AP access versus success: A high-level debate in Georgia shows what's at stake

By Jeremy Noonan

After a public dispute with State Superintendent Richard Woods, Georgia governor Nathan Deal refused to sign off on the state’s ESSA plan. The dispute, played out in a series of back and forth letters between the officials, centered on the weight given to test results in the state’s school ratings system, the College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI). Gov. Deal said that there was too little weight given to test scores and thus criticized the plan as a “missed opportunity to set high expectations” for school and students.

One specific point of contention was the weight given in one CCRPI indicator to student participation in Advanced Placement courses—i.e., just taking the courses without reference to students’ actual performance on the AP exams. As similar arguments between access and quality in AP courses are playing out throughout the country, it is important to examine this debate closely.

Deal’s letter criticizes this “Accelerated Enrollment Readiness” indicator as an “incentive for schools and districts to enroll students in AP courses where there is little monitoring and regulation of quality.” He illustrates this perverse incentive with a story of a recently audited high school where the principal required all seniors to take AP English Literature, and admitted that the reason for the policy was a desire for the school to earn 100 percent of the CCRPI points that are possible for this indicator. Instead of rewarding schools merely for students sitting in AP classes, Deal recommends including exam results so that points are given to schools only when students earn “qualifying scores” that make them candidates for college credit.

Woods, however, believes that high AP enrollment is a good thing because it leads to higher graduation rates and because students benefit from “the experience of more rigorous coursework.” On those grounds he rejected the governor’s recommendation.

Woods’s two arguments are commonly made by “AP for all” advocates. The first claims that AP participation is tied to some other positive outcome. The second asserts that AP courses have academic benefits irrespective of the AP exam. Both are mistaken.

The first commits the classic error of confusing correlation with causation. Students who take AP courses tend to graduate at higher rates than those who do not—but I do not see a good reason to believe that simply taking an AP course makes a causal difference for kids who are risk of not graduating. AP courses tend to attract relatively better students no matter their entry requirements. Thus, it seems the kind of student who chooses to take an AP course is more likely to graduate from high school with or without that course because such students seem likelier to—for example—attend school regularly, follow teachers’ instructions, do their homework, and avoid getting suspended.

The second argument ascribes mystical benefits to “rigor,” ignoring the fact that such benefits are not automatic but depend not only on the student’s receptivity to rigorous curriculum and instruction but also on the suitability of the challenge to his current abilities. A bedrock principle of learning is that we acquire new knowledge by connecting it to knowledge we already have. If a student lacks the prerequisite knowledge and skills—like high lexile scores and mature writing skills for text-based courses like AP English Literature and mastery of more logic-based content in AP math and science courses—then the “rigor experience” may not do much good. It might even do some harm if the student is unable to learn due to academic challenges beyond his/her reach—and if that student thereby forgoes more appropriate learning opportunities. A high school senior, for example, with a seventh grade lexile score is better served in a remedial reading course with specialists who can raise him to a high school level, not in an advanced literature class where he’ll have to read and analyze texts that are impossible for him to comprehend, and where the teacher may not be equipped to help struggling readers. 

One also wonders why, if the benefits of “rigor” are automatically conferred by mere exposure, AP courses aren’t offered to elementary school students. Why not place college freshman in graduate courses? The absurdity of these implications show the folly of the premise. Basketball is my favorite sport to play, but I was not good enough to make my junior varsity high school team. My basketball skills will likely improve if I play frequently with those who are better than I am, but put me into an NBA game and I’ll be overwhelmed, frustrated, and hindered from developing the skills those guys mastered long ago. A challenge is only beneficial when it’s within reach!

Woods also errs in not addressing Governor Deal’s concern that the quality of AP courses could suffer under a maximum-participation plan. Students have to pass their AP courses (but not the AP exam) for the schools to get the CCRPI credit. So opening AP to underprepared students will likely lead to grade inflation, as many won’t achieve mastery of AP curricula but schools will still want them to pass and graduate. This will compromise the integrity of AP content and standards and disadvantage those students who would otherwise do well on the AP exams.  

Georgia’s ESSA plan, which does not require the governor’s approval, has already been submitted to Washington, so the AP policy is probably set. Yet Georgia and other states that have chosen to reward AP participation can still discourage schools from recklessly expanding their AP programs. They should hold schools accountable for disparities between the number of students passing AP courses and the number taking and passing AP exams, setting norms for what kind of “honesty gaps” are unacceptable.

Organizations like U.S. News & World Report and the College Board can also help rein in such abuses by better using AP exam data in their analyses. Instead of celebrating states and schools that simply increase the number of graduates that pass a single AP exam, for example, reward schools for increasing the total amount of qualifying scores achieved by their graduates—or the number of college credits that those graduates later earn.

As questions are raised about the true benefits of increased access to AP courses, it is important for state policymakers and district-level administrators to understand that such benefits are likely inseparable from AP exam performance. It’s important that leaders hold schools accountable for maintaining the integrity and quality of their AP courses as they aim for increased participation in them.

Jeremy Noonan is a father of four school-age children and a certified science instructor in Georgia, who has taught for ten years in public school, private school, and home school cooperatives. He also runs Citizens for Excellence in Public Schools, a local education advocacy group.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.