In the 1950’s, American schools began to offer college-level courses and exams to high school students with the idea that such academic challenges would provide students with an idea of the rigors that accompany advanced academia as well as an opportunity to earn college credit for their work. With more than 1.7 million students enrolled in these courses each year, AP offerings have turned into a major determining factor of both a school and a student’s quality and ability.
But for as much praise as Advanced Placement education has received over the years, the program has also received harsh criticism as well.
Skeptics of the program have long since argued that AP courses create ”rat-race” environments where students get caught up in satisfying the appearance that they are willing to take on copious amounts of semi-challenging work to impress college admissions boards. By doing so, students are thus forfeiting opportunities for creativity, meaningful work, and in-depth investigation.
Naysayers fixate on how the courses are not actually equivalent in difficulty to college-level courses and that high performance in them does not result in earning college credit but rather in opt-outs to introductory coursework. Lastly, opponents of the program have also argued that many schools are guilty for allowing students who are underprepared for the rigors of advanced academics to take courses under open-admissions policies, which has only served to increase high failure rates on final exams and slow the progress of the coursework for students who are better prepared for the increased academic workload.
None of the grievances seem unanswerable.
If we worry that our students are making great academic sacrifices, then let’s put into place mechanisms that prevent this. One example would be a comprehensive AP track that students could be admitted into based upon performance, where more care is given to the balance that is needed between pushing students to work hard and to retain knowledge.
Secondly, isn’t getting hung up on exact equivalencies to college courses a bit misguided? I implore you to take a look at an AP-European History study guide and then deliver the accompanying exam to a college freshman or sophomore who recently completed the course. If a high school senior can ace this test, then why not give them the choice to opt-out of this or an equivalent course in college?
Finally, reconsider open-admissions policies for school districts that lack pre-AP training.
There is one criticism, however, that is entirely deserved and screaming for attention. The consistent lack of minority student engagement in AP courses is alarming. Because of this, a disadvantage is created for the students in regards to college admissions. Cost is in large part to blame for this lack of educational opportunity. High-performing teachers are often taken away from non-AP settings, which can lead to increased classroom sizes for regular classes.
Recent findings are showing that minority students with AP potential are not taking the courses. According to Trevor Packer, executive Director of the advanced placement program for the College Board, this can be attributed to not only the availability of AP courses at high schools, but to self-doubt about academic potential, and other issues, such as feeling like an outcast among friends.
The College Board has also noted that in 2013, African-Americans accounted for about 15% of graduating seniors but only 9% of AP test takers, while low-income students made up 48% of high school students but only 28% of AP test takers.
In a recent interview with Marketplace, Reed Saaris, President of Equal Opportunity Schools, stated that “There are about 650,000 missing students per year – low-income students and students of color – who would participate in advanced courses in their high schools if given the opportunity to participate at the same rate as other students.” This number is based off of PSAT scores.
What this means is that American schools are educating this particular population to the level that they are considered able to take on greater academic challenges but that these students may also primarily exist in districts that lack advanced opportunities.
Based on Arkansas law (§6-16-1204,(c)), school districts are required to offer a College Board Advanced Placement course in each of the four core areas of math, English, science, and social studies. That said, there are likely schools where no students take advantage of these opportunities.
According to the College Board’s 10th Annual Report to the Nation, 11,376 AP exams were taken by low-income graduates in the class of 2013, but only 23.6% of these individuals were able to score a 3 or higher (on a scale of 1 to 5) on the exams. The same report also indicated that only 1,792 black/African American graduates of the same class Took an AP exam and that only 4.9% scored a 3 or higher. (This percentage is down from 5.1% in 2012.)
If these numbers tell us anything, it is that not only is our state lacking in low-income and minority participation in AP programs, but that many of our students can benefit from the extension of pre-AP coursework. Until we prepare our students for the challenges that accompany AP courses, we will not only continue to see low overall achievement on final AP tests from these populations, but continued low enrollment in these programs as well – and all for no good reason.
If we are truly committed to creating a population of sharp, creative, and bright individuals who are equipped to face an increasingly competitive college admissions process and job market, then we need to seize this opportunity and get behind our students who are capable but remain underserved.
So, let’s consider this a call to action. Surely there’s got to be a legislator out there who is willing to take a look at this ongoing missed opportunity for positive change.