But before parents and students get too excited about the spreading and blooming of AP courses, they should remember a few simple facts:
AP Is A Business, Not A Public Service
AP tests are a product of the College Board, the same people who bring you the SAT, and although the name seems to suggest a group of college scholars who gather together on some altruistic mission to guard the gateways of higher education for the Greater Good, the fact is that the College Board is just a business intent on making a buck and keeping its market share (it is also currently run by David Coleman, one of the co-authors of the Common Core).
Every time a teacher goes to a seminar to learn about designing an AP course, the AP folks make money. Every time a school buys AP materials, the AP folks make money. And every time a student takes the AP test, the AP folks make money-- a bunch of money.
It was a great day for these folks when they hopped on the Education Reform Gravy Train and became the Official Education Course Product of Race to the Top. In Pennsylvania, for instance, a school's rating factors in how many AP courses are offered. This is extraordinary, like Ford getting the government to rate school district excellence based on how many Ford school buses they used.
You May Get Absolutely Nothing For Your $$
AP stands for Advanced Placement. The whole point of AP is supposed to be that you take the exam, get a good score, and your college gives you either course credit or a higher placement. In other words, you get to either replace English for Dopes with a higher level course, or you get credit for the course without ever having to take it. The second option is appealing to students; it's not quite so appealing to colleges, because it amounts to giving away free credits. And here's the important point to remember--
What you get, or not, is completely at the discretion of your college or university.
Many schools prefer that you learn things their way. (“We want a Dartmouth education to take place at Dartmout.”) They may not grant AP credit within your major (which is likely to be your strongest AP showing), and they definitely may not be in the mood to give away credits for free. The College Board folks pooh-pooh these sorts of trends, just as they pooh-pooh the plummeting market share of the SAT test and the growing tendency of colleges not to require it, but if you think dropping $90 on the AP test is going to pay off in college, you may be better off buying your kid a nice outfit to wear to the interview.
This chart can talk about the students who "qualified for college credit" but it's baloney. Nobody is qualified for college credit until the college offers it. (The chart also provides a quick guide to how huge a financial windfall Race to the Top has provided for the College Board).
Is There No Value?
One of the odd positives in the AP marketing scam is leverage for teachers. Where administration might in the past simple axed any requests for resources by classroom teachers, the AP marketing boondoggle gives teachers a new magic power. "Well, if you want to offer AP Basketweaving," says the teacher, "You are going to have to give us double-lab periods and buy these super-duper books."
AP also has the virtue of being a loose framework. When we "added" our first AP English course, we only had to perform some minor tweakage on the honors program we already had in place. But now, you know, it was AP!!!!!!! (use your super-hero voice) and so it was totally awesome. I used to call AP the alligator on a polo shirt, and little has happened to change my mind. It's savvy marketing, but it comes without handcuffs or a program in a box. I guess it says something about the current state of education that it qualifies as one of the less malignant tumors growing on the heart of schools these days.
[Update: Annnnd I had to take back some of those nice words about the loose framework almost immediately.]