Friday, August 14, 2015

Federal AP Boondoggle

The USED is once again happy to announce that they have delivered a grant of $28 million to the College Board corporate coffers.

They have done this by once again paying to help cover the costs of taking the AP test for many low-income students.

This certainly sounds like a noble and worthwhile thing, and the nice quotes from Washed Up NY Education Commissioner and  Now Deputy Secretary Without a Title So He Wouldn't Have To Face Congressional Approval John King certainly sound mighty fine: "Advanced Placement classes and the corresponding exams come with very high expectations for our students, as well as important early exposure to the demands and rigor of college-level courses, all while still in high school."

Well, I was not impressed the last time this program rolled around, and I'm still not impressed. Here's why not:

Tests are not education. Getting students the opportunity to take the test is less impressive than giving students the educational support to prepare for the test. $28 million to get teachers AP class teacher training, or money to get poor schools the materials they need to do the class properly (how many AP and Honors students in this country have to buy their own books and materials). This is like saying, "We are going to pay the fee for you to try out for Olympic time trials, but you'll still have to train without a coach out in your barn."

Bulk buying bargains? I am still waiting to hear the part where the federal government cut a deal with the College Board. "The taxpayers are giving $28 million to somebody," Fake Undersecretary John King should be saying. "Cut us a deal. Show me how much of your gigantic profit margin on these tests you will sacrifice in order to get this giant bale of bucks, or we'll support some other initiative." If the point of this initiative is to get the "opportunity" for the greatest number of poor students, and not to feather David Coleman's corporate nest, then I want to hear about the USED haggled and arm-twisted to get the absolute maximum number of students covered. Because if we're buying these tests at full retail price, then this is the worst deal since a $400 defense hammer.

Backwards programming and opportunity costs. This is not a program you come up with when you ask, "How could we provide a little more boost to poor students in underserved schools." This is the grant program you come up with when you ask, "What's a nice way we could funnel some money to that nice corporation we like so much." It may even be the program you come up with when a representative of that company sits in your office and says, "Hey, I know a way you could help us out and it would be swell For The Children, too."

The College Board has been outstanding at using the government to build their customer base (and consequently their revenue stream). In Pennsylvania, your school rating gets a boost if you offer more of the AP product, and that's certainly great news for them.

But if I said, "Okay, you've got twenty-eight million to spend helping poor students-- go!" I just can't believe that the first item on your list would be, "We'll get them a full-price chance to take an AP test." But the only utility of the AP test, beyond making adults proud of themselves for subjecting students to corporately-produced rigor, is to get students credit for courses at their college-- which only helps if they can afford to be at that college in the first place (and if the college accepts AP test results for credit).

If we're concerned about student college success, we could "grant" far more than $28 million just by getting the federal government out of the Grotesque Profits On Student Loans business.

If we wanted to spend $28 million to help poor students in this country, "buy them an AP test" doesn't even crack the top 20. This is a great deal for the College Board (which I will remind you, as always, is a business), but it is a lousy policy for students and taxpayers.


  1. Although recently all roads lead back to Chicago, the AP trail leads back to Texas. 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 iteration of NCLB. At first called Just4Kids! (yep with the same punctuation as Jeb!), it morphed into the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI, sounding all federal and official).

    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 “ka-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 and they were not impressed.

    One more thing: the AP exams are quite lucrative because they are given in school, on a school day and proctored by teachers working their regular jobs. So unlike the SAT, there's less overhead and more buck$.

    Christine Langhoff

    1. I went through this for the past 3 years. NMSI claims to raise the enrollment numbers in AP AND the pass rate. I think this is really only true for the schools which have highly prepared students who are not in AP and get swept into it. For those of us who have a small population of prepared students, the program does not do this. My classes went from all highly-motivated and prepared students to 1/3 prepared and 2/3 wondering why the hell they were in AP Physics. The number of passes in my AP classes has remained the same, even as enrollment has tripled.

      There is another way to increase the test pass rate other than flushing out the reluctant, and that is to buy in and relentlessly focus on teacher and student test prep. One teacher has inspirational posters up stating "I will pass the AP ____ Test." I cannot bring myself to be that disingenuous to my nature, which is to engage in figuring out how the universe works.
      Science is so awesome, to reduce its study to a 3-hour test makes me feel a little sick.

      Another strategy is to double-block AP classes. I do not, because I was a kid interested in everything, and still believe that students in high school should have a life outside of my physics class.

      As far as I am concerned, after being through NMSI, I would not shed a tear if the whole AP program dried up and blew away.

  2. More about Tom Luce: