A Ruthless, Useless Educational Hegemony

The last fifteen years or so of education policy in the U.S. have been a whirlwind of standardized tests. Between No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and the Every Student Succeeds Act, it’s hard to keep up with which new test or set of testing policies is in vogue. But in the meantime, Advanced Placement (AP) tests have grown immensely, quickly becoming one of the most important facets of high school education—and they seem to be here to stay.

Between 2006 and 2016, the number of students who took at least one AP class doubled, from 1.3 million to 2.6.  The total number of tests taken went from 2.3 million to 4.7 million over the same time period.  At first glance, this seems to be a positive development—more students are exposing themselves to challenging material at the high school level, and students at schools that aren’t seen as high-achieving now have the opportunity to prove their academic prowess to colleges.  But in reality, the expansion of AP classes has done little to close the achievement gap, has cost schools hundreds of millions of dollars, and has forsaken intellectual curiosity in favor of the consumption of knowledge in many classrooms—all while fiscally enriching the test’s sponsor, the College Board.

Much of the growth in AP test participation over the last 10 years has been concentrated in low-income school districts. This growth is the result of a concerted effort on the part of the College Board and policymakers, who saw the disparity in access to AP classes as unfair, particularly following a 1999 lawsuit in California in which the plaintiffs, the ACLU, argued that exact point and won. 

It’s a laudable goal—everyone should have access to a challenging education.  The issue is that it doesn’t work to put a student who has been in failing schools their whole life and has no familial educational background into a college level class and expect them to succeed.  In Washington, D.C. in 2016, at Woodson High School, four students out of 162 passed.  These numbers are consistent with other low-income schools and school districts across the country.

Supporters of AP test expansion would argue that there’s nothing wrong with students taking an AP class and failing the test. They’re still exposed to challenging material and studies have shown that failing an AP test doesn’t discourage a student from taking more. I would agree, except for the fact that school districts have already put much of their scarce money into expanding AP, expecting positive results. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised that all public high schools will offer at least five AP classes by 2021—to the tune of $41.5 million. The 2017 federal budget includes $400 million for block grants to subsidize AP tests.  Currently, 29 states subsidize AP tests as well. For that kind of money, just not doing anything wrong is not good enough.

Those who have taken an AP class, which I would guess includes most CC students, know that they have rigid structure designed to teach students the information needed to pass the test at the end of the year. To many teachers, this approach doesn’t allow for any intellectual exploration or the pursuit of individual interests, which is detrimental to the overall learning experience. And as AP classes begin to expand, increasingly the College Board gets to decide what’s important to know about something like World History, Literature, or Music Theory—all  AP classes. That, in and of itself, is kind of scary. 

One of the most telling things about the expansion of AP tests is that, despite their flaws, APs have become a cash cow for the College Board, earning them $408 million dollars in 2016, nearly half of their $916 million in revenue for the year. The College Board is a non-profit, but their profit last year was 8.6% of revenue, which economists say would be pretty good for a for-profit company.

AP classes are not what they’re chalked up to be, but if I was a junior in high school, even knowing what I know now, I’d still take my share of AP classes. A few high schools have considered opting out of APs and offering their own rigorous classes instead, but parents have objected, fearing that it will negatively impact their kids’ chances of getting into college, which certainly may have a grain of truth to it.

Like so many problems, the solution to this one has to be institutional.  Nothing will change until policymakers realize that there are no silver bullets to close the achievement gap and no universal fixes to the problems that plague U.S. education; that teaching kids complex subjects requires complex policy that addresses the entire spectrum of student needs; and that sometimes, teachers know best how to teach their classes. 

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