An Overview of AP Exams

AP Curriculum, AP Tests, AP Courses

There is a terrific piece in “The New York Times” on the Advanced Placement program.

Has the Advanced Placement curriculum historically favored the affluent? Yes. The AP curriculum consists of a total of 39 courses, although high schools tend to offer only some of these courses. For many years, the AP curriculum was the curriculum of choice at high schools in predominantly affluent neighborhoods. But, as Bob Dylan would say, “times they are a changin’.” Over the years, more and more high schools across America (and around the world too), including in less affluent neighborhoods, have adopted the AP curriculum. But is this the right direction for our American education system?

History of the Advanced Placement Curriculum

It may surprise some to learn that the AP curriculum has been around for 62 years, since 1955. It was developed because there were some who felt American young people weren’t getting the same kind of quality education as young people in other parts of our world, like the Soviet Union. As Alina Tugend points out in an excellent piece in “The New York Times” this week (“Who Benefits From The Expansion of A.P. Classes?“, “By offering elite high school students an opportunity to take college-level classes, the United States could theoretically regain ground it had lost. The program was initially developed with funding from the Ford Foundation and was eventually taken over by the College Board, which had been administering standardized tests since the beginning of the 20th century.”

And, yes, the AP curriculum has been a boon to the College Board’s bottom line. With 2.6 million students completing at least one AP exam in 2016 and with 4.7 million tests taken that same year, we’ll leave it to our readers to add up the revenue these exams generate for College Board. In light of this revenue, it is certainly fair to ask the question if this curriculum, one developed in response to escalating tensions with the Soviet Union, is still as necessary in today’s world.

We Support the AP Curriculum

Is the AP curriculum a boon to College Board? Of course. But just because it’s a boon to their bottom line doesn’t mean it’s not an effective curriculum. We firmly believe that the AP curriculum is the best curriculum for high school students. We also assert that schools that offer the AP curriculum are more successful at placing their graduates into America’s most selective universities. Will a college admissions officer at one of our nation’s elite institutions ever say something like, “We value the AP curriculum more than the IB curriculum”? No. Those words will never be uttered. But the fact is that it’s easier to gauge one student from one high school against another student from a high school across the country through the AP curriculum. So when a college admissions officer sees that a student has excelled in an AP curriculum, they have genuine faith in that student, faith that can surely benefit the student’s case for admission.

Drawbacks of the AP Curriculum

Now that doesn’t mean the AP program isn’t without its flaws. As Tugend’s piece in “The New York Times” points out, there remains a noticeable disparity in the population of students participating in the AP curriculum and those attending schools where the program simply isn’t offered. But it’s not for lack of effort. College Board has made great strides in expanding the AP program to schools in less affluent neighborhoods, to educate a more diverse cross-section of American young people.

As Tugend writes in her “New York Times” piece, “The A.P. program remained a mainstay of affluent, mostly white schools until the 1990s, when parents in lower-income school districts became increasingly concerned about the disparity between the number of A.P. classes offered at their schools and the number in wealthier districts. Rigorous standardized tests, it was thought at the time, could be a means of bridging the achievement gap between richer and poorer schools…But to critics, the College Board is guilty of promising too much, offering its rigor as a cure for struggling school districts — something it was never meant to be.”

Just because students are completing this curriculum doesn’t mean they’re excelling in this curriculum. It doesn’t mean students are doing well on the AP exams. And why? Just because a curriculum is being taught doesn’t mean it’s being taught well. It doesn’t mean teachers are being properly trained in their instruction. Expansion of the curriculum does not in itself foster equal opportunity between affluent and low-income students.

What are your thoughts on the AP program? Let us know your thoughts by posting a Comment below. We look forward to hearing from you.


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