Abolish Advanced Placement?

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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89 Responses

  1. Jesse Ewiak says:

    One reason you haven’t thought of why you won’t be able to eliminate Advanced Placement is pretty simple. It’s a way that smart kids of lower to upper middle class kids can drastically cut the cost of college. Take a couple of AP classes per quarter starting in Junior year and you might knock a whole year off of tuition.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

      I’d be interested in the amount of kids who do this. My hunch is that it is remarkably low.

      I went to high school where more than a small handful of students took AP classes (I think it is even a higher percentage now). I also went to a selective college where a lot of my classmates came in with AP credits galore. I can think of one, maybe two people who took a year off of college and graduated in three years instead of four.

      So an alleged benefit of the AP classes turns out not to exist in reality for the most part.Report

      • Speaking only for myself, as an anecdatum of one, I can say it worked for me. I entered with Sophomore status and by my second semester, had junior status. I still spent four years to get the degree. If I had wanted, I probably could have made it work in three, but my scholarship lasted four years so I thought I might as well get the subsidized (but not entirely free, because fees and living expenses) education.

        That’s not to say you’re wrong, however. While technically not a middle class kid, I had a lot of the advantages of one. And it’s questionable whether an education policy ought to be geared toward giving people like me even more advantages while others get fewer.Report

      • I graduated in 3 years thanks mostly to AP classes, community college while I was still in high school, and summer school. (Not that I’m a typical case, but I certainly benefitted from AP classes.)Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        If, as Burt suggests, AP classes are not actually teaching kids anything, then those who take them will likely have to re-take those classes in college, just to avoid falling behind.

        So the savings on tuition is probably minimal.Report

      • @mad-rocket-scientist

        That’s probably true. However, I’m not convinced that, say, a high school class in AP US History is much better than the typical US history survey in a large school, with class sizes of 100+ students. (If we’re not talking history and instead talking about, say, chemistry, physics, or calculus, that might be a different story.)Report

      • gingergene in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        My experience was almost exacty the same as @Gabriel Conroy’s: got a ton of credits which I could have used to graduate in three years, but only used to sign up for my classes earlier than my peers. Also had a four-year scholarship. At my mom’s advice, I used the extra credits to take a lighter course load and also some not-applicable-towards-graduation classes (extra foreign language classes and, I kid you not, a class called “Recreational Math” the title of which was only 50% accurate. Still regret not taking the Bridge [card game] class also offered by the Math department.)

        I was also a cold, calculating high school senior- once I decided where I was going, I called to find out what each AP score “payed out”. When I found that my ACT score had already gotten me as much credit as a 5 on the English AP test would have, I opted to save the $70 and time that test required. One of the things my engineering school should not be proud of is that a freshman who could string 4 coherent sentences in a row could take “Advanced English” for 10 weeks and, upon recieving a B or better, that would be the *entirety* of his/her English language instruction.Report

      • Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I graduated in four, but had time to take two semesters of “research” which would look good on a resume. Also, had a four year scholarship that was nearly a free ride.Report

    • Caleb in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

      In the 4th section, 3rd paragraph of the essay, Burt addressed this exact point:

      I also note that the college credits that come along with a high enough score on an A.P. test don’t seem to help the kids that much in college anyway — average length of time from enrollment to graduation is increasing, so something else must be happening along the way, in the colleges, that makes it take longer to get that bacchalaurelate degree notwithstanding the promulgation of A.P. credit to incoming students; nearly half of all full-time college students now need five years to get a four-year degree.


      • Will Truman in reply to Caleb says:

        My wife APed out of quite a bit but the result was that she was able to double major, rather than reducing the time it took. (She had a full-freight merit scholarship, though, so cost wasn’t an issue).Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Caleb says:

        To add on to my comment to Saul, that was my experience, too. Not only did it permit me to double major, but it put first-ish in line for the classes, so that I almost always got in a class I wanted. (Of course, it’s not as if the line to get into “History of the French Language” was all that long to begin with.)Report

    • It’s a way that smart kids of lower to upper middle class kids can drastically cut the cost of college.

      Some years back, when the Colorado legislature was looking at ways to reduce the cost of college, they opted to require the state’s four-year schools to accept transfer credits from a variety of classes taught at the two-year community colleges. While CC tuition is cheaper than that of the four-year schools, the big savings is that so many students live within commuting distance of a CC, can live with their parents, and save the cost of room-and-board. The flip side of the deal was that the two-year schools had to teach those classes to the same requirements as the four-year schools did.

      My only exposure has been teaching a calculus class at one of the local CCs (Colorado CCs are notorious for having “volunteers” — retired engineering types, mostly — teach math and science for the pittance that adjunct faculty are paid). The CCs offer the standard first two years of college math, three semesters of calculus and one of differential equations, and an odd statistics and probability class. The biggest draw, though, is the “remedial” math classes, algebra and pre-calc. I don’t know how the four-year schools feel about that — back in the day, math departments complained bitterly about having to teach remedial classes, but they were enormous money makers, with lots of largish sections being taught by graduate students.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Because I was a Veteran & had a few CLEP tests under my belt, UW-Madison would not take me as a freshman. I had to come in as a transfer student, which meant take 3 semesters of classes at MATC (Madison Area Tech College). MATC had a college transfer program, so any class I took that was listed under college transfer would be accepted by the UW.

