In the summer of 2018, I was thrilled to learn that I would be teaching AP English Language and Composition starting that fall. As part of New York City’s AP for All initiative, I became one of the first two AP teachers at my small, alternative public high school.
I absolutely loved teaching “AP Lang.” I respected its content: The emphasis on rhetorical analysis reminded me of the freshman composition courses I had taught at a large public university. I also enjoyed the collaboration: AP for All training sessions brought me together with colleagues from across the city, I received classroom visits from an AP mentor teacher, and AP Lang social media groups brimmed with creative lesson ideas.
Most of all, I loved seeing the change in my AP students. Ours was a “transfer school,” meaning that all its students had attended a traditional high school for at least one year, but things hadn’t worked out there for one reason or another. As a result, many didn’t see themselves as top students—but being in AP Lang genuinely shifted their beliefs about their potential.
So you can imagine my surprise at the title of Annie Abrams’s new book, Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students. The book has already received attention from major media outlets, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Inside Higher Ed, and Forbes. Intrigued, I read up on Abrams and discovered that we have a lot in common. We both finished literature Ph.D.s in 2016, loved teaching undergraduates, and didn’t want to battle the academic job market, so we went directly to teaching in New York City public high schools. Also like me, Abrams taught AP Lang.
How could someone with such similar experiences have walked away with such a different take? I had to get my hands on a copy of the book.
Shortchanged begins in the first half of the twentieth century, offering an intellectual history of AP’s creators. The level of detail is not for the faint of heart—there are several pages just on former Harvard president James Conant’s interpretation of Jeffersonian thought—but this history becomes important to the book’s argument. AP’s founders were elitist, but they also prioritized liberal education, democracy, and teacher autonomy.
In recent years, however, contends Abrams, AP has departed from those admirable values. The second half of Shortchanged lays out a critique of twenty-first-century developments, such as curricular changes, the advent of the digital tool AP Classroom, and the expansion of AP. (In 2003, 19 percent of high school graduates took an AP exam; by 2022, that number had nearly doubled to 35 percent.) In essence, Abrams argues that, rather than meeting the College Board’s goal of democratizing AP, recent changes have intensified hierarchical divisions: between non-elite and elite schools, between high schools and colleges, and between high school teachers and college professors.
This certainly sounds alarming. And Abrams does not shy away from rhetoric that heightens this alarm. She reports that the “totalitarian structure” that is AP “infantilizes citizens while pretending to empower them,” leaves students with “mangled or hollow understandings” of course content, and “destroys divergent thinking and innovation.”
Well, yikes. Can all this really be true?
Claim 1 (non-elite versus elite): Elite colleges and high schools “have moved away from” AP, which implies that AP has decreased in quality, leaving students at non-elite schools with a lesser educational experience.
In literal terms, the first part of this claim is not entirely accurate. Some of the colleges Abrams claims don’t accept AP courses for credit actually do (yes, Harvard does give AP credit, as does MIT for AP Calculus BC). She is right that some Ivies “offer neither credit nor placement” for AP English courses, but contrary to her implication, this is not a new development in response to changes within AP (source: I enrolled as a freshman at Penn in 2005). Moreover, she doesn’t unpack the implications of AP policies at schools like Amherst, which doesn’t grant credit for AP but does allow students to skip intro courses. As others at Fordham have noted, doesn’t such a policy suggest that the AP credit indicates knowledge and skills gained, but the school doesn’t want to sacrifice the tuition that accompanies each credit?
Abrams also observes that a handful of top high schools (mostly private) have stopped teaching AP courses. True. But she interprets this decision as an indication that AP courses have dropped in quality; if Sidwell Friends doesn’t want it, then it must not be great, right? I’d urge another consideration. Elite private schools must justify exorbitant tuition fees by providing exclusive educational experiences. If high schoolers can access AP courses at their neighborhood schools for free, then why should their parents cough up over $50,000 a year for an elite school? Scarcity and exclusivity increase value, regardless of the quality of AP courses. And that’s not to mention factors like the perceived indignity of submitting a syllabus to the College Board, as Checker Finn wrote about in 2019’s Learning in the Fast Lane.
