The Two Worlds of Advanced Placement

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 7, 2008; 7:07 AM

Arguing about Advanced Placement, the college-level program found in most U.S. high schools, can be confusing. Some critics say AP courses and tests, like the similar but smaller International Baccalaureate and Cambridge programs, are too deep for most high school students. Other critics say they are too shallow. Some say AP teachers follow a boring, trivia-filled script. Others say AP teachers are the most creative and engaging instructors they know.

Two well-crafted op-ed pieces, by Chicago high school student Tom Stanley-Becker in the Los Angeles Times and by Stanford University graduate fellow Jack Schneider in the Christian Science Monitor, have recently illuminated this split. They point toward a more intelligent way of seeing AP and other college-level high school courses as a useful whole, rather than as large and clumsy devices with contrary parts.

Schneider's May 28 piece was friendly to AP. Stanley-Becker's May 8 piece was not. Schneider said the rejection of AP by some prestigious, affluent high schools was "a blow to public education" because it demeaned the success many ordinary high schools are having introducing low-income students to the excitement of college learning through AP. The anti-AP movement in schools like Scarsdale High in Westchester County, N.Y., and the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, Calif., is "a shame," Schneider wrote. "Not because the AP program is particularly special, but because for a moment it provided a glimmer of hope: that public education, particularly in urban areas, was not solely the reserve of those with many other options."

Stanley-Becker, on the other hand, endorsed moving away from AP. He declared himself "an AP dropout" because he decided not to take the final exam in his AP U.S. history course at the University of Chicago's University High School. Most schools, including his, don't require students to take final AP exams, because they are scored by outside experts whose grades don't come back until July, long after school report cards have been issued. Stanley-Becker, a rising senior, indicated he skipped the exam in part to protest the need for "brute memorization" and the lack of time for reflection and analysis in the course. "In class," he wrote, "we cannot stray from the AP regime. A few weeks ago, we were rushing through the 1960s with lightning speed. The Vietnam War is a fog. Somehow the New Frontier turned into the Great Society, which I always confuse with the New Freedom, the New Nationalism and the New Federalism. And what does CORE stand for?"

These are the two worlds of AP. In one world are schools that see the college-level courses and three-hour exams as engaging exercises that allow great teachers to set high standards of thought and analysis for all students, building the academic muscles they will need for college. In the other world are schools that consider AP a popular way to impress top-tier colleges with the shiny transcripts and high scores of their most ambitious students, like Stanley-Becker, but not appropriate for disadvantaged students who would be lucky to get into any college at all.

The two worlds often overlap. There are some affluent private and public schools that believe AP is for all students and insist on creative, thoughtful teaching, not the forced march to the exam described by Stanley-Becker. There are many schools with mostly average, medium-income students that only allow their A students to take AP and let their teachers turn the courses into mind-numbing memorization drills. You can find teachers with very different attitudes toward AP, as well as IB or Cambridge, in the same school.

But usually, the two sides remain in their own worlds. They don't talk to each other. Misconceptions spread and grow. This is evident in the two op-eds. Schneider, for instance, said AP has begun "to decline in prestige" because some affluent schools are moving away from it, but this seems unlikely, particularly in the 90 percent of American high schools where the best students aspire not to Harvard, but to their state's leading public universities. AP is the fastest-growing high school program in the country, a sign of growing, not declining, prestige -- except of course in neighborhoods full of million-dollar homes where anything embraced by the masses is immediately suspect.

Schneider accurately counts the 58 public and private high schools listed on the "Excellence Without AP" Web site that are "rethinking their relationship with the AP program." But he fails to point out how small and inconsequential they are, being almost all tiny and expensive.

Stanley-Becker also betrays a skewed view of reality. He cites an erroneous report that since 2006 more than 2,000 high schools "have dropped the AP curriculum to march to their own drummers," when the total of AP schools is actually growing rapidly -- up 4.7 percent last year, the biggest one-year gain ever. The 58 names of dissident schools provided by Excellence Without AP is a much more accurate figure of how many schools have turned against the program, and in all but three cases many of their students still take the AP tests.

The saddest part of Stanley-Becker's piece, at least for me, is his assumption that his apparently poorly taught history course was typical--indeed a model--of all AP courses. If he had a chance to visit more classrooms and more schools he would discover, as I have the last 25 years, that AP teachers are usually the best of the breed, and are as disdainful of drilling and killing as Stanley-Becker is. They know that the free response questions, which require critical thinking and analysis, are the core of most AP exams. Do well on them and you get the top grade, a 5, even if you miss most of the multiple-choice questions.

On May 13 the LA Times offered reactions to Stanley-Becker's piece, with many descriptions of enriching AP experiences. Brian Wolf, a rising senior at Oakwood High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif., said in his AP history course "we were even able to have discussions on the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen and Madonna for comparison to the materialistic age of the 1980s." Sean Laguna, a high school student in Orange, Calif., said his AP history course "did not require brute memorization, but a cognitive, constantly changing perception of events, causes, and effects from the past."

As usual, it comes down to good teaching. One world of AP has it. The other does not. But the best teachers I know say AP, and similar college-level courses, help them raise the level of instruction by giving them political clout and prestige that frustrate the dumbing-down pressures with which most teachers are too familiar. Hopefully, as they spread the word that rigorous courses don't have to be dull, the two worlds will become one, full of great teachers who know how thrilling it can be to show teenagers what college will be like.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company