        Took care of my remedial Algebra & Trig & Calc 1, Chem 1 & 2, and a bunch of my non-engineering requirement classes. I will admit that for these basic classes, I found the quality of instruction at MATC to be superior than what many of my future classmates had at the UW. Especially Calc 1, since it was a weeder class (along with Calc 2) at the UW. Sometimes I think I should have taken more of my math classes at MATC, just because, IMHO, the UW Math Department had crap for instructors (unless you were a math major, then they cared about you).Report

      • I found the quality of instruction at MATC to be superior than what many of my future classmates had at the UW.

        The CC math departments “advertise” when students inquire by pointing out that not only is calculus cheaper at the CC, but class size is limited and the instructor will know your name. Adjuncts almost never get to teach calculus at the CCs here because the full-time math faculty fight over who gets to teach the “real” math courses.

        As a side note, one of the reasons that the CCs can find so many people to be adjuncts is because to teach math at a high school you have to have a rather large stack of credentials, but you can teach at the CC with none of that. Granted that math education is a somewhat different beast, but I did listen to a couple of long-time adjuncts complaining bitterly that “15 years as a successful math instructor at CCs” didn’t count for much if you applied for high school positions.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:


        Oddly enough, ALL of my High School math teachers sucked. As a matter of fact, only my 7th grade math teacher was worth a damn. The only math I was good at was geometry.

        At MATC, my College Algebra teacher was an economist with a Masters & he was the first who opened my eyes to how Algebra works by bringing it back around to geometry & making that connection. I’ve said this before, but it is a profound thing when a subject you’ve been struggling with all your life suddenly ‘clicks’, and the whole of it opens up before you.

        My Trig & Calc 1 instructors were also people with non-math Master’s who just enjoyed teaching math. They were both also exceptional.

        At the university, Calc 2 & 3 were big lecture hall classes taught by mathematicians who couldn’t give less of a sh*t whether you passed or failed. My Linear Algebra & ODE/PDE classes were much smaller, & the instructors recognized that the bulk of the classes were engineers & hard science majors, so they tweaked the lectures for us to make them more relevant. Plus they cared if you asked for help.

        I hated Calc 2 & 3. There are still parts of both of those classes that never quite gelled in my head because the math department seemed intent on making them both miserable classes (a trend that others have told me they experienced at other campuses).Report

      • @mad-rocket-scientist
        Oddly enough, ALL of my High School math teachers sucked.

        My high school math experience was… peculiar. When I was in ninth grade, the head of the math program for the small-town school system decided to conduct an experiment and see how fast the more gifted students (this was the 60s, there was no formal G&T) could go through the curriculum. I was eventually told that he had a PhD in math education, and was always looking for ways to conduct research with the captive population of students. One other kid and I took the algebra text and goaded each other through both 9th- and 11th-grade algebra in two semesters.

        Then my family moved. 10th-grade geometry was okay, if slow, but then I hit 11th-grade algebra. After eventually getting in enough trouble to be sent to the principal’s office with instructions not to come back for a week, the principal had me explain the situation. He had the teacher and I in together. I said that I already knew all this; the teacher refused to believe that a student could remember it after more than a year away from it; I demanded to be given the final for the full year and aced it. The high school had recently been given a time-share terminal attached to the computer at a relatively nearby university, so they gave me the bare-bones documentation and said, “Here, teach yourself FORTRAN.” Which I did, including enough bad programming habits that it took me two years in a university CS program to break them all. As a senior, the pre-calc teacher and I more-or-less tag-team taught the class.

        The only good thing that came out of the mess was that when an Air Force brat came in a year later, claiming to already know 11th-grade algebra, they put her in the pre-calc class, then let her commute up to the university that had given us the time-share terminal to take calculus when she was a senior.Report

      • Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I did multiple courses in CC as a high school senior (Calc II, Calc 3, Two semesters of Chemistry).Report

      • Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        my high school math teacher taught at the local CC. He let one guy program his way out of Calc 1 (essentially reinventing numeric methods from Calc 3 to solve everything). He understood that the bloke was doing more work than the memorization everyone else was doing.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain says:


        While I am not a fan of educators running experiments with students (I hope he talked to you & your parents about this before doing it?), I do wish more public schools took a relaxed approach to kids who are eager to shoot ahead. Neither of the school systems I went to were equipped to deal with gifted kids, with predictable results.

        Also, I wonder how much educators appreciate the effectiveness of peers goading each other to succeed. My Navy Gas Turbine School class did that (we all goaded & supported each other, with those of us who were at the top making time to help those near the bottom). When we graduated, we had some of the highest personal averages of the school (I missed the number one spot by 0.22%) & one of the highest class averages in the schools history. We got official commendations for how effective we were as a team.

        This all given that all of us were 18-19 years old, except for one guy* who was in his late 20’s who took us all aside & suggested we work together, instead of trying to compete individually. It wasn’t a hard sell.

        *Oh the stories I could tell of Adams. Of that whole class, really.Report

  2. Saul Degraw says:

    Great post Burt!

    I don’t think we will see any substantial reform in American education until we come to a consensus about what is the point and purpose of education. Is it to make people into good workers that can fuel the American economic engine and make a foothold in the middle class or above? Or is it to actually educate people and create critical thinkers, readers, and writers with a deep and sincere curiosity of the world.

