Saturday, May 24, 2014


The US DOE, among its many promotional and marketing activities, has been pushing hard for AP classes. This week they aimed loud praise noises at the state of Colorado for increasing AP participation in the state. The laudatory article declares success because more students take and pass the AP courses.

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.]


  1. I am waiting for you to write about IB (International Baccalaureate).

  2. Yes, IB is another savvy marketing bunch of BS that siphons our money to another country! Our districts pays over 200K a year for the MYP...which doesn't even give any credit for anything!! What a waste!! And they use our Title II funds to pay for that should be spent on parapros and classroom resources!

  3. I agree that AP is a marketing ploy, but unlike Common Core or Race to the Top it is OPTIONAL. Schools, teachers and students are not forced into it and it is a good standard which provides a national reference for how your students are doing. No, it is not always appropriate for students to compete academically, but this sort of standard can help to lend legitimacy to a program for people who would otherwise not have a good reference for how student are doing. For students who are preparing for college it adds a level of rigor which is often lacking in high school. Furthermore, those training for AP teachers can provide excellent training for teaching in general.

    I personally, would like to see more programs like AP. Is commercial/corporate the best way to go? Probably not. However, programs that work like AP and provide a set of standards that can be voluntarily applied to measure progress and learning are a good idea. They give us a good counter-argument to the state and national standards which are forced on schools.

  4. I saw this “miracle” of the AP performed here in Boston. The Mass Math and Science Initiative set up shop in my school (89% of our students were minorities). We already had an outstanding track record of well-prepared kids diligently working their way toward scores of 4 and 5 in a host of AP classes. But the goal was not to have kids do well, the goal was simply to get more kids to take AP classes. Why?
    Well, although teachers had long taught AP courses successfully, no outsider consultants were involved. Suddenly, we were inundated with “verticle alignment” workshops, AP workbooks, CD’s, mandatory extra time for teacher AP training (including Saturdays) and cash payments to students taking the tests, as well as “merit pay” to AP teachers for high scores. In other words, what had been an in-house effort to take our most talented students a step forward toward distinguishing their academic records was co-opted to make bank for test fees, materials and consultants.
    In the same time period, the College Board began to require that AP teachers write up and submit an AP curriculum to them for approval (un-reimbursed, of course), and AP training courses began to be required of teachers so that they would be “qualified” to teach those “endorsed” classes. More “ca-ching” at the cash register.
    Remember that our faculty and students had a long track record of success in this arena. Under pressure from the school department, our numbers of students taking AP classes expanded exponentially, until nearly every student was enrolled in some AP class or another. So we met the goal of more kids, but of course our percentage of high scores fell off precipitously.
    It so happened that my own kids were applying for college during this time period. I noticed that though AP had been on the lips of admissions officers of “elite” schools four years earlier for my older child, now there was little interest. Every admissions person I asked about this at competitive liberal arts colleges had the same answer – that credential has been devalued.
    Follow the money.
    And also:
    Tom Luce served in Bush’s cabinet as an under secretrary of education. Failing to win the governor’s race in Texas, he was inspired to form “two nonprofit ventures that led public schools across the United States to measure performance based on standardized tests.” An early innovator (read NCLB) – all good ideas come from Texas!