Investigating the acclaim and criticism surrounding the College Board’s AP program

Divya Prakash and Anonymous

Co-Editor-in-Chief and Anonymous Contributor

    A non-profit whose CEO takes home $1.3 million per year. A program that profits on immense pressure—and expenditures of up to 1000 dollars—on the part of students. A system that has led to recent mail fraud, money laundering, and high-profile arrests. If this sounds like an illicit affair straight out of Scandal—look around you. It’s a ruling presence in the life of most American High School students…the College Board.

    The College Board is a massive organization whose reach can be felt in nearly every community across the country. The Era investigated the College Board’s most profitable and salient feature—the AP Program—and the varied acclaim and criticism it has attracted.

    Sleepless nights, bleary eyes, a mountain of homework…these are the well-known side effects to challenging coursework. But these are not listed on the suave green-and-blue website of the College Board. The website describes AP as an opportunity for talented students to “take charge of [their] future” and “get inspired” while “[digging] deeper into subjects [they’re] curious about and [earning] college credit while in high school.” From their stated message and the cheery photos of ethnically diverse, backpack-clad students, the underlying assumption seems to be that the AP program is a powerful tool for mobility, and that its students are the brightest and most motivated teenagers in the nation.

    College Board mandates that AP courses must remain open-enrollment; that is, open to any student who chooses to sign up. Ms. Martin, an AHS AP Literature teacher, states “I welcome anyone who is excited about the advanced study of literature and who is willing to work hard.”

    This may be the motive of many—but not all—AP students. As one junior explains, “To me, a lot of people ‘do it for college’ and this whole concept really compromises integrity. I think a lot of people take APs just because the class is AP…so they can put it on their college app.” She is proof that learning is in the hands of the student, not in the label of the class. She opted out of taking AP courses this year, but as a writer and avid reader, she takes on varied academic pursuits outside of school, including a Vietnamese course.

    Ms. Nahigian, an AHS counselor, affirms, “There are many extracurricular opportunities where students can explore different interests. There are clubs, lots of opportunities…I do think that given the area we live in, there are a lot of ways to get involved in diverse interests that are not just curricular.”    

    But she too has doubts regarding students’ self-efficacy when it comes to taking learning into their own hands. “Students have that access, but whether they would actually choose to explore that interest if it wasn’t earning them some sort of GPA weight…? I am not sure that most would do that. Maybe some would, however,” she states.

    Trinity Advincula-De Los Angeles, the Era’s own design editor, is one such student. She has a sustained interest in art that the AP program helps to supplement.

    “I’m an artist and I was fascinated with the art history in AP Euro. So I’m in AP Art History right now. I love it. Art connects all of us.”

    Her work can be seen in the design of the paper and on the walls of her art class. She even frequently checks out art history books from the library. Numerous other students share this genuine desire to learn that they find AP classes harness.

    One senior reports, “When I was putting together a course schedule, I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of ‘AP’ or ‘CP.’ I was thinking, what do I want to learn? I love academic challenge, so if I need to take five AP classes to learn the material I want, I’ll do that.”

    Amisha Jain (11) affirms this. “I believe AP classes are very effective. AP classes motivate students and teachers to work harder than they would in CP classes,” explained Jain, who is taking six AP courses this year. “They allow you to explore interesting topics and develop a strong work ethic. AP classes make school a bit more challenging but a lot more interesting.”

    This is among myriad reasons student might choose AP. Additionally, students who achieve high scores on AP exams can receive credit at many U.S. colleges, and AP courses add weighted points to a student’s GPA. Furthermore, taking on a challenging schedule is said to be looked upon favorably by colleges.

    The application website for UC Berkeley, a coveted school for many AHS students, states that a primary factor for freshman selection is “The applicant’s full record of achievement in college preparatory work in high school, including the number and rigor of courses taken and grades earned in those courses.”

    The exclusive Stanford University affirms: “We expect you to challenge yourself throughout high school and to do very well.”

    It seems that students often neglect key aspects of the sentiment above, Ms. Nahigian reports. “Colleges do want students to challenge themselves, but in healthy ways. They don’t want them to challenge themselves so much that it negatively impacts their grades. Students who take one or two AP classes and have a strong GPA will definitely look more attractive to college than a student who overwhelms themselves with 3, 4, or 5 AP classes and ends up with a lower GPA. So it is a balance between rigor and also success in those rigorous courses.”

    Furthermore, the often-touted phrase that AP courses are a “glimpse of college life” may not be true, according to Ms. Nahigian.

    “I think it’s a misrepresentation of what college is like; the overall experience is completely different. People take about 3-4 classes in college. You don’t attend class every single day and have 6 classes. We have students here who are taking 4 or 5 APs and an additional class. That is more than what you take in college.”

    This nationwide phenomenon of competitive students overloading on AP courses—a Massachusetts girl recently made the headlines for earning the top score on 18 exams—is among the several reasons that AP is often labeled an “arms race” by its critics. Another is that growing pains that come with the AP program’s rapid expansion are not always being adequately addressed.