    I’ve mentioned this before but I was a chaotic student for most of my academic career. My grades were generally all over the map until grad school and law school. They ranged from a bit below average to extraordinary depending on the class and my level of interest in the class. It took until I was 25 to develop a work ethic for stuff I wasn’t interested in. I grew up in a above-average public school system. We sent an extraordinary number of students to Ivy League and equivalently elite schools. I think about 12 people from my high school class went to Cornell and more than 2-3 went to Harvard and Yale. The other Ivies were also well represented in college acceptance rates. This is out of a high school class of approximately 200 people. Many of these students took a lot of AP classes. I did not and still managed to get into Vassar (though off the waiting list). Ivy League equivalent are schools like Tufts and MIT and Duke.

    My mom (a teacher and administrator) told me recently that during her time on the high school PTA, people talked about mandatory summer reading and she advocated against it. She said making kids read is a sure way to turn them into non-readers. She also told me that someone pulled her aside and mentioned that her kids were readers.

    So there you have it. You had a lot of kids who understood that they were supposed to study very hard and get very good grades and go to good schools to win the upper-middle class prize but they were not really interested in the material. And then you had someone like me who was indifferent to grades and tests largely (unless I liked the class and/or the teacher) but read constantly. Now I am sure that there were plenty of kids who did much better at me in school who were really interested in the subjects but there was an obvious dynamic of kids who worked hard and did well without caring about the material at all.

    The idea of abolishing AP classes is not super-knew. I’ve heard people argue that gifted and honors classes should be abolished because the general outcome would improve students across the board. Slate published an article a few weeks ago arguing that NYC and other cities should abolish their magnet schools for bright kids like Bronx Science, Stuy, or Lowell in San Francisco.Report

    • James K in reply to Saul Degraw says:


      I don’t think we will see any substantial reform in American education until we come to a consensus about what is the point and purpose of education.

      I strongly agree with this – it is functionally impossible to succeed at any policy intervention until you have concretely defined your success criteria.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      I think most of the AP kids in our high school were probably more academically inclined and interested in the material rather than just people studying hard so they could get a lucrative career. Lots of them want on to study really academic and scholarly subjects in university like musicology or medieval history even if they copped and ended up doing white collar or professional work for a living. That being said, I had a conversation on Face Book with two of them about how little we remember from high school.Report

  3. Saul Degraw says:

    How do you feel about LSAT prep courses and/or BarBri? Or SAT prep courses?Report

  4. Mike Schilling says:

    They show up as part of an agenda intended to build a resume that shows that they are outstanding and excellent, just like everyone else.


  5. Anderson says:

    I attended a large suburban public high school, about 2,800 students (I graduated about five years ago). Since there was a wide gap in learning abilities, my high school offered 90% of classes on both non-honors and honors/AP tracks. How could they not? As someone who took classes at both levels, there was a *noticeable* difference in exam rigor, student ability, and lesson pacing. If I had tried taking AP Physics or AP Calculus BC I would have been in a world of hurt. At the same time, had I taken regular-track history or english courses, I would have been bored senseless. Of course, people find ways to boost their GPA–I, for example, took the easier AP Environmental Science instead of regular-level Physics–but the majority of kids at big public schools (where two-tracking prevails) aren’t afraid to take regular level classes. Social life still reigns supreme in high school.

    APs: Yes, AP tests involve a great deal of memorization (as do, it should be said, the MCAT, Bar exam, and other professional endeavors.) Yes, AP is as business-orientated as it is education-orientated. Yes, the credits aren’t often applied at college. And, yet, I don’t think the system fails to the extent that Mr. Likko argues it does. For one, from what I remember of the AP tests I took, they did involve analysis. Writing the essays on the European and US History exams required articulating and defending a thesis that often tied together themes across time periods; “data dump” essays lost points. The Music Theory one utilized sight-reading music as well as several listening exercises. In addition, good teachers matter. They inspire learning and know how to make AP classes, or any class for that matter, about more than just “the test” (a test that doesn’t even factor into a student’s grade.) That being said, many teachers aren’t great and I can not speak to the content of all AP tests.

    Grade inflation is a tricky matter. It goes without saying that if everyone is special and brilliant than no-one is special and brilliant. Average GPAs have spiked in recent decades. “A gentleman’s C has somehow become a gentleman’s B+,” one of my favorite college professors would rant. Still, though, applying a strict curve leads to arbitrary outcomes. If a teacher sets clear goals about what students need to do to receive an A and 50% of the class achieves those goals, then why shouldn’t they all get As? Applying strict curves is one of those ideas that seems wonderful in all of its puritanical theory, but, in reality, what are the tangible problems of a higher median GPA at colleges? I don’t like it, but who is it hurting?

    Big picture: “dropout factory” high schools, shitty colleges dishing out federally-backed loans, exploding teacher pensions…those strike me as far graver problems in secondary/higher education than grade inflation, GPA chasing, or AP tests.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Anderson says:

      I see a lot of good points here, and I’m pleased that you report high levels of intellectual challenge on the tests you experienced, @anderson . I certainly agree that the issue I’ve tackled here is only one of many, although I picked it because it seemed to me to at least touch many of those issues at once.

      A thoroughly excellent comment.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to Anderson says:

      If a teacher sets clear goals about what students need to do to receive an A and 50% of the class achieves those goals, then why shouldn’t they all get As?

