In November 2012, Dartmouth College faculty voted to implement a change in the school’s AP policy. Starting in 2014, the Ivy League institution would no longer be giving credit for AP classes. Many high-achieving and even higher-aiming high school students were justifiably upset, angry even, with Dartmouth’s decision, for they put in the work expecting a reward in the form of college credit. Yet, the worth of AP classes continues to be hotly debated throughout the academic world.
About a year ago, a man by the name of John Tierney wrote a piece for The Atlantic slamming the AP, claiming that AP tests “didn’t begin to hold a candle” to college courses. On the surface, this seems like a bold claim; but when incoming Dartmouth freshman who had scored 5s on the AP Psychology exam were given Dartmouth’s Intro to Psych final, 90% of them failed it. The official response from the College Board’s senior vice president, Trevor Packer, contradicts Dartmouth’s frightening AP Psych results, with a statement reading that schools like Stanford, UC Berkeley, Yale, and Duke “are among dozens of institutions that each recently piloted AP Exam questions among its own students to confirm comparability of content, skill, and rigor.”
AP classes are notorious for covering too much material in too little time, often skimming or completely skipping relevant material simply because it doesn’t play a major role in the test. For those who took AP classes, how many times were you informed of the composition of a test? “Historically, chapter 3 makes up 20% of the multiple choice questions, while chapter 4 only makes up 3%, so you guys can read chapter 4 for homework,” meanwhile we spend two weeks in class discussing the mindless vocabulary in chapter 3.
It doesn’t matter which material is more important in the field, it matters how often it appears on the test. Teach to the test while stomping out creativity and independent inquisition, because there simply is no time for that is what many get out of their AP courses. There are obviously differences among high schools and teachers and subjects, however, which can completely alter one’s AP experience. For example, AP Physics, Chemistry, and Calculus took up more than one “block” at my high school, and so teachers were given ample time to go through the material slower and more thoroughly, allowing students to actually inquire and learn. So in many ways it isn’t fair for me to pass generalizations on the “typical” AP class.
What is most upsetting to me lies not entirely in the AP program, but in the reasons many students use to take them. The typical AP classroom is full of the classic “organization kid”, the kid taking the class not because he’s interested in the material, not even because he wants to get college credit, but because the more weighted AP courses he takes, the higher his GPA is and the more “marketable” he is for top tier colleges. I cannot stress enough how misguided this approach is to high school – yet it’s something the AP, high school grading systems, and increasingly competitive college admissions has nurtured. The pressure to enroll in AP classes since “every other applicant is doing it” is something many college bound students feel, and most unconsciously give in to. Forget the pottery class, or the computer aided design course, because those aren’t honors courses – those aren’t AP. If it’s not a transcript booster or resume builder, it isn’t worth taking according to many of America’s “best” high school students.
So I guess this is what it comes down to for me. If you are truly interested in the material of an AP class, take it. But if not, don’t sit through a year’s worth of monotony just to impress college X. Dartmouth’s change in policy, though frustrating to some, and possibly executed for the wrong reasons is nonetheless a step in the right direction of switching the mindset of students and institution’s alike.
AP courses are not a reflection of intellect or creativity. They are a reflection of an increasingly competitive society and college admissions culture – competition that is draining the classroom of its spontaneity. It’s a sad fact that most if not all colleges use rigor of secondary schedule as a very key part of their admissions criteria. Let’s keep the AP program. But let’s stop grading students on the amount of AP courses they take, and start recreating the culture of standardized testing. Colleges should endorse the following of one’s own path, a holistic and liberal high school schedule, and an eagerness to learn as opposed to the eagerness to receive a 5 on some exam. Dartmouth, though your intentions do not match mine, thank you for dimming the focus on the infamous AP system and very subtly and slowly bringing it back to the love of learning and the yearning to do good.