Since its inception in 1955, the Advanced Placement (AP) program has offered college-level courses and exams to high school students throughout the United States and Canada. In theory, the classes prepare students for college coursework and offer an opportunity to earn college credit.
Administered by the College Board, the AP program has grown significantly over the past six decades. AP exams are offered in over 35 different subject areas. During the 2014-2015 school year, almost 2.5 million students took at least one AP exam at 21,594 high schools. Based upon their scores on the exams, students may be able to receive credit or place into higher-level courses once they enroll in college.
As the number of students taking AP exams has grown, so too has the number of students doing poorly on them. Generally, a score of 3 or higher is considered acceptable; many colleges require a score of 4 or 5 to qualify for credit or placement into upper-level courses. The mean score earned on all 597,286 AP exams in 2015 was 2.84, with only 58% earning a passing grade of 3 or better; less than a third of all students scored a 4 or 5.
Rhode Island public school students took 7,820 AP exams in 2014-2015; 4,413 (56%) received a score of 3 or higher. On the East Side, Hope High School administered 72 AP exams, with 4 of them scoring a 3 or better; Classical High School had 513 of 928 AP exam takers score a 3 or better (to view all AP scores across the state, visit InfoWorks.RIDE.RI.gov/State/RI).
What is the advantage for those students who pass the AP exams? Many state schools will accept scores of 3 or better as transfer credits, allowing students to skip entry-level courses and earn credit for graduation. At URI, for example, each academic department determines the minimum AP score required; they may also require that the student pass an exam given by the department. Most private colleges, like Brown University, do not accept AP scores for course credit, although they may allow students with high scores (generally, 4s and 5s) to enroll in higher-level courses. Providence College awards credit to students who have earned 4s or 5s on AP exams, but that credit does not reduce the college’s full-time eight-semester requirement.
The federal government encourages students to take AP courses and exams. In 2016, for example, the US Department of Education offered over $28 million in grants to 41 states to subsidize AP exam fees for low-income students. (Each AP exam costs $93, a fee paid by students and their families.) Over the past eight years, the US Department of Education has awarded more than $190 million to states for this purpose. This is a lot of money spent on a program that does not seem to be benefitting the majority of the students taking the exams.
In fact, there are many criticisms of the program. Many educators feel that the breadth and rigidity of the required curricula hinder their ability to teach. In the mad rush to deliver as much content as possible in a short academic year, there is little time to delve deeply into class discussion and make meaningful connections. As teacher John Tierney wrote in The Atlantic, “The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially… The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.” And, as noted above, many private colleges and universities do not give credit for AP exams; some prestigious schools, such as Harvard, do not even take them into account for course placement.
In light of all this, some high schools are choosing to discontinue their AP classes. On the East Side, Lincoln School has announced that, beginning in 2017, they will no longer offer AP courses for their students. Head of School Suzanne Fogarty says, “We want to emphasize depth over breadth; we don’t want to be teaching to a test as a main measure of success for our students.” Rather, Lincoln School will offer interdisciplinary courses team-taught by multiple teachers, more electives and a three-year science research course, all designed to allow students to delve more deeply into various subjects. Fogarty also believes that, as the popularity of AP courses and exams has grown, taking an AP course has become less of a mark of distinction to colleges.
Lincoln School may be the first school in Rhode Island to discontinue AP courses, but it joins a number of schools nationwide, including Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, Dalton School in New York and Oldfields School in Maryland. The Independent Curriculum Group (ICG), headquartered in Dedham, MA, was established in 2008 to discuss alternatives to “externally imposed advanced curricula” – in other words, the current AP program. The ICG now has 144 partner schools that participate in its conferences on best practices in teaching and curriculum design.
The non-profit College Board, which administers the AP exams and issues guidelines for AP courses, has revenues of over $200 million and earned a profit of $62 million in 2013; revenues from AP tests exceed expenditures by $20-$30 million each year. The company seems to be the biggest beneficiary of the AP program, not America’s students.