      Theory of grading is always a tough one. Is the purpose to demonstrate mastery of the material, or to sort students? I think you can argue that much of the material — and I have to restrict myself to STEM fields — in the first two years is the former. If I’m interviewing an engineering graduate, I don’t really care what grade they pulled in calculus, I care about how they did in fluid dynamics or strength of materials. Even for a math major I don’t really care about calculus, but I care a lot about real analysis (calculus done with rigor).Report

      • “in the first two years is the former”

        Do you mean “the latter”?Report

      • On the main point about hard curves, I’ll speak a little to it coming from my years in history. I hated TA’ing for instructors who insisted on a strict curve, usually 10% A’s, greater % of B’s, and even greater % of C’s. (Usually those particular professors stopped there and didn’t think it was a good idea to fore-ordain that some students would get D’s or F’s.) What I hated about those is that when I taught a discussion section, I could never sincerely wish them all “good luck” on their exam or their paper, because if they all did well, I’d still have to mark some of them down.

        When I graded–mostly essays or essay tests, but some tests also had paragraph-long I.D. components–my range of scores tended to match what one might expect from a classic bell curve. So one might think, what’s the big deal with a strict curve if things shake out that way generally? For me, it seems to come off as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Grading essays is pretty subjective. If one reads a stack of essays, one can’t help but place them in a range, and the range becomes something like a curve even if all students meet what can be considered minimal requirements.

        tl;dr: strict curves in humanities courses suck; non-strict curves seem more natural, but they can be overdetermined. In the meantime, it’s important that learning gets done and instructors are fair.Report

      • Not that I haven’t said enough already, but I’ll add two more points.

        1. Some professors I TA’d for adopted the following standards: B’s should be relatively easy to get, while A’s should be relatively hard to get. That’s a good standard, in my opinion, for an intro-level humanities or social sciences class.

        2. If I teach again and if the institution I teach at allows it, I might reintroduce and make more available the “gentlemen’s C.” That would be a minimum standard the student would have to meet (say, do a certain number, or all, of the assignments, and participate x number of times, or whatever), along with a requirement that the assignments done be done in good faith (no one-sentence essays) and with academic honesty (no cheating or plagiarism.) If the student does all that, then they’re guaranteed at least a C. That way, the student who’s just taking the class for a credential can get that, while better students can do better and actually learn. My plan has its drawbacks, to be sure, but if clearly enough stated and fairly enough applied, it might actually aid in learning by taking the pressure of failing off and it might even check grade inflation.

        (Disclosure: my experience is at large state schools and in moslty introductory-level history, a humanities/social science, classes. Mileage varies accordingly.)Report

      • That is rather unclear, isn’t it? Simpler: much of the STEM material in the first two years can/should be graded on a “mastery of material” basis. I wouldn’t be unhappy if, for example, they made calculus pass/fail for engineering majors. I don’t want engineers sorted on the basis of calculus; I want them sorted on the basis of how well they can apply calculus to their particular engineering discipline.

        Everyone should be thinking hard about what calculus class ought to be, as well. Calculus concepts are critical to lots of things. Much of the time in calculus class is still spent on the mechanics of doing things by hand, though — derivatives and integrals, both limited by your skills at algebraic manipulation. But you can ask Mathematica to do symbolic differentiation and integration, and the software is enormously better at it than either you or I will ever be. If I hire you, I’m no longer hiring you for integration skills per se. I’m hiring you to set up the problem, and to verify the implications of the solution, but I increasingly expect you to use a tool like Mathematica for the grunt work.Report

      • Thanks @michael-cain for the clarification.

        First, you probably wouldn’t hire me unless you want someone wholly incompetent at engineering 🙂

        Second, is that how weed-out classes work? I would have thought it was the lower-division classes that weed out and not the upper division ones. (I really don’t know the answer by the way, just asking. I’ve never been in a class like that.)

        Third, even though I suck at math and even though you should heed my “first” point, I do value the three semesters I took in HS calculus. I studied hard and got a passing grade and a 3 on the AP exam. None of that really ought to qualify me for anything, but I do feel I learned *something* and my mind was made somehow sharper in a way that it wouldn’t have been otherwise. I say that even though I’ve forgotten probably 70% of what I’ve learned. There was something about the process of learning it that worked really well for me.Report

      • Second, is that how weed-out classes work?

        The only weed-out class I ever had to take was in graduate school, and it was different from the way calculus weeds out some of the people who think they want to be engineers. In my case, and it was a peculiar one, the ROE for the professor were “Make this first-year graduate class as hard as possible without leaving yourself open to intervention by the dean.” In the calculus/engineering situation, the faculty is making a serious effort to teach everyone the material; the “weeding out” is largely of people who discover that they don’t want to spend a good chunk of their lives thinking about the world as equations and formulas.

        Math is a way (well, more accurately ways) of asking and answering questions about the world. So is literature. So is history, at least when taught as more than a compendium of unrelated facts. Learning more ways to ask and answer questions is always useful, but there’s just too little time to get to be good at them all.Report

      • Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Michael Cain,
        Mentioned this upthread, but my high school math teacher (over at the local CC where he also taught) had a kid who basically reinvented Calc3 during his Calc 1 class (programming his calculator to solve the problems). Teacher allowed it because he recognized that the kid was doing more work than the memorization the other kids were doing.Report

  6. Mike Schilling says:

    Your 1984 discussion is quite ironic, because memorizing facts for for the test is exactly what Orwell did as a scholarship boy at a fancy prep school, the goal being to win a scholarship to a top public (that is, private) school. He wrote a wonderful essay about that nonsense mot long before his death.Report

