Home > Uncategorized > John Tierney’s Atlantic Article Misses One KEY Point: APs Are Being Taken to Game a Bogus Rating System

John Tierney’s Atlantic Article Misses One KEY Point: APs Are Being Taken to Game a Bogus Rating System

March 18, 2018

Wayne Ridenour, a current Facebook friend who taught my daughter’s AP History Course over two decades ago, posted an article from the Atlantic by John Tierney titled “AP Classes Are a Scam” and left the comment “Sorry but this is all too true”. Both Mr. Tierney’s article and Mr. Ridenour’s comments are valid, but Mr. Tierney’s article overlooks a key factor that is driving the expansion of AP courses and Both Mr. Tierney’s article and Mr. Ridenour’s comment overlook one key positive factor about AP courses.

John Tierney’s analysis of why AP courses are a scam hits all the flaws of the test:

  • AP courses are NOT equivalent to college courses
  • Because fewer and fewer colleges recognize AP courses for credit, the monetary savings that once existed are no longer possible
  • High schools are no longer screening admissions into AP courses (more on that below)
  • Minority students are under-represented in AP enrollments despite the expanded pool of this taking the courses
  • Small, economically challenged schools divert resources to AP courses which has the effect of limiting non-AP courses
  • And worst of all, AP courses are prescribed, robbing the best and brightest teachers of the opportunity to offer their own creative courses that might challenge and engage the best and brightest students in a school.

But Mr. Tierney fails to mention one factor that has driven increases in AP enrollments: the many rating systems that use some form of AP enrollments as a proxy for “quality”. It all began when Washington Post education writer Jay Matthews began ranking schools in his region using the percentage of students enrolled in AP courses as primary factor. While he acknowledged the limitations of such a ranking system, his use of them had a national impact. The result: an explosion of AP course offerings, an expansion of the pool of students who enrolled in AP courses, and the consequent forcing out of “honors” courses with teacher-driven courses of study with AP courses whose course of study was determined by ETS.

But Mr. Matthews use of AP enrollments as a metric DID recognize one practical reality: absent some kind of national standard there is no ready means of determining if a student who received a high grade in an “honors class” at a small or underfunded school met the same standards as a student who earned high grades in an affluent school district. The high school my daughter attended in the early 1990s did not send many students to competitive colleges and so the caliber of its courses was an unknown. I believe that both her SAT scores and her AP scores helped validate the balance of her transcript and provided evidence that she might succeed in the classrooms of those schools, two of which she was accepted to. This reality— that competitive colleges use APs as a validation for transcripts— is why Jay Matthews included AP as a proxy for “quality”. Whether the expansion of AP enrollments that followed is a virtuous circle or a vicious one is open to question. Having led five different school districts, I observe that the more affluent a district is the less it is concerned with proxies: if a district has a well established “brand” in the admissions offices of elite colleges it has no need for AP course and the teachers at those schools eschew AP courses… and that, in my judgement, is a virtuous circle.

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