at high-achieving schools (here). Emphasis on AP courses is a big part of the reason for those high rates. This, too, is the chief complaint of students who have criticized the AP program. Here are the words of one high-school sophomore, writing for her school newspaper: “It’s evident that students are overloading themselves as they believe taking more AP classes is the only ticket to a selective school. The [result is] burnout, stress accumulating in our students, and less free time as they overload themselves and their schedules. This constant overworking and pushing oneself to excessive amounts can eventually impact every aspect of students’ lives, including emotional and physical well-being and even future college and career paths.”

3. AP courses don’t necessarily result in advanced placement or college credit.

The name of the program, “Advanced Placement,” implies that the courses will result in “advanced placement” in college. But this is not necessarily true. Some colleges, as a matter of policy, do not accept AP at all, and the number of such colleges appears to be growing (here). Some offer college credit if the AP test score is sufficiently high but do not allow placement out of the supposedly equivalent college course. In some colleges, it is up to the professor teaching the supposedly equivalent course to decide on advanced placement. That professor will quite likely look at the syllabus for the AP course and say it does not resemble the course he or she teaches and is not good preparation for the more advanced courses in the department. Moreover, many students themselves come to realize they would be missing out if they did not take the college course, so they choose to take it even if they would be allowed to skip it.

Parents may push AP courses in the belief that they will reduce the number of semesters the student must spend in college and, therefore, total tuition cost. But that rarely pans out. Rarely do colleges allow as much as a semester’s worth of AP credit, no matter how many AP courses the student took and passed (here).

4. There is little or no evidence that taking AP courses helps students perform well in college and diminishing evidence that it helps them get into college.

AP courses are often touted as providing a rigorous academic experience that will help students succeed in college. This was initially supported (superficially and falsely) by research showing that, on average, students who had taken AP courses achieved higher GPAs in college and were more likely to finish in four years than those that didn’t. But a moment’s thought will allow you to see the flaw in that argument. It’s a classic example of confusing correlation with causation.

Students who take AP courses are generally those who performed well in all their high-school courses, and students who perform well in high school also, no surprise, tend to perform well in college. They are, among other things, highly motivated and willing to work hard. Researchers who have conducted the proper controls have shown that, when other things are equated, such as GPA in non-AP high-school courses, those who have taken AP courses have no advantage at all over those who have not (here).

Another belief is that taking AP courses will help students get into a selective college. This is probably to some degree true, but it depends on the college and on many factors concerning the student’s resumé. Moreover, as ever more students take AP classes, they become ever less valuable as markers of distinction. In 2018, a group of private high schools in and around Washington, D.C., announced they were going to end their AP program. Before making that decision, they surveyed 150 colleges to find out if this would hurt their graduates’ potential for admission, and the survey assured them it would not (here).

There are many better ways for high-school students to distinguish themselves academically than by taking AP courses. For example, they might conduct independent research, volunteer in a lab, write for their school newspaper or even their community weekly newspaper, or tutor students in lower-level courses. The time freed up by avoiding AP courses may provide opportunity for more meaningful ways to find and pursue their interests and, incidentally, impress college admissions officers. A portfolio of real-world accomplishments is likely to impress admissions officers more than a set of high marks in AP courses, especially at elite colleges where applicants with high AP marks are a dime a dozen.

5. AP courses weaken the rest of a high school’s curriculum.

One of the compelling arguments for schools to abolish the AP program is that it draws resources and prestige away from the rest of what the school has to offer. Instead of AP, schools might create their own special courses, which motivate through genuine interest rather than concern for status and attract a variety of students, not just the grade grubbers. I think teachers and students alike would much rather create their own courses, founded on their own questions and interests, than follow cookie-cutter curricula set out by the College Board.

6. AP courses enrich the executives who head the College Board.

The College Board is legally a nonprofit corporation, but it operates like a for-profit corporation (here). Like for-profit corporations, it continuously strives to bring in more money by expanding its customer base and adding new fees wherever it can get away with them. Its president makes over a million dollars per year and its upper executives make $300,000 to $500,000 a year in salary and benefits (here). The College Board has been a failure as an aid to education, but a resounding success as a business.

The Board actively lobbies to get schools to adopt its program and lobbies state governments to provide financial support to get more schools and students into AP courses. Students in the program must pay $94 for each AP test taken—a fee that has risen continuously over the years. Because some students, in the past, chose not to take the test after they had already been accepted to a college, the Board instituted a requirement that students must pay $40 up front, at the beginning of the course, and would forfeit that even if they chose later not to take the test (here). There is no conceivable rationale for that requirement other than the Board’s greed.

Between 2016 and 2019, the number of AP exams administered per year increased from 2.3 million to more than 5 million (Tampio, 2020, and here). At $94 a pop, that’s a lot of money. Because there is no company competing with the College Board for the advanced-placement business, the Board has a monopoly, and it operates as all monopolies do, creating a sense that it is essential and extracting all it can from an ever-growing customer base. Roughly half of the College Board’s income comes from AP testing and most of the rest from its college admission test, the SAT, where it also has essentially a monopoly. (The SAT racket is another story!)

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Gray, P. Engaging students' intellects: The immersion approach to critical thinking in psychology instruction. Teaching of Psychology, 20, 68-74, 1993.

Gray, P. Teaching is a scholarly activity. pp. 49-64, In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Teaching introductory psychology: theory and practice. APA Press. 1997.

Tampio, N. AP courses do not deserve college credit. Inside Higher Ed. May 26, 2020.

Tierney, J. AP Courses Are a Scam, The Atlantic, Oct. 13, 2012