  7. Murali says:


    It seems to me that even if they knew the arms race for what it was, they could not afford not to participate. Suppose everyone has two extra curriculars and a perfect GPA, the guy who has less than that is not even in the running.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Murali says:

      Precisely. That’s why I make the radical proposal of abolishing it all, at a stroke. That, at least, is treating all of our young overachievers equally and denies anyone the opportunity to push for an edge over the rest of the crowd.Report

  8. Mike Schilling says:

    My son aced the AP Calculus exam (BC, the higher level), which gave him credit for two quarters of college calculus, and, frankly, it’s ridiculous. There’s no way that what he learned in high school is equivalent to what’s taught in even a somewhat rigorous college-level course, and if he were going to be a math or physics major, I would have insisted he start over again with Calculus 1A.Report

    • Fnord in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Testing out of two courses with BC might be stretching it, but I think you’re overestimating the rigor of lower-level, lecture-taught college classes.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Fnord says:

        I don’t think he is over-estimating it. Not even a little bit.

        Of course, it all very much depends on the university in question.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Fnord says:


        For math and science, probably. For liberal arts subjects like history or literature, I’d say probably not, depending perhaps on the school or the size of the classroom or the instructor.Report

      • Kim in reply to Fnord says:

        Liberal arts is HARD to teach. Teaching someone how to edit their thoughts, or how to think clearly and coherently is difficult, in the first place.Report

      • Murali in reply to Fnord says:

        Teaching someone how to edit their thoughts, or how to think clearly and coherently is difficult, in the first place.

        Editing your thoughts, thinking clearly and coherently is difficult for the vast majority of persons. Most people who think they’re doing it aren’tReport

    • I agree. I tested out of one semester of calculus (the AB, or less rigorous, exam). Because I was a history and french major, it wasn’t as important for me to know the math.* But I probably would have needed to retake it if I had a math-heavy major. (In our high school, calculus was a three semester program, so it’s possible we had at least a smattering of the basics. But not being mathematically inclined, I can’t tell you how it fares compared with college level.)

      *Except in the sense that college is supposed to make us a part of an educated, mathematically literate citizenry. I don’t want to discount the importance of that.Report

  9. Alan Scott says:

    I’ll first point out that my experience in Honors and AP classes (a bit more than a decade ago, now) is very different than what you outlined above. That said, I went to a poor rural school where few of the students were expected to go to four-year college, and there wasn’t a huge expectation that the students would get high scores on the AP tests.

    I think we’re going to see lots of changes to what it means to be an AP class in the next few years. There’s a huge move away from the sort of fact-memorizing education you describe above, something that’s reflected in changes that are being made to the AP science tests (and accompanying curriculums), along with standards and testing changes connected to the Common Core initiative. Important people in positions of authority have finally realized that making people memorize lists of dates doesn’t result in smart and capable college students.

    My big worry related to AP tests, though, is that the classes that they allow students to skip form the fundamental backbone of a college education. English 101 is a class where you learn how to write a college paper. If your high school AP class is any good, it will teach you how to analyze a topic and compose an essay about it, but it won’t teach you whether you’re supposed to be using APA or MLA format, or how to use the resources of your college library.

    One of my friends has a part-time job of cataloging Senior Projects. According to him, half of them are missing the required Abstract. Hell, my senior project didn’t have an abstract–and I’m not sure whether or not is was supposed to, given that it was a screenplay. But I certainly didn’t learn how to write abstracts at any point during my undergraduate career–Because I tested out of most of the non-major paper-writing classes, and few of my major specific classes didn’t really have the sort of assignments where an abstract was expected.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Alan Scott says:

      …the classes that they allow students to skip form the fundamental backbone of a college education.
      A telling point indeed!Report

    • Kim in reply to Alan Scott says:

      Every single one of my high school english classes used MLA citations. Was that not normal?Report

    • ScarletNumbers in reply to Alan Scott says:

      English 101 is a class where you learn how to write a college paper. If your high school AP class is any good, it will teach you how to analyze a topic and compose an essay about it, but it won’t teach you whether you’re supposed to be using APA or MLA format, or how to use the resources of your college library.

      My high school AP English class was over three years, and in it we learned how to write a college paper. We only used MLA and we were told that ALL college papers would use this format. This was true for my undergraduate career. However, I had to take a class recently that required us to use APA, so that was a learning experience. Thankfully the college library had style guides available.Report

  10. T. Greer says:

    I look at the AP Education system, and I see Moloch.

    It is wonderful to talk about schools opting out the AP system. It is also great to talk about countries dropping out of arm races or the saintly politician who decides not to smear any of his opponents.

    All are noble things to do.

    And all bring about your destruction if everyone else does not do them as well.

    The agents in the system all know there is a better way, but if they change to this better way unilaterally they will be out competed by everyone else in this system.

    The system is the problem.

    The only solution is to leave the system entirely.

    In this case, +1 points for home schooling.Report

  11. Wardsmith says:

    Apparently I went to the wrong small catholic high school. Mine, the Jesuit variety would Never give more than a four point grade. Not in the 70’s when I went nor in the 2000’s when my sons did. In fact one of my son’s friends missed valedictorian by one tenth of a point because (like me) his entire senior year was AP classes (6 of them). His “competitor” for the big V took easier, normal classes and got straight A’s instead of the single A- my son’s friend did in a difficult AP physics course. By your scoring system he would have won hands down.

