The Triumph of Advanced Placement

How Trevor Packer made AP a powerful — and controversial — force in American education
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Photos by Rick Wenner

One night in May 1986, Trevor Packer’s mother received a phone call from his high school principal. The boy had failed to sign up for the college-level Advanced Placement European history exam the next day, and the principal wondered why he wasn’t going to take it.

Packer had studied diligently in that AP course, but the 16-year-old knew that with a modest income and nine children, his parents couldn’t afford the test fee of $47. He hadn’t even bothered to ask them for the money.

The principal told his mother that if he got a good score on the test, he would earn credit for that course in college. Packer’s mother remembered disliking the huge freshman classes she’d taken at Brigham Young University, with no meaningful contact with professors. If $47 could spare her son some of that, it was worth it. She wrote the check, and after a panicked evening of cramming for the unexpected challenge, Packer took the test.

Thirty years later, due to a string of unlikely events, Packer is national director of the AP program and determined to make its fruits accessible to kids from modest backgrounds like his own. A scholarly, mild-mannered 48-year-old, Packer is pretty much unknown outside the world of AP. This is the first published article about him and his life. But he has fans. Tens of thousands of teenagers follow him on Twitter. He is the fabled bookworm emperor of AP Land. To his young admirers he is not Mr. Packer, but @AP_Trevor. He is also — along with the late Jaime Escalante, the East Los Angeles math teacher who was the subject of the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver” — the man most responsible for making the Advanced Placement program the most powerful educational tool in the country. And his leadership is a critical factor at a time when AP is both undergoing rapid expansion and facing criticism and nascent challenges.

About 16,000 public and private schools offer AP courses. The public schools with AP educate 89 percent of all public high-schoolers. But some educators at private institutions think that a program this popular can’t be right for their students. In 2013, Dartmouth College announced that it would no longer give incoming students credit toward graduation for high school AP courses. And earlier this year, seven Washington-area prep schools said they would be eliminating AP courses from their curriculums.

Some might see these moves as a threat to AP’s foothold, but so far they’ve had little effect on the program’s continuing growth. The reality is that many elite college educators have little contact with the public high schools where AP is booming. They don’t appear to know much about the students from low-income families pouring into AP classes. Most of all, they don’t know Trevor Packer.

Trevor Packer has been director of the College Board’s Advanced Placement program since 2003.

Packer’s official title is College Board senior vice president for Advanced Placement and instruction. He’s an atypical education mogul. He once taught freshman college English but never a high school class. He has a longtime girlfriend but has never married and has no children, although he does have 23 nieces and nephews. He is an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving as Sunday school teacher at his congregation in Manhattan.

A dynamo in pursuing his objectives, Packer has built an army of inspired teachers that has grown from about 87,000 when he took over 15 years ago to 165,000 today. But his main focus has been opening AP to participation by students from disadvantaged families. “When I started as head of AP in 2003, one in 10 kids in AP classrooms were low-income,” he says. “Now it’s one in five. … I love that. That is the stuff that makes me happiest.”

In 2003, 95,065 students from low-income families took an AP exam. By this year, that number had jumped to 608,707, a 540 percent increase. The portion of low-income test takers increased from 9 percent to 22 percent. Often, the addition of so many impoverished participants causes average standardized test scores to drop, but the average AP score has remained fairly stable and was higher in 2018 than it was a decade ago, when more than 1 million fewer students took the tests.

The movement to unleash the potential of impoverished American teenagers through AP began with Escalante’s 1987 miracle. That year, his big barrio school, Garfield High in East Los Angeles, produced 27 percent of all the Mexican American students in the United States who passed an AP calculus exam. Escalante had solidified his reputation as a fine teacher despite accusations that his students had cheated on an AP test in 1982 — the subject of the movie. But the results of the 1987 tests, which had no irregularities, were astounding.

“When I started as head of AP in 2003, one in 10 kids in AP classrooms were low-income,” Packer says. “Now it’s one in five. ... I love that. That is the stuff that makes me happiest.”

Escalante is Packer’s hero, though they never met before Escalante’s death in 2010. Their only similarities — other than devotion to AP — are that both spent their early years in lakeside towns on mountain plateaus (Escalante’s Bolivian hometown, Achacachi, is much higher than Provo, Utah) and were the sons of educators who had little money.

Packer grew up in a family that took religion seriously. His father, Rand, worked for the Church Educational System of the Mormon Church. He set up and taught after-school Bible classes, preparing his students for missions, once they turned 19, to bring the Book of Mormon to the world.

