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The real problem with AP classes

Critics are questioning whether the College Board’s Advanced Placement program lives up to its original vision for “academic freedom.”

Students sitting at individual long tables with papers in front of them
Students wait to take an AP exam at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Virginia, in May 2011.
Matt McClain for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

The controversy surrounding AP African American studies has reignited a broader debate about the purpose of Advanced Placement courses in high school classrooms — and the role of the College Board as a college gatekeeper.

The AP program is decades old, expansive, and lucrative — bringing in nearly half a billion dollars in revenue for the College Board, the nonprofit that oversees it, in 2020. But challenges to its methods and dominance aren’t limited to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. A wider range of critics with different perspectives are arguing that it’s time to rethink the role AP classes play in American education.

One is Annie Abrams, the author of an upcoming book, Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students. Abrams got interested in the AP program when she started teaching AP English literature to high school students right after earning her doctorate in English literature. During her PhD program, she’d taught actual college literature classes, and “the difference between those experiences was really disturbing to me,” Abrams said.

Her book argues that the program’s emphasis on standardized testing prevents it from offering high school students a real college education. Back then, a stated Advanced Placement ideal was “academic freedom and power” in secondary schools; now, she said, the program only offers “a simulation of freedoms enjoyed by some of the nation’s best institutions.” The standardization embedded in the AP program has bred disempowerment and cynicism.

“AP has long been vulnerable to political pressure,” Abrams said. In 2015, the College Board revised its US government and politics course after receiving backlash from the Republican National Committee and other conservative critics. “I think that DeSantis is challenging the extent to which people find that tolerable.”

I talked to Abrams about the history of Advanced Placement, its original goals, and why she says the College Board is falling short of its objective.

“The attention to AP African American studies should invite lots of attention across the board in every AP subject,” Abrams told Vox. “The questions should be, how are these courses taught and how are they tested — and whether the College Board is the best entity to make decisions about those questions.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Fabiola Cineas

What was your reaction when you first learned that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was rejecting AP African American studies for “lacking educational value”?

Annie Abrams

DeSantis’s comment is distressing because the curriculum represents serious work by scholars and teachers.

Fabiola Cineas

And since then, DeSantis has come out to say that he wants to rethink Advanced Placement in the state altogether.

Annie Abrams

I’m glad that the College Board pushed the issue of including Black voices in secondary school curriculum. But from here, I don’t know that the organization is the best entity to facilitate the conversation and navigate the controversy.

If you believe in the necessity of a nationally normed high school honors curriculum, could we do better by students, teachers, and professors than AP? I think so. And I think the conversation about how to teach [hot-button] issues about which experts disagree should be playing out among educators, not orchestrated by an organization like the College Board, which has shown that it bends to politics.

Fabiola Cineas

Part of your argument is that the College Board has strayed away from Advanced Placement’s original mission. Can you talk a little bit about that history?

Annie Abrams

In the 1950s, Advanced Placement arose out of an endeavor to protect liberal education as education was becoming more specialized and technical. Across institutions — mostly elite institutions, although more public schools were involved than you might expect — the idea was teachers and professors would collaborate on a program of study that would protect democratic habits of mind. The people behind AP had a distinct philosophy of liberal education. They thought that disciplines were more important than a core of material. An important part of the plan was also acceleration — how do we speed up liberal education? That was important, too, because students had to go into professions or go off to war or do whatever they had to do to protect American interests.

There were two major committees studying how to create Advanced Placement whose work led to the College Board’s program. One of them was housed at Andover and the other one at Kenyon. At Andover, there were representatives from six schools — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Lawrenceville, Exeter, and Andover. There were 12 schools and colleges involved with the one housed at Kenyon. And this is how and where the exclusionary nature of Advanced Placement began.

Fabiola Cineas

How was what they were doing exclusionary?

Annie Abrams

When the Andover committee was assembling, there was a high school administrator from a school nearby in Massachusetts who told the newspaper that he thought the Advanced Placement project “sounds great.” I’m paraphrasing. While he said it sounded great, he also remarked that public schools should be involved, too. The Ford Foundation [which initially funded the development of Advanced Placement] addressed this idea early on and basically said, “Let’s do it this way first, and then we’ll expand it later,” instead of being inclusive from the start. The idea was that the brand names of these schools would give the project legitimacy and academic heft.

So the exclusionary nature of the Advanced Placement project is something that the College Board has tried to pivot away from, especially over the past two decades. When people think of the Advanced Placement brand, they think of something that’s exclusionary. The College Board’s promised to expand access to AP. They have, but the substance of the program is different in a lot of cases.

Fabiola Cineas

Can you talk about the expansion of AP?

Annie Abrams

It was always growing incrementally, but there’s this explosion around 2000 under Gaston Caperton, the former president of the College Board. The Clinton administration used federal funding to support the expansion by supplementing the costs of tests for low-income students. I hate to use the word neoliberal, but that’s what we’re talking about. The idea was that if you replicate this private thing, that’ll lift everybody up.

I want to be very clear. The AP brand name is very powerful. It can convince students that they are in fact college material when they wouldn’t have thought of themselves that way otherwise. But I think that’s a big problem, too.

