Opinion: Daily Journal

The movement to drop APs for more rigorous coursework 

A new school year is weeks away, leaving ambitious high schoolers to anticipate schedules packed with Advanced Placement classes. Expected to amp up a transcript’s awe factor, AP coursework offers precocious high school students a chance to earn college credit or advanced placements in college classes. It’s no surprise, then, that student regard for AP is surging. According to the College Board, the organization that runs the nation’s AP program, 38 percent of 2017 public high school graduates participated in AP, up from 24 percent a decade ago. But expansion is coming with a cost, bringing high-profile defections and unexpected challenges. 

This summer eight elite Washington, D.C.-area private schools — including National Cathedral School and Sidwell Friends, educators to the children of U.S. presidents — released a joint statement announcing plans to halt all AP coursework by 2022. Citing the “diminished utility” of AP classes, school leaders are instead implementing a “collaborative, experiential, and interdisciplinary” curriculum they believe will trump AP in rigor and college preparation. Ouch. Those sound like fighting words for the College Board, also publisher of the SAT, which has made its name as the nation’s authority on college readiness. 

Is the AP program, created in 1954, becoming antiquated and irrelevant? 

Not for mainstream America. The movement to jettison AP, begun years ago, is dominated by private schools with established reputations for rigor. Though thoughtful and innovative in their curricular approaches, these schools don’t educate most students. Nor must they consider most students’ opportunities, aspirations, and budgets. 

In fact, AP’s record of consistency and rigor amidst expansion is notable. A decade ago, 691,437 public school students took AP exams; 61 percent scored a three or higher — out of a possible five — on at least one exam. Among the Class of 2017, 1.17 million public school students took AP exams; 61 percent earned a three or higher. 

In North Carolina, participation and performance are rising concurrently. The state has doubled down on AP investment: 2014 legislation authorized funding for public school students’ exams and created the N.C. AP Partnership with the College Board, broadening AP access, especially for underserved students, and providing professional development and teacher support. 

AP expansion also mitigates higher education’s assault on the family pocketbook. Based on 2017 exam scores of three or better, the state’s public and private students had the potential to earn AP college credits representing more than $61 million in cost savings, according to Sara Sympson, the College Board’s director of communications. 

Yet challenges lie ahead. Despite progress, just more than half of 2017 AP exams taken by N.C. public school students garnered a score of three or above. Clearly, there’s work ahead to boost course rigor and exam preparation. What else? As AP expands, its imprimatur is becoming less distinctive. Washington, D.C. school leaders, who surveyed colleges themselves, found the AP designation is now “less noteworthy” to admissions officers. 

Finally, as more students seek college credit, some selective institutions are more reticent to award it. A report from Paul Weinstein, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Graduate Program in Public Management, found 86 percent of the country’s top colleges and universities limit AP credit in some way— restricting eligible subject areas, capping credits, or setting a higher bar for scores. Still, among the 35 most selective American institutions, just one, California Institute of Technology, awards neither AP credit nor advanced placement, notes Sympson. Among institutions overall, “the number of college credit policies awarding credit for scores of three has increased,” she says. 

Will more defections follow? Probably. But they’re unlikely to reconfigure most students’ schedules —especially as those college costs continue to soar. 

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer with experience tracking education and public policy issues at the state and national level. She serves on the board of trustees for an independent private school in Durham.