Rand met his wife, Shirlee, in high school; he was football captain and she head cheerleader. They lived in a one-story house in Provo with a master bedroom and two other bedrooms stuffed with bunk beds. Rand eventually built three more bedrooms.

The nine siblings in birth order were Trevor, Cam, Chip, Spencer, Matt, Tiffany, TJ, Shalayne and CeLisa. The family qualified for the federal free school lunch program, but after trying it for a few weeks, Packer’s parents decided that they didn’t want to take government handouts. Shirlee read to the children every night. Packer remembers how he and his rough-and-tumble brothers cried their eyes out during the final chapters of Wilson Rawls’s “Where the Red Fern Grows” while sitting on the floor between their bunk beds. Packer was reading before he was 5 and always had a book with him. “When he was born, I filled his crib with every kind and shape of ball from the world of sports, but to no avail,” Rand told me.

Packer did well in elementary school, but in middle school his grades slipped. His mother disapproved of his neglect of homework in favor of video games and Dungeons & Dragons, so she got him a job cleaning toilets at a school. He decided that doing homework was better. His 10th-grade AP European history teacher showed him how to analyze facts, not just memorize them. Packer got a 3 on that AP European history test he finally took. “I was ecstatic,” he recalls. He was going to get college credit. (AP exams, usually given in May, are scored on a five-point system. A 5 is the equivalent of a strong college A, based on how volunteer college students perform on the AP compared with their college intro course grade. A 4 is a strong college B, 3 a strong college C, 2 a D, and 1 an F.)

By senior year he was cruising. His AP test scores were 5 in English literature (his true love), 4 in U.S. history, 4 in German and 4 in biology. As he approached graduation — he would be valedictorian — he had another thrill, courtesy of Warner Bros. He picked up his friend Parl Johnson in the family’s green Gran Torino station wagon and went to see “Stand and Deliver.” “I thought it was so cool that we were in AP calculus and there was a movie about kids taking AP calculus,” he remembers.

Shortly after enrolling at BYU in Provo, where he had a full scholarship, Packer turned 19 and went off on his mission. He was facing two years without movies or TV, or any books except those approved by the church. At least, he thought, he would see the world. His father had gone to New Zealand and his grandfather to Tasmania. Later, his siblings would do mission work in Okinawa, Russia and Venezuela. Packer was assigned to Milwaukee. It was a letdown, but like many shy young Mormons, he says, “I came to appreciate the diversity of perspectives I encountered, even if never enjoying knocking on strangers’ doors from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.”

Back at BYU, he dove into English literature, envisioning a future as a scholar and professor. After graduating, he stayed in Provo waiting for the return of the young woman he planned to marry, who was then on a mission to Russia. It didn’t surprise friends that he passed the time by getting a master’s degree in English. When the romance didn’t work out, he moved to New York to get a PhD. He had an idea for a sensational doctoral thesis about Virginia Woolf and the Pre-Raphaelites. He had detected a code in “Mrs. Dalloway” that he was sure no one else had discovered.

But he had to support himself. A temp agency sent him to the College Board, where the five-person AP office needed a gofer. The staff discovered that Packer was not only smart and easygoing, but could do almost anything. When it came time to leave the job in 1999 and give his dissertation his full attention, he felt obliged to share with his employers what he had learned. In his parting memo, Packer told then-AP director Lee Jones that many schools weren’t getting their exams on time. They weren’t being told enough about AP credit policies at colleges. AP teachers had no way of making direct contact with the AP office, which they saw as a mysterious bastion. The form that schools had to fill out to pay for their tests was more complicated than any IRS table Packer had ever seen.

Jones read the memo, realized its implications, grabbed the author and told him he couldn’t leave. “You are the only person here who seems to have any sort of strategic recommendations about what we should be doing,” Packer recalls Jones telling him. Jones offered him the title of assistant director of operations and $47,000 a year, a fortune in Packer’s eyes. He said yes. When Jones left to become president of Riverside Publishing in 2003, Packer became AP director. He was 33, thrilled to have so much work to do.

Packer’s Effect

Teachers said that the multiple-choice questions, about half of a typical AP exam, were crippling them and their students. Trevor Packer’s team cut the number of topics on multiple-choice exams by more than half and let teachers know which ones would still be on the test. They eliminated all items relying on factual recall alone. Questions such as this example from an AP biology test require a mathematical answer derived from students’ examination of lab data, scientific evidence and models of scientific concepts.

