Why push AP so hard?

I realize that this post might seem like a bit of a contradiction, given my railing against the dumbing down of AP exams (or at least AP Comp) in my previous post, but even assuming that some of the exams are easier than they were, say, ten or fifteen years ago, they’re still not all that easy.

The more time I spend tutoring AP exams — or, should I say, the more time I spend tutoring people who are seriously underprepared for AP exams — the more I wonder why everyone (read: the College Board) is so obsessed with promoting AP exams, and worse, why schools are being ranked according to a formula that weights the number of AP exams taken by students more heavily than the students’ actual grades on those exams.

Part of the answer is of course economic: at $87 a pop, those exams are a virtual gold-mine. Sure there a fee-waivers, but most of the kids taking those tests in the first place are middle- to upper-middle class. The number of kids who get granted waivers is minuscule in proportion. Furthermore, the College Board does not pay outside proctors to administer the exams. Teachers themselves are responsible for administering them during school hours (and for dealing with all the ensuing hassles). The College Board sits back, does nothing, and collects the cash. It’s a pretty good deal.

On a less cynical note, I understand the argument that students achieve at a higher level just by being exposed to AP-level material, even if they don’t achieve passing grades, but unfortunately, that’s not what I observe. What I do observe is kids who don’t yet possess the necessary intellectual maturity being forced to cram huge amounts of information down their throats and regurgitate it back without any true understanding or ability to analyze it, then forgetting it the instant the exam is over.

I would go so far as to argue that sometimes they actually learn less in some AP classes than they would in a regular class. Just sticking the “AP” level on a class does not mean that it’s anything of the sort, and simply taking an AP class does not indicate that someone is even remotely ready to do college-level work. When a student who’s taken a year of “AP English” at a top-ranked public school tells you that she’s not really sure what rhetoric is, that’s not a good sign. One sophomore who told me she was praying for a 2 (!) on the AP World History exam told me that more than anything, she was sorry that she hadn’t learned anything the entire year. Her review sheets consisted of pages and pages of terms and definitions, grouped by very general era but otherwise entirely unrelated — not exactly an ideal way to achieve a coherent understanding of anything.

Yes, I understand that presenting a couple of personal anecdotes does not a comprehensive critique make, but at this point I’ve spent enough time with drilling basics that should be a given for an AP student, not to mention encountering students (over and over again) who just don’t have enough academic experience or cultural context to really understand what they’re being asked, to wonder how beneficial the push for everyone to take AP classes is.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to suggest that the program doesn’t have a good deal of merit when students are genuinely prepared to tackle the work, and when their teachers are not pressured by their administrations too spend all their time on test-prep. But fifteen year-olds are, well, fifteen, not eighteen or nineteen, and that in the long run, they’ll be better served by mastering the fundamentals of English and History and everything else before they try to tackle more advanced work. Presumably, that’s the whole point of high school.