    From my freshman year on, I was either in advanced, honors or AP classes. Every subject, Starting in my Junior year I was taking AP classes, and my senior year I was in 6 AP courses. I aced every test, IIRC I took 9 tests, and I think the best score you could get was a 5. Three to five was a passing grade but I heard some colleges took twos also. There was one other thing at that time. You could name 3 colleges to have your scores sent. Unfortunately I went to a 4th, even though I had been accepted to my three original schools. Yale, Stanford and MIT. However (this was late 70’s mind you), when I found out that they all still used punched cards for their computer science courses, I opted for a much smaller but interestingly more advanced computer science school. Of course back then you couldn’t major in comp sci, you could only opt for Math and Computer Science was a kind of minor degree under that.

    When I went to the school that had actual interactive terminals and instant gratification programming classes (no waiting for keypunch operators and spoiled decks), I proudly handed them my AP scores and admissions said, “Wow, we’ve never seen scores like this, too bad you didn’t send them to us”. I was astounded, “Just because AP didn’t mail them to you?”, I said. “Yep, those are the rules, sorry, you could easily have skipped freshman year, maybe half of sophomore too.”

    Reading the rest of your OP Burt, I’d say you think I got the better deal. In reality, I negotiated with all my teachers individually and most of them let me challenge out. So I pretty much skipped 2 years anyway. Still took me 4 years to finish, but you only needed 120 credits to graduate and I had 230. That helped graduate school go quickly 🙂Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Wardsmith says:

      I would think that in the environment created by my proposal, the other kid would not have got A’s. Strict grading curve, all the kids in the same class.Report

    • Kim in reply to Wardsmith says:

      My school graded on percentages. You could actually get 100% in a class. (I think technically a 92-100 were all A’s, but they were differentiated for stuff like valedictorian, because we had the numbers). Of course, harder classes did get “bonuses” when it came to calculating for valedictorian…Report

  12. Fnord says:

    I apparently don’t have such a rosy view of college courses, especially first year college courses, as some people. Now, I didn’t take AP history (either of them? I seem to recall one each for American and European history), and maybe AP history is particularly bad about this. But I did at least as much memorization learning in college as I did in high school math/science AP classes.

    My college didn’t let me test out of the Freshman writing course, but I really didn’t learn a whole lot about writing, there (and not because I had nothing to learn, obviously). The OP points out that in the footnote that his graduate students aren’t substantially better writers than his high school students.Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Fnord says:


      Very good points all. I do wonder about “the composition course” as the solution to the problem of learning how to write. The go-to for a lot of instructors at the college level is to advise their students to “take composition classes.” Maybe it really does help, but from what I remember from college, “composition” was more a hurdle than anything else, where you had to write a bunch of essays because you had to and because everyone else had to. And at the end of the course, you get a grade. (I should say my AP English score meant I didn’t have to to take an intro to composition, but my major required an unpper-division composition class, but I suspect the dynamics were similar to the intro class, and perhaps moreso.)

      Also about memorization. The person Burt cites about AP history classes could have said the same thing about the college-level surveys I’ve taught as an adjunct and TA’d for:

      I’ve seen gifted AP teachers who were compelled to reduce the complexity of World War II to two 55-minute classroom lectures, and to cover the New Deal and the civil rights movement in one class. To explain the compression, teachers cite the press of time, the wealth of material and the impending weight and doom of the final AP test, given a full month before the school year ends.

      It’s hard to teach at large institutions without feeling like a charlatan. Whether or how that translates into AP high school courses, I can’t say with much accuracy. I won’t say that I’ll never adjunct again–if my current job contract doesn’t renew, that might be one option–but one of the challenges I face personally is the sense that I’m part of a system that essentially exploits a large number of people.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Fnord says:

      That’s a fair cop; in the OP I don’t purport to address disparity between expected and actual levels of academic rigor at the bacchalaurelate level.Report

  13. LeeEsq says:

    Even if AP classes are useless, a lot of the very smart and quick kids do resent being in class with the less quick learners. In my high school, practically everybody went to college even if they were in a non-AP track and the really smart kids did want to be with non-Honors kids. In less academically inclined high schools, AP and Honors classes act as a sort of sanctuary for the nerds from what I heard. So even if useless from an educational standpoint, a lot of quick and diligent students are going to want them from a social standpoint. Parents are probably going to want them because of the prestige.Report

  14. Lyle says:

    Actually except for the funding issues, why not allow high school credit for community college courses taught to standard as suggested in an earlier post. Have the community college instructor come to the high school, and teach the class etc. Eliminate the AP system entirely. The students still get the double credit just like AP. As standardized community college syllabuses for courses arrive meaning the credits transfer, this accomplishes the same purpose, but gives regular exams instead.Report

  15. and their eyes glaze over in fear. The response I get is “I took the test already, Mr. Likko, so I don’t really remember the book.”

    That and the broader point about memorization need to be looked at from several angles.

    First, I consider myself a fairly introspective guy who likes to learn and who likes to connect the dots across disciplines, and across assignments. One reason I like history is because studying it has the potential to empower one to take on politics, literature, psychology, philosophy, etc.. Yet with some classes and some assignments, I as an undergrad and HS student approached them with a goal just to pass. I shouldn’t have, but I did. Maybe that’s what these students, or some of them, were doing with 1984.

    Second, I’m not sure that the “rote memorization” phenomenon is all that new. People have been cramming for tests and then forgetting the content for a very long time, I suspect. Maybe AP exams and the proliferation of “honors” courses (and perhaps No Child Left Behind) exacerbates the matter, but that’s not necessarily a new thing.