The question with AP is not whether they’ve identified real problems. The College Board does identify problems in American education: articulating the path from high school to college, making sure a broader range of students think of themselves as smart, supporting teachers and giving them a sense of purpose.

That’s all real. The question is whether we could accomplish all those things in other ways.

Fabiola Cineas

The College Board says it is focused on equity as it expands AP. So, for example, with the AP African American studies course, AP senior VP Steve Bumbaugh told me they viewed this as an opportunity to get more marginalized students taking AP classes and going to college. What’s your read on that?

Annie Abrams

The expansion of AP represents a specific definition of equity. It is equity in terms of access to the opportunity to earn college credits. But there are other ways to think of equity. Another way to think of equity is in terms of empowering students with individual agency and giving teachers a lot of autonomy in terms of designing courses.

Fabiola Cineas

When several private schools in the DC area announced in 2018 that they would eliminate AP courses, they got backlash. Some argued it was an elitist response to the expansion of the program. Was that the case?

Annie Abrams

You could view it that way. And you could also see that maybe they’re onto something. Andover, Exeter, Sidwell Friends, Horace Mann — they’ve all dropped AP. Harvard doesn’t acknowledge the credits for graduation. Yale has this complicated AP policy that basically gets at the same thing. If these well-connected schools are saying we don’t need this for the sake of college admissions and we think that other educational philosophies suit our missions better, then maybe public schools should be considering their dependence on this program. I don’t want to say that every school should do exactly like these private schools. I think it’s interesting, though, that this was a step taken at places where they can afford to empower teachers. I think we should be paying attention to that.

And at the same time, Bill de Blasio in New York was saying the city would expand AP for everybody, that all New York City schools are going to offer at least five AP courses. The thing is, it’s clear that that policy benefits the College Board, but whether it benefits students should be a matter of public discussion.

A focus on standardization and testing is one way to try to make meritocracy feasible. If you simplify assignments and rubrics, you can try to make the definition of college success less intimidating, but there’s a lot lost in demanding broad conformity to that vision. So things like creativity and designing curriculum, other forms of collaboration across K-12 and college, true responsiveness to students, that all gets lost.

Fabiola Cineas

What are some other downsides of AP?

Annie Abrams

For one, a lot of students are really stressed out. The level of competition is too intense for a lot of students.

The expansion of AP also undercuts some important civic purposes of public education. When we outsource discussions about curriculum and sense of purpose, it’s a [lost] opportunity for adults to exercise discretion to disagree with each other, to say, like, how can we figure out how to coexist here? What do we agree on? What do we disagree on?

Why shouldn’t universities host these conversations and why shouldn’t universities bolster teachers’ credibility? I think that there are more humane ways to go about those things. So it’s not a matter of lowering academic standards, if that’s what you care about. The rigidity of the AP program, like a timed 40-minute essay, is that the highest academic standard we can aim for? I don’t think so. But in order to encourage better work, we need to go about collaborating across K-12 and college differently. We could be promoting more creativity and more responsiveness to students.

Fabiola Cineas

What do you believe is the solution to Advanced Placement? Are there ways to improve it, or does it need to be completely removed?

Annie Abrams

I think one of the pernicious things is that the College Board doesn’t facilitate the discussion process on as broad a scale as they should. For AP African American studies, I’ve seen a lot of reports about how careful and invested the involved teachers and professors are, and I believe that. And I think that’s the thing to replicate, not the curriculum that they devise. What should be replicated is that collaboration. They should broaden the conversation to involve more people, to empower more teachers to get even more input from professors.

The thing is, you might wind up with courses that are not identical, and the extent to which that’s tolerable to people is an open question. The question is, could multiple versions of this be rigorous? Could it look different ways and still meet all those stipulations? And then the question again is still, is the College Board the right entity to be facilitating this conversation in the first place?

Fabiola Cineas

So what does this all mean for students?

Annie Abrams

Students are not always aware that AP credit won’t always replace college classes. They’re not aware that it doesn’t always factor into college admissions the way they think it will. And what makes a class good or what makes a teacher good doesn’t necessarily correspond with what the College Board provides.

In Florida, for a long time, there’s been a policy on the books that teachers get a $50 bonus for every passing score their students get . So if you have a teacher who’s bent on a bonus at the expense of student mental health or academic enrichment, I don’t know that the program ensures high quality in the way that people think it does.

At the very least, there are multiple paths that we should be considering. How else can we make college credit more affordable? Dual enrollment is another option. International Baccalaureate is another option.

But then another big question is: Why aren’t we investing in public higher education? That’s the elephant in the room.

Fabiola Cineas

Why is the College Board not the right entity to oversee these conversations about curriculum and what students learn?

Annie Abrams

The company has weathered a lot of controversy over the years. I think that we should be talking about Advanced Placement way more, because I think a lot of people are attached to the brand. And they’ve really benefited from the program themselves, like people who have placed out of courses or who have saved on tuition. There is a lot of individual benefit; I’m not saying otherwise.

But the question is whether this is the best means. A standardized course in African American studies, the notion of a company to standardize such a thing — I don’t know how it was ever going to work.

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