One of the least understood sources of AP’s power is an unusual feature: Along with the much smaller International Baccalaureate and Cambridge programs, they are the only challenging high school courses in which the final exams are never written or graded by the students’ teachers. Professors write the AP exams to mimic the introductory course finals at colleges and universities. The free response, or essay, questions are graded at rollicking nerd-fests with the scholarly title of “readings.” They occur at convention centers in Tampa, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City and Kansas City, Mo., in early June. Professors and veteran AP teachers, called readers, work at big tables and compare notes on grading guidelines.

High school teachers writing and grading their own exams have the power to make their questions easier and their grading more generous to prevent complaints from parents and students. Principals often try to mediate disputes, which nearly always leads to grade inflation. That can’t happen with AP. Readers don’t know the names or schools of the students they grade.

College admissions officers realized decades ago that AP’s immunity to easy grading made it ideal for telling which applicants knew the material and which were sliding through on good behavior or family connections. Applicants to selective colleges these days are told that they have little chance unless they take the most demanding courses their high school provides. In most cases that means AP. And once Escalante and others proved that even the children of day laborers could handle AP if given enough time and support, many educators began to steer as many students as they could into those courses.

As director, Packer has spent much time getting more state funding for AP and raising College Board discounts so that many low-income students pay no fees. The current full fee is $94 per test, which, with inflation factored in, is less than when he became director.

He also built a new digital infrastructure for ordering, shipping, scoring and score reporting. He established direct contact with AP teachers who previously had to communicate through their principals. This was done with a required audit — very unpopular at the time — that forced teachers to tell Packer’s team what they were teaching and how to reach them. That allowed the AP staff to make sure principals were supplying the necessary textbooks and lab equipment, and to kill unsanctioned rogue courses like AP astronomy or, my favorite, AP journalism.

He acknowledges making some mistakes, particularly in his early years. He didn’t spend enough time helping struggling staffers find ways to handle their work. He put too much trust in course content committees that let professorial courtesy get in the way of knocking down bad ideas. But he’s very happy with one of his most daring early moves: He solicited complaints.

His surveys showed that many science and history teachers didn’t like the exams in their subjects. “That was painful for me,” he says. The teachers said that the multiple-choice questions, about half of a typical AP exam, were crippling them and their students, forcing them to cover too much material. They had no time for students to learn how to read documents and scientific papers and reach conclusions. Packer’s team cut the number of topics on multiple-choice exams by more than half and let teachers know which ones would still be on the test. They eliminated all items relying on factual recall alone. A question that began, “The creeping horizontal and subterranean stems of ferns are referred to as:” was gone, replaced by a table showing nucleotide differences between five new bacteria species in Antarctica and asking which of four phylogenetic trees was most consistent with the data. That’s still too hard for people like me, who haven’t read a biology text in this century. But a good teacher focusing on concepts rather than just factoids could make it work.

Meanwhile, at AP headquarters, Packer developed a reputation as the boss who never lost his gofer’s urge to please. He helped people get tickets to hot Broadway shows. He ran out to the bakery to buy cupcakes for visitors’ children. One newly hired employee found him refilling the soap dispenser in the men’s bathroom.

The impact of his enthusiasm has been even greater on teachers. AP English teacher Susan Van Doren, at tiny George Whittell High School in Zephyr Cove, Nev., also qualified to teach AP computer science. One year, she managed to get 10 girls — rare in that course — to take the exam. Nobody at her school cared. But when she told Packer at a conference about her achievement, his face revealed “this combination of delight, shock and disbelief that just thrilled me to the core,” she told me. Carlos Escobar, an AP English teacher at Felix Varela Senior High School in Miami, says that “to speak with Trevor is to speak with a friend to whom you matter wholeheartedly.”

Those feelings extend in a star-struck way to students. Stefanie Sanford, head of policy and external affairs for the College Board, recalls FaceTiming with her twin nieces when they were waiting for their AP scores. “Do you know @AP_Trevor?” they asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“You know him, like, personally?”

“Yes.”

“OMG!!” they responded.

Packer has spent time getting more state funding for AP and raising College Board discounts so that many low-income students pay no fees.

The rise in criticism of AP is not surprising to Packer. “I know some people believe I have been too aggressive about expanding AP access,” he says. The arguments against the program come from one of two directions: either the courses are too stressful — with frightening stories about studying until 2 a.m. — or they’re not up to college standards.