    Third, and in partial contradiction to my second point, I think it ebbs and flows. When I was a college freshman, and even when I was in high school (I graduated HS in 1992), there was a large number of teachers who spoke out against “regurgitation.” Instead, we were supposed to “think critically.” Which in practice sometimes meant, “don’t learn the facts because you can always look them up.” It also meant a lot of take-home exams and essay exams in which there wasn’t a right answer but in which there really was because certain answers were off-limits and certain answers were the ones the instructors were looking for. I don’t say all that to claim critical thinking is a bad thing, just that as a slogan, “critical thinking” sometimes encourages thoughtless opinion-giving. I submit that the pendulum swings sometimes toward rote memorization and sometimes toward freestyle non-responsible thinking. Neither extreme is good or desirable, but somewhere in the middle, where one learns a basic set of facts or (in history, at least) a certain standard narrative*

    *By “standard,” I don’t mean fixed for all time. The narratives change as we learn more or as people formulate different arguments or look at different historical actors. But I do think students need something to hook onto, even if we’re introducing them to ways to challenge the standard narratives. For example, learning about Jackson’s “war” against the second bank of the US might be just another instance of “dead white man history,” but if one knows that, I think they can better understand, say, the racial politics of the Jackson era, even if the bank war gives us only background.Report

    • Kim in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      I liked the teacher who told the class “you guys got the wrong answer” — and basically failed the kids who had just used the cliff notes (which was a lot of the class). The girl who had chosen the “wrong answer” but had a well defended essay demonstrating critical thinking? She got an A, regardless (wasn’t me).

      Learning about Jackson’s war is understanding why NYC is one of the world’s financial capitals. Pretty important stuff, if you ask me.Report

  16. Kazzy says:

    [slow clap]Report

  17. Vikram Bath says:

    I think Burt’s critiques are spot on, but I do wonder about what AP classes would actually be replaced with. Are students in the regular classes better able to engage with 1984 than those in AP classes? Do regular classes deal more with analysis and application while the AP classes focus mostly on memorization?Report

  18. Patrick says:

    I was awarded 8 units for BC Calc (Calc I & II on the semester system). I took Calc II anyway.

    I didn’t learn more the second time around, but there are different reasons for that.

    I walked into college with 23 units (unlike Ward I decided I’d rather take Literature of Horror and Science Fiction as my two English electives as a senior than take Honors English 4). As a member of the Honors program at the University, basically none of them counted; I had to take the Honors American History even though I got a 5 on the AP US History course (I could have dropped Honors and gotten credit for it, though).

    One point that merits attention is that we won’t be successful at reforming the system unless we articulate what we want the system to do, what Saul and James said, but not just at the secondary level.

    A hard curve system is largely not a good idea because it limits the utility of the metric over time. It also largely would more or less encourage administrators to put really terrible students in the same class as really excellent ones, so that the excellent ones could get their A. While the “Nerd Refuge” LWA brings up is not a great reason for AP course, burning a chunk of your kids down so that your A students will also be the students with the 2100+ combined SAT so that they can get into Cornell isn’t a great idea either.

    We can’t fix this in a vacuum, though, because the grades signaling is too embedded in the college system’s entrance mechanism.

    There are 21.8 million kids starting college in 2013. Only 300 of them went to Caltech. Only a small overall percentage of them go to “top tier” universities.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Patrick says:

      Honestly, I think it is on the colleges to move a reform like this forward. They provide the incentive for it to happen. Although I get the attractiveness of test scores & AP classes for colleges, because it makes it easier to identify potential students who will succeed at university (although I question how accurate those metrics really are).Report

    • ScarletNumbers in reply to Patrick says:

      There are 21.8 million kids starting college in 2013.

      That number doesn’t look right.Report

  19. Ferny says:

    It strikes me as odd to see that no other AP teachers have chimed in, so I’ll be the first to do so.

    I think abolishing AP classes as a panacea to issues always strikes me as quite silly. Sure, there are abuses in the system and some have been adequately noted, but I think you need to think of this as an actual system in the real world, rather than in some sort of utopia.

    I’ve taught AP US History, AP World History and ‘standard’ World History and the rigor difference between them is somewhat staggering. My standards kids are simply not capable of doing some of the things that my AP students are doing and that’s fine – it creates a class that allows for a gradual scaffolding of student content and skill that mirrors their current developmental needs, rather than the needs of other abstracted students.

    I also find a sort of hilarity in the idea that an AP class focuses you to cover content too quickly – of course it does! It’s the equivalent of a college-intro course, which, if anybody has taken them recently, go quite quickly. In my first semester of college, we covered the history of the Middle East from 3000 BCE to 2008 CE in a semester. I assure you, my AP World History class feels a lot slower.

    In general, the main critique that comes to my eye that is the one that is being most dealt with is memorization – the old AP US test was simply a mess of factoids with some writing skills being taught. The new test is far less memorization based and almost wholly focused on skills and the creation/understanding of historical narratives.

    In general, I just don’t think killing AP classes gives you anything that you want. You could put everybody in the same room, but by junior year of HS, that seems rather silly, as the skills gap between a student heading towards an ivy-league institution and a student struggling to read above an 8th grade level in English creates massive disparities. As a point, about 45-50% of my students in my standard world history classes will graduate from college (after an 100% matriculation rate into it). These aren’t bad kids and they are about average for Americans. If you forced them into the same class with some of my AP students, the curves that would be set would be so brutal as to leave half of my students failing every year.

