Who should take AP?

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post and Checker Finn of Fordham Foundation debate: Is AP Good for Everyone?

Mathews: Without IB or AP exams that cannot be dumbed down, high school classes fail to challenge over the long haul. Maybe in a decade or two we will fix that, but we will have failed in the meantime another generation. I am surprised that your talent for detecting nonsense did not react to the dismissive reference to: “big enrollment bulges [which] occur in what these teachers characterized as the easy AP courses (e.g. psychology, human geography).” These teachers are saying, in essence, that it is bad to encourage an average student to take even a relatively easy college intro course in high school. . . . These are the same courses they would get as college freshmen, but in topics that interest them and can make high school a much more invigorating place. . . .

Finn: That’s like saying everyone should concentrate on eating dessert because we can’t figure out how to serve palatable vegetables, meats and fruits. You are, in effect, giving up on the entire high school curriculum except AP and IB.

I basically side with Mathews, but I’m concerned about schools dumbing down AP classes by ignoring low pass rates on the exam — are the A and B students getting 1’s and 2’s? — or by letting students skip the AP exam.

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  1. I am not a huge AP in general — a mile wide and an inch deep. I’d rather have my child enrolled in Middle College (cross-enrolled at a highschool & local community college).

    I am more impressed by the IB curriculum.

    I’d like to hear from some college professors on the value of AP: are they, on the whole, really equivalent to college-level courses?

  2. I like the idea of AP and external tests that can’t be dumbed down.

    But the courses in AP lit and composition seem somewhat irrelevant except for students planning on being English majors, which, I believe, few are, because English literature as a discipline has turned sharply left into irrelevance as well. The two phenomena are related.

  3. Micheal Umphrey,

    You may be onto something about English as a discipline, but your info about AP English seems a little off.

    It’s true that the one AP English Lit course is heavy on traditional literary study and might be best for students who will go on to be lit majors, but the AP English Language course is pretty different and would give a kid a solid foundation in argumentative writing and the use of rhetoric and evidence. It’s a lot broader than the AP English Lit class.

  4. Andromeda says:

    Liz: I’m not a college professor, but I think colleges already are expressing their opinions about the equivalence of AP programs by their credit policies. The cutoff scores for which you get credit, and the tests accepted, vary by college. (For instance, my college would give you credit only for a 5 on the BC calc test, because it didn’t consider the other APs to be equivalent. I think they were sometimes right and sometimes wrong on this — I found my APs were very good preparation for, but not as in-depth as, some of my courses, so they were right not to give me credit; others I really would have been better off if they’d given me credit (or at least placement) for the score, because I didn’t get anything out of the college versions.)

  5. are the A and B students getting 1’s and 2’s?

    Is this a joke? Yes, of course they are. That’s if they are taking the test at all. There is absolutely no correlation between grades and test performance.

    AP has contributed to grade inflation in a profoundly uneven manner. It allows basically illiterate kids to have 4.3 GPAs in low income schools, and it allows generally inadequate students to get 4.3s while not passing the test, whereas kids who aren’t as diligent at pleasing the teachers get 4s and 5s on the test but Bs or even Cs in the courses.

    This happens constantly. Grades are a fraud. And why it is that so many people are AP shills without knowing this is more than I can figure.

  6. Cal, in the interests of disclosure, I teach AP Lang and Comp, and while there is not a 100% correlation between grades and AP scores, there is a strong linkage nevertheless. I’m not sure I understand your reasoning about how “AP has contributed to grade inflation.” Though I am deeply concerned that packing unqualified students into AP students will result in the watering-down of the curriculum, let me assure you that the curriculum was watery already, and that if anything, the need to “teach to the test” is the very quality that will possibly prevent or at least retard the further dumbing-down of class content when few other things will.

  7. The idea that AP, (I don’t have a lot of experience with IB) is for everyone is somewhat ludicrous. I am pretty sure that AP courses are supposed to mirror first year college courses. Saying that AP courses are for everyone is like saying that everyone should skip high school and go to college. High school classes should be easier than a college courses, so in that sense they should be “dumbed down” versions of college courses. It doesn’t make sense, there is a logical absurdity to the argument that AP is everyone. Let’s give AP courses to 5th graders, that way they won’t have to deal with dumb downed fifth grade tests. Classes do need to have rigorous goals, and those need to be explained to everyone from the outset, but not every (or even any) high school course needs to be given at a college level.