Gas station without pumps

2012 October 20

Are AP classes worthwhile?

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:56
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In The Atlantic, John Tierney wrote an inflammatory piece: AP Classes Are a Scam, in which he accuses someone of perpetuating a scam on high school students (it is not clear who he is accusing).  He also seems to be unaware of the distinction between AP courses and the AP exams, conflating the two in a confusing way.

He claims that AP courses are nowhere close to being an equivalent of first-year college courses, that AP exams are no longer being accepted for college credit, that AP courses have been diluted by open-admission policies, that AP courses increase discrimination against minorities, that offering AP courses takes resources away from other students, and that AP courses are overly rigid, teach-to-the-test courses.

One of the best rebuttals I’ve seen is by Michael Ralph, a high school biology teacher. Michael addresses each point in turn, providing well-written counter-arguments. Unfortunately, he has no more data to support his rebuttal than John Tierney had for his polemic.  I don’t have any data either, so don’t expect this blog post to be any better.

As a home school parent, I see the Advanced Placement tests in quite a different light from either John Tierney or Michael Ralph.

First, I do not confuse the tests with the courses. My son has taken two AP tests so far and will take another two or three this year, and possibly some next year as well, but I don’t think that he’ll ever take an AP course.  Note that to legally call something an “AP” course, the teacher must have submitted a syllabus to the College Board and had their staff approve it.  There are many fine courses that have not bothered with this bit of bureaucracy, but which still teach material that is tested on the AP exams.  On his home-school transcript, we are likely to list courses with names like “Calculus with AP BC exam” rather than “AP Calculus BC” to avoid infringing on the trademark.

Second, we don’t use AP courses to get bonus points for our school or to pump up a GPA. My son takes AP exams to show that he has indeed learned the material that is normally covered in an AP course, even though he has learned it through a different mechanism.  He is not padding his transcript with large numbers of AP courses to look good—he learns what he needs or wants to learn, and takes AP exams to show he has learned it (if there is an exam that covers the material).  For us, the AP exams provide external validation of his education at a level that is appropriate for what he is learning.

I’ll try to address Tierney’s points one by one:

  • It is trivial to say that many AP courses do not correspond with first year college courses—first-year college courses vary so much that no course could possibly correspond to all variants.  Even within one medium-sized campus (like UCSC) there may be three different first-year physics sequences and 4 or 5 different calculus sequences.  The interesting question is which of these courses the AP courses and exams are trying to mimic. It would take a pretty big study to determine what the range of AP courses is and what the range of first-year college courses is, and whether the distribution of course quality is significantly different.  I suspect that the AP courses on average are lower quality than the courses at the best liberal-arts colleges, and higher quality than the average at community colleges (and even some R1 universities that have oversize freshman lecture classes), but I have no data whatsoever for this belief, and no way to collect such data.
  • AP credit does seem to be less common that it used to be, but we’ve never looked at AP exams as a way to save money (though undoubtedly many people do).  For us, they are a way to get our son past the enormous lecture classes that dominate freshman year at many colleges, and into the interesting “boutique” classes that follow. What we want is the “placement” part of Advanced Placement, not credit for high school work to shorten college.  If people do want credit for AP exams, there are still a lot of colleges that offer it. (Disclaimer: I graduated from an affluent suburban high school in 1971 with enough AP credits to get my B.S. in three years.)
  • Dilution of AP courses by open-admission policies does strike me as likely to be occurring, based on anecdotes from AP teachers who see their class sizes growing to over 40 students in a section, with many of the students not really ready for college-level material.
    This swelling of the AP sections is driven largely by mindless rankings of high schools by how many AP exams their students take (independent of whether the students do well).  Like the push for all 8th graders to take algebra, people are confusing correlation and causation.  When only the top students took algebra in 8th grade or took AP exams, there was a very high correlation between AP exams or 8th grade algebra and doing well in college.  But the correlation was because these were the brightest, most dedicated students.  The AP exams did not cause their higher performance in college, and offering the AP courses to less dedicated, less bright students does not improve their college performance much.
  • The lack of racial diversity in AP courses comes from the uneven distribution of education and the high correlation between race and economic class in the USA.  Schools in rich neighborhoods are more likely to offer all kinds of courses that are beyond the basics (AP courses, art, music, electives in the humanities, …), and rich neighborhoods are still overwhelmingly white in the USA.  It is almost certainly true that AP courses benefit the upper middle class more than they benefit the poor, but the solution has to be to improve education for the poor, not make education worse for the middle class.  I don’t want a race to the bottom, though that seems to be the natural consequence of John Tierney’s ideas.
  • The cost of offering AP courses varies, but is generally much less than the cost of high school athletics, marching bands, and other high school activities that John Tierney seems to value more than academics.  Furthermore, AP courses generally replace other academic courses, which cost about the same amount, so the additional cost of having a section of AP bio instead of regular bio is pretty minor (it is mainly additional prep time for the teacher, which most often costs the taxpayer nothing). The opportunity cost of offering an AP course instead of some other course is real—but that is true of every course that is offered, and I am very doubtful that AP courses are the least useful courses at most high schools.
  • Whether AP courses are too reliant on rote learning is a harder question to answer. A lot of teachers are teaching to the AP tests, and some of the tests have had a history of being too reliant on rote memory (history and biology, for example, have such a reputation).  The AP Bio course was just revamped to be less reliant on memory and more on understanding, but the new tests have not yet been given, so it remains unclear whether the revisions went far enough in reducing the memory work.
    It is not inherently bad for teachers to have an external test to see whether or not they are preparing their students adequately.  The important question is whether the test does a decent job of determining this.  As tests go, the AP exams are not bad at measuring learning (though I have rely on 2nd-hand reports for this, as the College Board does not allow adults to take the AP tests).

I don’t want to come across as a gung-ho apologist for AP courses. We turned down a slot in an AP-intensive charter school last year after entering the lottery for it 4 years running (see School decisions: part 1, part 2, part 3) and started home schooling instead.  The rigidity of the AP curriculum was not going to be a good fit for our son’s strengths and weaknesses, and we had to custom tailor his education to fit.

Overall, I see the AP exams as being very valuable for home-schooled high school students, and the AP courses offered by high schools a good (though not ideal) way to serve those students who would be bored in the regular high school courses.  In no way do I see any evidence of the scam that John Tierney claims.


  1. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by AP classes are a scam (says John Tierney). | Learning Strategies — 2012 October 27 @ 13:06 | Reply

  2. […] Santa Cruz Sentinel‘s list of the top 40 blog posts for 2012 for their Media Lab bloggers: Are AP classes worthwhile?  Unfortunately it was  25th, and so the first post displayed after the “READ NEXT […]

    Pingback by In the top 40 « Gas station without pumps — 2013 January 1 @ 10:59 | Reply

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