Filmmaker Vicki Abeles’s 2010 documentary, “Race to Nowhere,” arguing that students were overburdened by AP courses, became a big draw at parent gatherings, particularly in affluent suburbs, even though an annual UCLA survey showed that in 2015, three-fourths of 12th-graders headed for college did less than 1.5 hours of homework a night. In 2012, former AP government and politics teacher John Tierney got much attention for his Atlantic article, “AP Classes Are a Scam.” He wrote, “AP courses are not, in fact, remotely equivalent to the college-level courses they are said to approximate.”

In announcing their decision to drop the program, the Washington-area private school heads also maintained that college courses “look nothing like AP courses.” Like Tierney, they seem unaware that more than 5,000 college faculty have checked AP syllabi or graded AP exams to ensure that they are just like college intro courses. Almost all colleges give credit or access to higher courses for good scores on these exams.

To agree with Tierney’s assertion that AP is a scam, says Packer, “one must have low esteem for the critical thinking skills of American educators.” As for the private schools, when they “choose to make statements about AP that aren’t true, we must cry foul.” And to those who worry about students overloading on AP courses, “the data show that’s a comparatively small issue,” Packer says, “in comparison to the much greater issue of most American high school students not even gaining access to a single AP course before entering college or the workforce.”

The rise in criticism of AP is not surprising to Packer. “I know some people believe I have been too aggressive about expanding AP access,” he says.

The most puzzling attacks have come from professors at elite colleges. After the Dartmouth faculty announced that the college would drop all course credits toward graduation for AP, IB and Cambridge exams, Hakan Tell, a classics professor who headed the committee on instruction, said he did not know of a 2007 study by testing experts Rick Morgan and John Klaric that found college students who had scored 3 or above on most subjects did better in the next-level course than those who had taken their college’s intro course. The researchers studied 27 highly selective colleges, including Dartmouth. The Dartmouth faculty had apparently made their decision based on their own sense that AP courses couldn’t rise to the level of the college’s courses, not on research.

In 2014, Christopher Dennis, deputy dean of the college at Brown University, expressed concern to the Brown Daily Herald over the quality of AP. “Now almost everybody is offering AP,” he said. “It’s getting harder to sort out what are quality programs.” I wondered: Why not look at the test results? The readers who are grading exams from Exeter and Andover academies, both prestigious original AP schools, are the same people who grade exams from newer AP programs in South Los Angelesand South Side Chicago. High scores from those inner-city schools are as good as those earned in leafy New England prep schools.

Packer has had positive news lately. A Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study revealed that AP calculus classrooms are more likely to have Hispanic and black students and students with parents who lack high school and college diplomas than other calculus classrooms. And those students far exceeded the international competition in calculus, while non-AP calculus students — less diverse with better-educated parents — performed less well. The difference seemed to be that AP calculus classrooms required an average of two more hours of calculus work per week. Escalante had been right: More time can improve learning, even for children of dropouts.

After the Dartmouth announcement, Packer decided he should do more to educate colleges on AP, so his team organized the annual AP Faculty Colloquia. “We pull together the department chairs of the top 100 selective institutions that receive AP scores and we bring them together for a weekend,” Packer says. “Our hypothesis is, familiarity will breed respect, not contempt.”

“We give them time to look at the exams and give us feedback on the questions,” he says. The participants are surveyed. Almost all, he says, come away saying that “these exam questions are so much more challenging than we were expecting. They say: How can we get ahold of these? Can we give these to our graduate students to use in our freshman classes?” They also gave high ratings to the AP teacher demonstrations at the colloquia.

Meanwhile, Packer looks forward to the AP readings in June. The work at these gatherings is hard, but the atmosphere is loose, resembling a late spring blend of family reunion, trivia competition and dentist convention. The participants entertain themselves with eye-catching student answers displayed on big white sheets in the hall. Examples: “In the War of 1812, tanks helped the North beat the South.” Or, “The Enlightenment had many great thinkers, none of which come to mind currently.”

Packer loves the readings. During meals he sits down with teachers and professors he has never met. “They just assume I’m another Reader, and it’s a great way to hear unvarnished feedback on their experiences,” he says, giving the graders’ title a respectful capital R in an email to me.

Some, of course, do recognize him. He is, after all, @AP_Trevor — an educational celebrity of sorts who’s come a long way since his mom was willing to risk $47 on his future.

Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education columnist, has written three books about Advanced Placement.

Credits: Story by Jay Mathews. Photos by Rick Wenner. Designed by Christian Font. Illustrated by Delcan & Company.