Claim 2 (high school courses versus college courses): “Looking to the rich variety in what college-level courses...challenge students to do also presents a stark foil to the College Board’s mandates.”
As Shortchanged demonstrates, AP’s creators wanted top-performing high school students to access courses representative of college coursework. Abrams argues that AP history and government courses, basically by virtue of being survey-style courses, aren’t representative of college courses, which often delve more deeply into narrower areas of study. As counterexamples, she cites top New York high school non-AP courses with titles like “Gender and Legal History” and “American Conservatism” as more aligned with this component of AP’s original mission.
Maybe. But high school isn’t college, and students need to understand the big picture in these fields before diving into details. I loved my college course on Outsiders and American Identity, but I wouldn’t have fully understood our fascinating unit on Mormon history, for example, without prior knowledge of nineteenth-century westward expansion. And while some elite high schools may pull off elective-style courses, I’d venture that their students—and those at Abrams’s own, highly selective Bronx Science—arrive with considerably more background knowledge than most. When only 22 percent of students about to enter high school are proficient in civics, and only 13 percent in history, it’s hard to argue that “New York City in Crisis” is a better bet for most high schoolers than a rigorous overview of the nation’s entire history.
Claim 3 (high school teachers versus college professors): AP “curtails teachers’ autonomy and highlights the differences between their roles and those of college instructors.”
Another of the AP founders’ goals was to foster relationships between high school teachers and college professors. Now, however, Abrams finds that AP demeans high school teachers by way of a digital resource called AP Classroom and revised course curricula. These attacks are among her fiercest, and they are also among the furthest from reality.
Rather than a mechanism for “perversely dehumaniz[ing]” the teaching profession, AP Classroom is an entirely optional resource for teachers. It features “course pacing and sequencing suggestions,” “sample optional instructional activities,” video mini-lessons, and practice exam questions (emphases mine). Honestly, that sounds pretty useful to me—and I say “sounds” because I never once opened it myself. Current AP teachers tell me they use it occasionally, maybe to pull some sample questions or to find a better way to explain a particular topic. Some teachers “unlock” Classroom so that their students can access the materials directly, and others keep it “locked” so they can pick and choose what to share with students. In other words, it’s a resource that teachers use entirely at their own discretion—much like the offline resources that the College Board has offered for decades.
For Abrams, however, AP Classroom is a particularly nefarious facet of overly prescriptive course curricula, at least in history and government. Yes, these courses include a lot of content (isn’t that a good thing?). And in the words of an AP World History teacher of over twenty years: “I have quite a bit of autonomy in how I choose to present the material.... World History is a lot of information no matter which level it is. If a person is cutting topics and regions out, then it is not World History.”
Yes, the College Board does require AP teachers to submit a syllabus, but it doesn’t have to align perfectly with the suggested course framework, nor does it have to be highly detailed. Further, the odds are good that no one from the College Board is ever going to look at any one syllabus, unless that teacher happens to get audited. And certainly, no one is pounding on the classroom door to see whether the class has completed Unit 2 on the right day. At an AP for All training, I was explicitly told that I could revise my syllabus based on student needs or interests as the course progressed.
On some level, Abrams understands that AP does not truly restrict teachers. In the epilogue to Shortchanged, she fondly recalls an interdisciplinary course she co-taught with a colleague from the history department, “an ‘alignment of AP English Language and AP US History.’” The two developed their own course, choosing their own readings, themes, and focus skills. Abrams portrays the duo as mavericks going against the grain, concluding without evidence, “In the age of AP, collaborating and innovating at the school level is a liability, not an asset.”
Why is it that Abrams was able to craft her own AP course, but she frets that other AP teachers will not be able to do so? She argues that AP should give teachers greater autonomy, but she doesn’t trust that other teachers will exercise the same autonomy that she did. This contradiction alone should give readers pause.
By no means do I think that AP programs or the College Board are above criticism. No institution is. And I agree with Abrams that the College Board’s highly concentrated power over American education is unnerving. But the critiques in Shortchanged don’t hold water. AP courses benefit many thousands of students each year; what doesn’t benefit them is fearmongering, hyperbolic allegations that AP is undermining American democracy.