A call for legitimate discussion of the value of AP courses

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I am a high school biology teacher, whose teaching responsibilities include 4 freshman-level general biology courses and 1 AP biology section.  My grades are due in 11 hours, and I am looking at this very moment at the stack of papers on my desk that still need graded.  However, in a moment of diversion I saw an article come across my Twitter feed with a title sensational enough to catch my attention (I already feel bad for providing positive feedback for sensationalist titles).  I also feel it incumbent upon myself to respond to the writer’s itemized critique of high school AP courses due only to the conviction with which I disagree.  I hope that other teachers will add their own comments.

Here is a link to the original article in the location where I read it:  http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/ap-classes-are-a-scam/263456/

For those of you with barely the time to read my own post, let alone a second article informing this one, I provide a summary of the critique points.  I stipulate that the list is created by me, and is thus colored by my own bias.  I am including the same number of points as the original writer, John Tierney, with an attempt to maintain the spirit of each one in the summary.  I encourage you to look at the original list and compare it to my own.

AP courses are a scam because:

  1. AP courses are not equivalent to their college equivalent.  “The high-school AP course didn’t begin to hold a candle to any of my college courses.”
  2. AP courses don’t save students money.  “Increasingly, students don’t receive college credit for high scores on AP courses”
  3. Too many students take AP courses.  “the number of students taking these courses is growing by leaps and bounds. …. I would say that two thirds of the students taking my class each year did not belong there.”
  4. There aren’t enough minorities in AP courses.  “large percentages of minority students are essentially left out of the AP game.”
  5. AP courses take away resources from other classes that could be taught.  “These opportunity costs are real in every school”
  6. AP courses force the memorization of dogma and kill creativity.  “a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry.”

I take many issues with this piece.  I have re-written my initial comments three times now because it is difficult to choose which issue is most pressing.  I will attempt to keep my notes brief, because I would like the focus to be more on how to go about voicing concerns about important institutions in a constructive and well-informed manner and not on the specific misinformation printed in this particular article.

First, the general writing method of the article belies the lack of confidence in the points being raised.  The hyperbolic nature of the prose highlights the stark lack of legitimate citations or pointed critique.  A bountiful supply of critics in the popular press is given only two citations, and they are both from the same publication.  Neither presents hard data, and provide only anecdotal or survey information.  He then cites a critic in academia, which means one post to a daily online periodical about education.  Two appeals to authority, which are weak argumentation methods in the beginning, that both fall short of their names.  In the later portion of the article he cites one more organization, but only uses the organization for a sound bite and no hard information at all.  The organization, Americans for Education Testing Reform, exists only to oppose College Board.  I am not arguing against opposing College Board, but I am arguing that such a citation does little for the substance of the piece.

In direct response to his critiques of AP courses, I would offer the following:

  1. He cites nothing but his personal experience.  I will refer to the common quip, “the plural of anecdote is not data.”  I know both through my personal experience as a student and now as an instructor that without exception when AP courses have been compared to their college equivalent the AP course has always provided the more rigorous experience.  I do not advance this as data, but offer it as evidence that personal experience is not as reliable as data.  Anyone remotely competent at performing research knows a single data point does not show a trend, and I am asking the world at large for the studies that I know must exist on the subject.  (Remember that stack of grading I am neglecting?  I can only do so much tonight.)
  2. This is both a true statement and misleading.  An increase in a condition does not mean it is the majority, let alone obsolescence of the original.  Again the experience in my part of the country is that students usually do get some form of credit for their AP scores.  They can also communicate with their prospective universities and determine the eligibility of their AP scores for credit before they take them.
  3. This point, along with the next, is a critique of specific schools’ implementation of AP courses and not the courses themselves.  This problem could be true of any high level class, and is completely independent of the AP system.  Further, if two thirds of students in a teacher’s class got a test question wrong a good teacher would question either the learning experience associated with the material or the structure of the question itself.  I would argue the same should be true of the writer’s class.
  4. The only additional note I would provide regarding class demographics is that an under-representation of minorities in AP classes is directly in conflict with the College Board’s equitable access guideline included in all AP course materials.
  5. I would again ask how this is a concern unique to (and thus relevant to this discussion of) AP courses.  Aren’t opportunity costs considered when trying to provide richer and more diverse experiences for students?  Being concerned that additional courses take away the ability of schools to offer additional courses is a circular argument.  And if the argument is that AP classes are too small and thus the costs are too high, I would refer that commenter to item number 3… that AP courses are too big.
  6. This argument is the only one worth making.  College Board is currently overhauling the AP courses in an attempt to solve this problem, and only time will tell if memorization will persist as a problem in the new incarnation of the courses.  In spite of this legitimate point, I would also refer this writer to all the AP teachers who manage to preserve the wonder and excitement of their subject within the stringent curriculum structure.  One teacher’s inability to maintain creativity in AP courses does not mean it is impossible.

I offer this post in the knowledge that it is not a complete work that can end the argument.  Instead I advance this piece in the hopes that more of you will add to the discussion.  The AP format is not perfect.  However, a call for change is not the same as calling AP courses a scam.  In this scam I am robbing the students of their evening time, some of their weekends, one hour of their class schedule all year long, and enough of my personal time that my AP students last year were convinced I didn’t actually own a home but lived in the back room.  I also know that I don’t work half as hard as some of the other AP teachers in this country.  If this program is a scam, it must be the worst scam of all time…

Michael Ralph is a third year teacher in Kansas with a wealth of inexperience, just enough knowledge to be dangerous to himself and others, and a great sense of pride in the work that he may one day be good at.

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