Advanced Placement exams are administered by the College Board, the same company that handles the S.A.T. In the last decade, the company lost its dominant place in the market for basic standardized college-entrance exams to the A.C.T., or “Iowa Test.” Last year the College Board’s new president announced an effort to revamp the S.A.T.
The Advanced Placement tests remain a College Board exclusive. They also cost more to take. (There are financial-aid programs.) Thus, the firm has an economic incentive to see more high-school students taking A.P. exams.
Before 2011, U.S. History was the College Board’s most popular A.P. test. Even now, more than 400,000 students worldwide take it each year. At about $80 per test, that represents around $32 million in revenue.
The original design of A.P. classes was to provide high-school students with the equivalent of an introductory college course, so they could gain college credits or move on to higher-level courses. Under that purpose, it makes sense to periodically revamp the curricula to make sure they really do reflect the latest college scholarship.
However, these days students may take A.P. exams not to move through college quicker but to burnish their résumés for getting into college. And schools face pressure to offer more A.P. courses. College-application counselor Nancy Griesemer wrote on the Examiner website:
…instead of pushing students forward to complete college faster (an expensive proposition for institutions losing tuition revenue from early graduates), the AP has become the “gold standard” for proving academic excellence in high school and for measuring college readiness. . . . colleges use AP’s as a measure of course rigor. . . .All of those incentives nudge the associated enterprises away from what should be their goal: that students actually learn the subjects they’re being tested on at an advanced level.
…ranking of high schools based on number of AP (and IB) classes offered, how many students take the exams and how well they do, feeds this frenzy by suggesting to school administrators that AP’s need to be increased—sometimes in place of more appropriate honors classes—and students need to be pushed into taking these classes earlier in their secondary school careers. . . .
Outside of the classroom and in a measure of self-motivation as well as academic excellence, colleges reinforce the message by appearing to reward students who appear to go beyond course offerings at their schools by studying for and taking AP exams on their own. As a result, a cottage industry of online classes and specialized tutors has developed targeted to preparing students to take AP exams without going through the rigor of taking the AP class.
U.S. History, like nearly every topic I know, requires knowledge both of many specific facts and techniques and understanding of concepts and principles. It’s important to know about significant events that led up to the American Revolution; it’s also important to be able to see the conflict from both sides, and to recognize how each group saw the other as escalating the conflict and thus felt justified in escalating as well.
Knowledge of facts is easy to gauge through a standardized test. The College Board’s S.A.T. or achievement test for U.S. History is an hour long and consists entirely of multiple-choice questions. (A little over 100,000 students take that per year.) That sort of test is also easier to cram for.
Understanding is much harder to assess on a massive scale, at least economically. The College Board has designed its A.P. exam to achieve that goal, using document-based questions and essays. The company has every incentive to convince us its methods work. Those methods may well be the best available. I’m just not sure that goal is really achievable.