    A February 2018 article, “More Students Than Ever Are Participating And Succeeding In Advanced Placement”—published by the College Board itself—celebrates the growth of this program. The number of students who have passed at least one AP exam has skyrocketed 70 percent in the last ten years, and, as the article reads, “More than 1.17 million students in the class of 2017 took 3.98 million AP Exams in public high schools nationwide, up from 1.14 million students in 2016 and 691,437 in the class of 2007.”

    What the article does not explain is that, naturally, with more passed exams come more failed exams. And schools whose funding is tied to the number of AP courses offered often rush to add “AP” to their curriculum before their teachers and students are prepared for it. According to research from NPR, in Title 1 schools that have majority low-income Black or Latino student populations, schools’ uneven implementation of their AP programs keeps passing rates as low as 30 percent. This is in stark comparison to the 64 and 78 percent of white and Asian students, respectively, who pass their AP exams. Many schools, like students, seem to view the number of AP courses offered or taken as paramount, while neglecting the quality with which they are taught. In his blistering critique in The Atlantic, former AP Government teacher John Tierney opined that AP is a “prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry” and that the memorization-intensive courses “cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially.”

    An anonymous AHS senior affirms this. “In AP US History last year, for example, the book and the notes seemed to cover some of the exact terms and phrases that were on the exam. Like, it’s a well-documented ‘AP fact’ that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is an example of muckraking. Those exact words were on the exam and in our notes. I think U.S. history is too complex to be boiled down into a ‘universal’ set of facts like this.”

    This is an important point, as what a student learns—or doesn’t—can fundamentally shape their viewpoints. Mr. Iglesias, who teaches AP European History at AHS, states, “So many sophomores take [AP Euro] that 10th grade history becomes two different experiences. Students in AP Euro miss out on the history of the rest of the world [that CP World History students learn].”

    Or, more worryingly, they may come to believe that European history is akin to the history of the world.

    The anonymous student continues, “I took AP Euro, then APUSH, and now AP US Government. I’ve learned a lot about the Western world, but I know virtually nothing about the history of Asia, or Latin American countries. None of these classes have discussed the Rape of Nanking, or the Armenian genocide…the APUSH textbook didn’t even mention 9/11. There is material missing from our textbooks.”

    None of this is to deny, however, the benefits that AP coursework can have for an individual student. The challenge that AP provides can translate into a sense of purpose and equip students better for college.

    Mr. Chan, who teaches AP Physics 1 and C at AHS, states, “[AP Physics 1] is roughly equivalent to a one-semester college level class. The coverage is pretty similar to a college class. Topic-wise, the AP test matches what I would teach anyway.”

    AP classes also have benefits that can impact students in the long run. “I definitely think AP classes have potential to be more beneficial than just a passing score on the exam,” said Mrs. Martin. “I regularly have former students contact me to say how much AP Literature helped them to be so much more prepared for their college courses.”

     It’s this experience of covering challenging material with a qualified, enthusiastic, and skilled teachers—Ms. Martin has taught AP Literature for fifteen years and has served as a reader for the exam—that reminds students and teachers what advanced coursework can look like, but unfortunately, throws into yet greater relief what so many students do not have access to.

    According to NPR, low-income students are far less likely to participate in AP. Mr. Chan affirms, “In the two years I’ve been at American, the course has been very [racially and socioeconomically] homogenous.”

    Additionally, Black students made up only 4.2 percent of AP Computer Science test-takers nationwide, while Hispanic students were 9 percent. This gap is slowly drawing closer nationwide, and the College Board is working to improve access to AP in inner cities and rural communities. Fee waivers are available to low-income students, and online prep programs like Shmoop and Khan Academy provide free academic support, but at the end of the day, it’s students themselves who make the choices of which path to take. “I don’t get to choose the students for my classes. They do,” continues Mr. Chan.

    That is the case for all students, low-income or otherwise. Students have far more choice than they often believe—choices to take an advanced course that intimidates them, choices to resist parental or peer pressure to take on a certain schedule, and, choices to take learning into their own hands.

    As Ms. Martin puts it, “Until our most intense students and parents start to accept that there is more to life than AP courses and that individuals can get into ‘good schools’ without a full load of AP classes, the negative issues will continue.”

    And as for her advice for students, Ms. Nahigian advises, “I would recommend students coming and talking to counselors to sort out which of their interests may be best for them within a given school year. Students have multiple years to take advanced classes. Within those two years you could divide and conquer.”

    Another student advises, “If you really want to learn…read a book about that topic. Visit a museum, watch a documentary, listen to a podcast. Have a meaningful conversation with an interesting person. You don’t need AP to learn.”

    Not everyone has the same view, however. One senior, who has taken thirteen AP courses over three years, states, “I’ve never had trouble with these courses because I manage my time. In my opinion, an AP course is not that hard, just a regular challenging class. The students who complain the most are the ones who don’t manage their time.”

    Advice on the matter is clearly varied, but it holds a common thread: accountability. If you choose AP courses, make sure you do so for the right reasons, and plan out your time to avoid burnout. It’s easy to blame colleges’ expectations, social pressure, or the College Board (very easy: its proposed exam registration schedule for next year is predicted to rack up as much as $40 million in late cancellation fees alone). But even that obscures the fact that your educational path, monetized though it may be in its current state, still belongs to you alone.  

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