    No one wins. There are ways to deal with AP curriculum: make it more rigorous, make it more authentically driven by college and mandate stricter oversight over courses receiving AP designation. But the idea that making it go away will solve anything sort of seems to be a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist, rather than a solution to a problem that does exist.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Ferny says:

      Yay! Real critique from a real AP teacher!

      What I crave are cognitive skills higher up on the Bloom taxonomy, indicating collegiate-level thought, and durable retention of that knowledge such that it integrates into the student’s mind. You indicate that recent reforms to the tests achieve the first objective, @ferny , and this is heartening. Is the second happening also?

      I also just plain feel bad for the students crushed by the workload. This may be a function of the ubiquity of tests, and the importance of tests, in the No Child Left Behind era, although I see that as alloyed with the honors education arms race; these things are a set piece of what schools demand and students are tasked with doing.Report

      • Ferny in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I think the new APUSH test is trying to do both by focusing on the Historical Thinking Skills and making it explicit what key understandings are going to be tested, rather than just not knowing and assuming you have to know everything.

        In general though, abolishing AP classes won’t end the workload – just make it so that it’s less clear who is signing up for such a workload.Report

  20. scott the mediocre says:

    Where (i.e. what city) did you go to high school, Burt? My recollection of reality Way Back Then is somewhat different than yours.

    I graduated in 1976 from an elite public HS in urban California. No extra grade points for AP classes in those days (or I would have been the valedictorian, so it’s probably a good thing the policy was what it was). Our median student was probably about one standard deviation higher SES than the school district’ student population as a whole – probably about the same median SES as the Catholic schools and a standard deviation or two below the elite private schools. I would guess that about 25-30% of our students took at least one AP. My then-girlfriend’s younger brother (graduated 1978) went to the elite Catholic school in our city and my memory is that they did offer a few APs too, but I don’t totally trust that memory.

    I’d say the rigor of my AP classes roughly matched, perhaps exceeded, the rigor of the entry level classes at Berkeley that my APs allowed me to skip, plus much more personalized attention since the [HS] class size was never more than thirtyish. If I hadn’t changed majors (and taken a somewhat reduced class load since I was working 40+ hours per week to pay my way through, which was viable back then: I remember that tuition and fees were exactly $236 per quarter – also, dinosaurs roamed the earth and we had to whittle our own transistors out of wood) I’d have gotten out in three years easily.

    So at least for my cohorts, the system as it existed back then did give a working class kid who was somewhat lucky vis a vis work ethic/future orientation and raw cognitive horsepower a single generation trampoline into the upper middle class. I can tell that it’s not that way any more 🙂

    • An exurb of Los Angeles, the same place I live today; I remain a touch obscure about it to preserve my tissue of pseudonymity. Suffice to say it’s a community that at the time was about 150,000 people, an hour outside of the big city down the freeway, split amongst two neighboring cities and outlying areas. Today, it’s about 500,000 people in the two cities and surrounding areas, but 30 years ago there was just a lot less here.Report

      • scott the mediocre in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Oh, OK. Your original experience makes sense, then (you have said enough that I’m 98+% sure that I know which “valley” you are referring to, but we will try not to tear the tissue any further (c.f. Saladin and the silk)): my cohort at Berkeley tended to be from urban or inner ring suburbans schools (a fair number from SoCal, surprisingly), which were a little bit further ahead of the AP curve than you know where.Report

  21. Damon says:

    When everyone is special, no one is. Honors this, AP that. We’re all super heros now.

    I took AP classes in high school. Our school only offered a few. I don’t recall the ability to get more than 4.0 for an A, but I do recall being able to get college credit. The college bound kids took the AP classes. They kids on the farm track or vocational school kids didn’t. They didn’t need to.

    Yes, please bring back real grades. It only is a disservice to kids when they finally do realize that they aren’t special (except to mom and dad) and that, most likely, they are C level kids.Report

  22. Crprod says:

    Our three children graduated from high school over the period 1988-1999. Each took several AP classes. The oldest was not allowed to take AP European History as a senior because he had not taken the World History class much earlier in high school because of a schedule conflict. He prepared himself independently and scored a 5 on the test. He has an academic career in history, but not European.
    The youngest did well on her AP Calculus exam, but she was placed too high at her Ivy League school. Her study skills were not up to recovering, and this was the beginning of the end for her STEM aspirations. I often wonder how she would do in today’s constant testing culture. She enjoying going to school and taking tests much more than being organized and doing homework every night.Report

  23. Wyrmnax says:

    Here in Brazil we don’t have AP or Honor classes, as our curriculum is structured on a much different way, but we have a very similar problem:

    Everything requires a College Degree.

    You are being interviewed to be a secretary? You better have a degree. Burger flipping at McDonald’s? You better have a degree. Cashier at a gas station? Yeah, you will be out of luck without a degree of some sort.

    The origin of the problem is very close to yours – people used to think that a college degree would place them over the rest, raising their chances. Seeing that, some people with money started creating colleges that were less concerned about making the student learn anything, but only printing him a degree while filing the minimal Education Ministry’s requirements. And that became a snowball – more people with lower quality degrees mean that to get a job anywhere you will be competing with someone that has a degree, so you need one too. Pushing a good parcel of the population that shouldn’t need a degree into the debt that is required to aquire one that will not serve as anything but a piece of paper with a approval stamp.Report