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Is the College Board Mismanaging the AP Program?


The College Board AP program is commonly viewed as the gold standard of curriculum for high school students. An AP class is meant to replicate the experience of an introductory college course, and high scores on AP exams can potentially lead to college credit. Students often take AP classes to impress colleges with their academic prowess in high school. But how is the program doing overall? Are students really benefiting that much?

In this article, I'll discuss the College Board's management of the AP program over time and how its positive and negative aspects affect students nationwide.


History of the AP Program

The College Board AP program now comprises 38 courses that span a variety of different subject areas, including art, science, math, world languages and cultures, English, and the humanities. The popularity of AP classes and exams has grown rapidly over time. More than 5 million AP tests were administered in 2019 to 2.8 million students at 22,678 schools across the country.

The program began in the 1950s following concerns about the transition between high school and college-level work. Several studies were conducted through the Fund for the Advancement of Education, which recommended that high schools and colleges work together to avoid repeating coursework and allow high school students to advance more quickly when appropriate. It was suggested that exams be administered that would give students the ability to earn college credit while still in high school.

A study by a group called the Committee on Admission with Advanced Standing devised a plan for high schools to implement a college-level curriculum in certain classes. Educators and administrators from colleges were recruited to help with the formulation of appropriate standards that colleges would deem acceptable as a basis for granting credit to high school students.

The first AP pilot program began in 1952 with courses in 11 different subjects. In the school year of 1955-56, the College Board took over the administration of the program, and it was officially named the College Board Advanced Placement Program. In the 1960s, the College Board expanded the mission of the program to include teacher training for AP classes; many teachers responded well to this and felt it was a step forward for their careers.

In the next couple of decades, more and more high schools began adding AP classes to their curricula (over 5,000 schools by 1980). The College Board also added other parts to the AP program to help teachers standardize curricula across grade levels and prepare younger students to take on high school and college, including Pre-AP and AP Vertical Teams.

Now, AP courses and exams are considered to be the highest standard of secondary school education by most colleges. Students can generally earn college credit by scoring a 3, 4, or 5 on the exams, though the exact requirements vary by school.


body_historyoftheap.jpgI can't wait to go to the Sock Hop after my AP Test!


The College Board's Management of the AP Program

The goal of the AP program has always been to challenge advanced high school students and prepare them for college academics. This is a great idea, but the program is not without its flaws. I'll go over a few of the issues with AP and its management by the College Board along with some positive steps the College Board has taken to improve the program.



Positive Aspects of the College Board AP Program

Over the years, the College Board has promoted favorable research studies on the AP program that show its effectiveness in helping students prepare for and succeed in college. In expanding the program to more and more schools, the College Board aims to give all students who are academically prepared the ability to take college-level classes in high school, no matter their socioeconomic status.

The College Board works to identify students who have the potential to succeed in AP courses and makes an effort to bring the program to their high schools to give them more opportunities.

In its 10th Annual Report to the Nation on the AP program, the College Board cites research that has shown high AP scores to be reliable predictors of success in college. Students who score a 3 or higher on AP exams tend to earn higher college GPAs, perform better in follow-up college courses in the same disciplines, and are more likely to graduate college within five years than students who do not take APs.

The College Board has also taken positive steps to respond to feedback and improve courses that might need revamping. It continually collects data from universities to ensure that all courses include information that's in step with the latest research and reflects introductory college material.

The design of the courses and exams is a collaboration between college faculty members and AP teachers. Recently, many changes have been made to a number of AP courses and exams to better reflect the topics and units studied.

The College Board will continue to implement changes to a number of AP subject areas, including AP World History, which will eventually be divided into two courses and exams: Modern and Ancient. The group also plans to add more courses to the AP program to expand its reach and give students more opportunities.

Another encouraging aspect of the College Board is how it has so far dealt with the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Instead of canceling all upcoming AP exams for May 2020, the College Board has decided to temporarily convert them into 45-minute at-home tests, allowing students to still potentially earn college credit while continuing to safely isolate themselves.

Finally, the College Board is conscious of other issues with the program, including racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. It has extensively documented states' progress in closing these gaps and has advised school districts on strategies to combat these issues, including reducing the financial burden of AP classes by lowering or eliminating fees for students who qualify, providing more support to AP teachers, establishing strong fundamentals in younger grades, and encouraging students who show potential to take AP classes.

This is important to keep in mind while reading the next sections. Though I will list some negatives of the program, the College Board is taking steps toward fixing many of its issues.


body_change-3.jpgThe College Board is open to changes to the AP program to make it more effective. You'll get your way this time, sentient clouds.


Negative Aspects of the College Board AP Program

In recent years, some studies have emerged that dispute the value of the AP program. Though the tests are consistent and do provide some value (especially in math and science subjects), the AP courses themselves lack consistency. Teacher training resources are loosely provided, but the methods and quality of teaching in AP classes are not standardized across the board.

Most criticism of the AP program is aimed at its rapid expansion into unprepared schools. The College Board's goal is to get as many students to take AP classes and tests as possible, but its measures of student readiness are not always accurate, often leading to students taking classes that they can't handle.

Pushing the AP program into more and more schools also costs millions in federal and state money, which goes toward subsidizing exam fees for low-income students and promoting the classes. With a large percentage of students failing the exams, this investment of money and time is potentially very wasteful. The average pass rate for AP exams in 2019 was 68%, with an average 13% of test takers earning 1s (the lowest possible score).

The pressure to incorporate AP programs at low-income schools might cause these schools to make ill-advised decisions to bring in the programs at the expense of more basic student needs. A small subset of students might get a better educational experience, but it can lead to worse outcomes for other students not participating in the program.

