Reading & Reacting: Advanced Placement classes failing students

By Stephanie Simon @ Advanced Placement classes failing students – Stephanie Simon –

While I think this article has some flaws, I wish there were more articles taking a critical look at the College Board and its growing margins and power in the education community, especially in light of their new CEO David Coleman, who incidentally lead the development of the English/Language Arts Common Core. Here Simon shows how Advanced Placement course enrollment and testing is on the rise, as is the number of students failing the end-of-course exam.

The article definitely looks at the amount of money being spent on the exams with dour eye.

Enrollment in AP classes has soared. But data analyzed by POLITICO shows that the number of kids who bomb the AP exams is growing even more rapidly. The class of 2012, for instance, failed nearly 1.3 million AP exams during their high school careers. That’s a lot of time and money down the drain; research shows that students don’t reap any measurable benefit from AP classes unless they do well enough to pass the $89 end-of-course exam.

Even the measurable benefits of passing are increasingly diminishing, which only gets passing nod. Dartmouth College is cited as one of a growing number of colleges and universities that are no balking at giving college credit for the courses, the benefit primarily marketed.

What is interesting is when the article provides the kind of context that calls the whole high standards movement into question.

The trend challenges a widespread philosophy that students exposed to higher standards will find a way to meet them. Graded in part by college professors, AP exams provide a fairly objective measure of performance — and the results suggest that when the bar is raised too high, a good number of students trip.

When considered in connection with the recent New York State exams, albeit a different test administered for different a purpose, the issue becomes a little more stark. Having high expectations and high standards is one thing, but setting kids up to fail is another entirely. Everyone has heard the folktale of throwing a kid being thrown into the deep end to learn how to swim, but who would be willing to let that same kid drown? There are better methods of educating someone than pitting them against immediately unachievable obstacle.

Despite highlighting that there is now correlation between AP and greater success in college, I wish that the article would have gone further on this front. Sadly, the only real classroom sources comes from a network of charter schools, which is pretty lazy reporting, in my opinion. Also, while there is discussion of the dubious economic incentives, at various levels, that exist to drive more AP enrollment, there is next to nothing about what compels students to take the courses, things like weighted grade points, counselors looking at appearances for college applications, and the general belief that these courses are somehow better because there is a standardized test at the end of the course. The last point is the most suspect of all.

This is not to say that there are not really good AP courses. Additionally, there are a lot of good strategies associated with AP and Pre-Ap coursework. Having done the training for the AP Language and Composition course, I can honestly say that it has a lot to offer, although much of it can be taught in other contexts as well.

However, what I find most alarming is how much influence the College Board can have on schools, especially in light of how scant the evidence is in support of its genuine benefits. The truth is that, while a non-profit, the College Board has become a cash machine that will continue to wield power and influence over how students are educated at the secondary level, which is the part that I find most concerning.

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2 thoughts on “Reading & Reacting: Advanced Placement classes failing students

  1. George DeMarse

    The correlation between taking AP classes and higher success rates in college is just that: a mathematical correlation. They interpret a statistically meaningful correlation as a cause and effect relationship, and that’s a poor use of mathematics.

    But then again, most AP takers don’t pass the end of course exam–so the experience is debatable regarding how much these students really absorb.

    To some, just “exposure” to rigorous course work will generate more success in college. But then again, failing the end of course exam must just generate negativity to rigorous course work and the painful college entrance process.

    The Sage of Wake Forest

    1. Fred Haas - @akh003 Post author

      George, the Sage of Wake Forest:

      First, thanks for taking the time to read and respond, I appreciate your thoughts.

      I couldn’t agree with you more on the correlation being dubiously used as a causal relationship, and I like how cleanly you stated that. I wouldn’t have confidently made the statement “poor use of mathematics” as emphatically as you, but you are correct. Then again, I jokingly tell my students there is a reason I teach English.

      Still, I wish there would be more reporting on the College Board and Advanced Placement programs. With all the ratings schemes using it as a metric, I feel like it gets a free pass and seal of approval which is not necessarily earned or even valid.



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