To AP or not to AP: That is the Question

About a decade ago, as a financially struggling graduate student, I jumped at the opportunity to spend a week grading Advanced Placement (AP) exams for a few extra bucks. For six days, eight hours a day, the dozens of other exam readers and I graded thousands of tests. It was a rather eye-opening, and eye-straining, experience. Broken into teams, we were assigned a table leader who encouraged us and spot-checked our work. Based on a rubric of key words and concepts to look for, we would score each essay. It was an interesting job to say the least. Prior to that, my experience with AP was rather limited. I knew what it was, but when I was in high school in the mid-1990s, AP exams and courses were not nearly as popular as they are today. Plus, I lived in a rural community, and my high school did not offer AP courses. So I really didn’t know what to expect when I went to what I might call grade-o-palooza that summer.

The actual value of AP courses is hotly debated, as evidenced by the fact that a five-year-old piece in the Atlantic on the topic has been making the social media rounds again this spring. The article’s author, AP Government teacher John Tierney, writes that “AP classes are a scam.” He cites a number of reasons for this declaration: AP courses do not approximate college-level courses, that the required content of an AP course downplays creativity, and that AP programs further disadvantage those unable to participate – namely low-income and minority populations.

Though Tierney was writing five years ago, his critiques are still relevant. The latter in particular – that low-income students could be disadvantaged – is currently poised to become an even larger issue. Since the late 1990s, the Department of Education has funded the Advanced Placement Fee Waiver Program, significantly subsidizing the cost of AP exams for low-income students. And it’s meeting its goal: evidence shows that over the past decade or so more economically disadvantaged students are taking AP courses and passing them. In 2016 alone, almost $30 million was spent to assist students with test fees. However, this is about to change with the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015. Funds will still be available under the Act, but they will no longer be specifically dedicated to subsidizing AP exam fees, and school districts, not states, will apply for the funding. Some states may still opt to cover these costs, but others will not. This means that for high-need students, costs could increase from around $10 to more than $50 per exam.

Those who view AP exams as useless exercises may welcome this as good news, as funds will be available for other uses. Yet it’s not that simple. Although the purported goal of AP courses is to prepare students for college classes, with many colleges and universities accepting AP exams as a way to “test out” of introductory courses, parents see AP exams as an opportunity to save money in a time of increasing college tuition costs. By restructuring these grants, the federal government could end up putting AP courses, and by extension an affordable college education, out of reach for many low income districts and students – a situation that could throw the validity of the whole AP endeavor into question.

What do you think? Are AP courses valuable or not? Will the new grant structure further enhance the gap between prospering and struggling districts and what can be done about it?


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