There is also little evidence to suggest that taking AP classes helps students save money on college or graduate early. Few students will earn enough AP credits to cover a full semester of college, and many colleges only use AP scores to place students out of introductory courses without giving them actual credits. Evidence does point to greater success in college by students who take AP classes, but these students are also self-selected as the most driven and tend to attend wealthier high schools as a whole.

The role that the AP program itself plays in student success is debatable when it's combined with so many other factors. In certain studies, when these factors have been controlled for, the advantages supposedly conferred by AP classes completely disappear.

The College Board's efforts to expand the AP program to disadvantaged students might be beneficial in theory, but in reality many schools could use help with improving their current curriculum before adding AP. Even at high-performing schools, the rush to take as many AP classes as possible for students' transcripts has made these classes more of a symbolic marker of achievement than an important educational milestone.

I'll give more details on main criticisms of the AP program in the next section.


body_cairn.jpgIf there's a shaky foundation, it's hard to succeed at a higher level. The AP Cairns curriculum has a lot of flaws.


The 3 Biggest Criticisms of the AP Program

Some criticisms of the AP program emerged in tandem with the immense growth in participating schools. With increased competition in college admissions, the merits of AP classes are a point of contention for educators at both the high school and college levels.

I'll give a basic rundown of the three most common criticisms here. You can read more about these issues by consulting this article, which goes into greater detail on major problems with the AP Program.


Criticism 1: Reinforcement of Education Inequality

Students from wealthier school districts get better scores on AP tests because they are better prepared and have a better support system. Well-funded schools have more success at implementing AP programs overall.

Since colleges often consider AP scores and students' record of taking AP classes in the admission process, lower-income students are put at even more of a disadvantage as the AP program continues to perpetuate existing inequalities.

Although the College Board is proud of its initiatives to bring AP classes to low-income schools, these schools have a hard time implementing AP programs effectively. Fewer students pass AP tests at low-income schools. All of this simply reinforces the current state of affairs in education: poor students fall further behind, and wealthy students get further ahead.

If the AP Program really wants to help prepare all students for college academics, it might have to provide extra support to teachers and students in low-income schools. Some colleges have already stopped considering APs as a significant factor in admission decisions partially because of these issues with unfairness and inconsistency in course quality.


body_unequal.pngThe AP program might make existing inequalities even more significant.


Criticism 2: Superficial Learning Experiences

AP classes cover a lot of ground in a short period of time, and some educators argue that this creates a surface-level exploration of each subject that doesn't always teach students vital critical-thinking skills. Many AP classes force students to do a lot of memorization, and they can't compete with the depth of real college courses.

It's impossible for teachers to delve into a subject extensively when they have to cover so much material, so classes often end up just skimming over the tops of important concepts. This is partially an issue with the fundamental structure of classes, but it can sometimes be overcome through the influence of a great teacher at a well-funded school.

Unfortunately, teaching quality and availability of resources is inconsistent. Even though the College Board has worked to emphasize hands-on learning and inquiry over drilling of facts, varying teacher capabilities and limited school resources can make this switch difficult.

For example, underfunded schools might not have lab facilities that will accommodate new requirements in AP science classes. Teachers also might not be able to adapt easily to new methods of instruction if they don't receive extensive training.

While AP classes teach students many of the same facts that they would learn in an introductory college course, they have a ways to go in teaching analytical skills at the college level. As mentioned above, there is now a rush among high-achieving students to take as many AP classes as possible, which leads to further degradation of the learning experience. Students are stretching themselves too thin just to look good for elite colleges.


body_toast.jpgToo much AP toast for a limited supply of brain peanut butter.


Criticism 3: Program Growth and Achievement Growth Mismatch

The AP program takes pride in its growth over the years, but the vast increase in the number of schools offering the program has come with a corresponding increase in failing test scores. Some critics argue that the AP program has reached a point of "diminishing returns." As AP programs expand rapidly, schools that don't have as many resources struggle to keep pace.

Many new AP programs at low-income schools lack the proper support and guidance, and this has led to more failing test scores. There are some schools where no student earns even a 3 on an AP test, the minimum qualifying score.

This was the case at four high-poverty high schools in Washington, DC, in 2013. Teachers are pushed into the program without proper training and resources, and, again, federal money is spent on introducing AP while neglecting more basic issues of educational inequality.


body_disappointment.jpgThe AP program has taken some wrong turns.


Conclusion: The College Board's (Mis)management of APs

The AP program has been around since the 1950s, and in recent years has expanded rapidly to administer millions of tests to students in high schools across the country.

As the program has gained popularity, however, its effectiveness has been called into question. The College Board stands by the AP program, maintaining that it is the best way for advanced students to get a head start on college course material and bridge the academic gap between high school and college.

While students who do well in AP classes also tend to perform well in college, this could be the result of other corresponding factors. Students who take many APs are usually more driven overall and often attend well-funded high schools.

Criticisms of the AP program include its reinforcement of the divide between rich and poor students in the college admission process, the superficiality of its curriculum, and the increased test failure rates with the expansion of the program into more schools.

It remains unclear how the AP program will change in the future, but if it continues to expand, hopefully the College Board will revise its curriculum and policies to help all students get more out of their AP experiences.


What's Next?

You've probably heard about AP exams and SAT Subject Tests, but you might not know the differences between the two. Read this article to find out which type of test is more important for your college applications.

Are you still planning out your schedule for upcoming school years? Learn how to register for AP tests and classes at your high school.

If you're unsure whether the AP program is a worthwhile use of your time, check out this guide to learn if you should really take AP classes.



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Samantha Lindsay
About the Author

Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.

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