Over the weekend, the New York Times published a hard-hitting 2,300-word expose by Dana Goldstein and colleagues asking “Why is the College Board pushing to expand Advanced Placement?” Its primary answer: to rake in tens of millions of dollars a year and to support CEO David Coleman’s exorbitant salary. Meanwhile, the article points out, “some 60 percent of AP exams taken by low-income students this year scored too low for college credit—1 or 2 out of 5—a statistic that has not budged in twenty years.”
I have thoughts! In no particular order:
- Kudos to the Times for tackling this topic. As education consultant Justin Cohen is quoted as saying, “We should not assume the College Board is acting in the country’s best interest by lobbying for the expansion of this.” He’s right. All institutions in American education (and public life) should be scrutinized and held to account, and the College Board is no different.
- That said, you’ve got to be pretty darn cynical to think that the College Board has spent the last several decades expanding the AP program mostly for the money. Expanding access to advanced coursework has long been a priority of equity-minded organizations, such as Education Trust. Indeed, just last week, a slew of articles featured officials, including Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, wringing their hands because new federal civil rights data showed racial disparities in access to advanced courses. So which is it: Are too few low-income kids and kids of color gaining access to AP and the like, or too many?
- One of the key questions is whether kids who take AP courses but fail the AP exams still benefit from the experience. Goldstein raises questions about a College Board policy brief asserting that participation boosts students’ likelihood of attending college, with one scholar calling it “junk science.” But it’s not just the College Board (self-interestedly) making this case for more participation. If anyone deserves credit (or blame) for the expansion of AP to most high schools in the country, it’s Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, whose Challenge Index ranked high schools on how many students took at least one AP (or IB) course. And that’s because of the conventional wisdom—informed by decent research—that taking challenging coursework benefits kids even if they struggle with the material. Twenty years ago, Mathews wrote, “An exhaustive study by the U.S. Education Department shows that students who take AP, IB, or honors courses in high school, even if they struggle and get disappointing grades, are more likely to graduate from college than those who don’t.”
- To be sure, we probably are encouraging too many kids to sign up for AP courses who aren’t remotely ready to succeed in them. But that impulse comes from a good place. The alternative is to go back to the days when high school counselors served as gatekeepers and tended to assume that “certain kids” weren’t a good fit for AP and the like—kids who were more likely to be low-income, Black, and Hispanic. That’s the moral hazard—that if we try to limit advanced courses (and frankly, college itself) only to kids who have a decent shot at success, we’ll slam the door shut on some kids, especially low-income kids and kids of color, who could do great.
- A concrete step high schools could take immediately is to use the PSAT (another College Board product!) or a similar exam as a “universal screen” to determine which students are likely to succeed in AP. Hit a certain score, and students should be automatically enrolled in those classes. Kids who are close—on the bubble—should be encouraged to do so, too. Those who are far from the mark should not be. But let’s be clear about the implications of that policy, as well as Goldstein’s framing in the Times: Given the achievement gap, they would widen the racial and class disparities in advanced course-taking—the very disparities that so many in the Biden administration and elsewhere were wringing their hands about last week.
- The College Board deserves great credit in maintaining the high standards of the AP program—and especially AP exams—even as it has significantly expanded the number of low-income students participating in the program—a seven-fold increase over the past twenty years! There could have been a great temptation to subtly lower the standards so that it became easier to score a 3, 4, or 5 as less-well-prepared students flooded into the courses. There’s no sign of that happening. At a time of rampant grade inflation and lowering standards across the board, this is impressive.
- Indeed, one passage from the article makes me more dubious of IB and more confident in AP, even though its intention was the other way around: “Some studies have shown that competitors may get better results. A federal analysis comparing Advanced Placement with the International Baccalaureate program found that in 2014, 61 percent of IB students from low-income families earned high enough scores to earn college credit, compared with 39 percent of AP students from low-income families. The final scores for IB, unlike the vast majority of AP courses, are partially determined by projects and presentations.” I can’t help but wonder whether IB’s more subjective system makes it easier to engage in grade inflation—and the soft bigotry of low expectations.
- Or compare AP’s rigor to its major competitor: dual enrollment. In many states, high school students can take college courses at public expense, and earn college credits that much transfer to public universities. By some counts, these courses now make up 20 percent of community college enrollment, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet there’s virtually no quality control. Unlike in the AP program, students don’t have to demonstrate mastery of the material. It’s up to individual teachers to decide whether students have earned a passing grade and, therefore, college credit. Yet most of the courses are taught by high school teachers on high school campuses, raising questions about whether the classes are really college-level. Rather than give it a pass, the Times should set its sights on dual enrollment next!
- If we want to expand access to advanced coursework and help students succeed once enrolled, we need to build a pipeline of kids ready to succeed in advanced learning, starting in kindergarten. The National Working Group on Advanced Education identified dozens of strategies for doing exactly that, and everyone involved in this debate, from Secretary Cardona to the College Board, should read the report and invest in putting its ideas into practice. No later than third grade, we should use tests to identify kids—including and especially low-income kids and kids of color—who have great academic aptitude. And then we should make sure their elementary schools offer them advanced learning opportunities so they gain momentum toward taking and succeeding in advanced courses in middle school and high school.
As with other reforms of the past two decades, from No Child Left Behind to Common Core to charter schools, journalists are putting AP under the microscope. That’s all well and good, but I suspect that posterity (and rigorous research) will eventually show that, while imperfect, the massive expansion of AP to many more low-income students did lots less harm than good. It’s too bad that the Times’s “first draft of history” didn’t offer a more balanced look.