Dubious move to reject Advanced Placement

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The octet of D.C.-area private school heads who boasted a few days ago that their pricey bastions of teaching and learning will no longer offer Advanced Placement courses made much of how the home-grown classes that will replace AP “allow for authentic engagement with the world and demonstrate respect for students’ intellectual curiosity and interests.”

That’s apt to resonate with the upper-middle class parents whose children fill most of the seats at places like Sidwell Friends, St. Albans, and Landon—and whose per-child tuition payments next year will mostly be north of $40,000. Their kids are apt to do fine in college and beyond, with or without AP. (They’d probably do fine with or without the pricey private education!) For the vast majority of American families, however, desperate for quality schooling and solid college prospects for their own children, this whole maneuver looks, well, snobby and smug.

It’s also slightly off-base and disingenuous. Off-base because, in contrast to the school heads’ assertion that AP courses “emphasize breadth over depth,” the College Board has been systematically overhauling and replacing its thirty-eight AP course frameworks and exams to emphasize concepts and “big ideas” as well as “essential knowledge,” and expects to complete that exacting process just about the same time these elite schools are repudiating Advanced Placement.

It’s disingenuous in part because the heads’ statement barely hints at what’s almost certainly their main motive in repudiating AP: Everybody has it nowadays, and it’s essentially free down the street. So offering AP no longer makes their schools distinctive—and worth the hefty cost. They must find other ways to be different.

And it’s disingenuous because, while the schools cease to list courses that are branded “Advanced Placement” and sanctioned as such by the College Board, they’ll keep administering the AP exams in May—and you can be sure that thousands of their pupils will continue to take them. (You can also be sure that teachers and school heads will monitor those exam results and agonize if they don’t include enough 4’s and 5’s.) That’s what’s happened at other high-status private schools such as Fieldston, Exeter, and Choate-Rosemary Hall, which made a big deal of foreswearing AP but whose students—and most definitely their tuition-paying parents—continue to take it seriously.

Complacent and a tad self-righteous as the school heads’ declaration reads, however, they’re not entirely wrong to forego some of AP’s hassles, such as its rigid exam calendar and insistence on approving teachers’ course syllabi. For as Advanced Placement has spread across American secondary education—with almost three million students sitting for more than five million exams last month—its value has diminished somewhat for kids at well-established schools like these.

The selective colleges to which most of their seniors apply are awash in candidates with AP courses and exam scores on their transcripts. While that information helps admissions officers appraising kids from little-known high schools in remote locales, those same officers already have databases on applicants from Georgetown Day School and Holton-Arms. They have a fair sense of what’s in those schools’ courses, what the transcript grades and class ranks signify, and how seriously to take their teacher recommendations. They can easily couple that information with scores on other tests and predict how a given applicant will fare on their campuses. Moreover, as those same selective colleges grow fussier about conferring degree credit and acceleration based on AP exam scores—the Harvard faculty recently voted to cease offering the option of starting as a sophomore—one of the original rationales for Advanced Placement wanes.

On the other hand, solid scores on AP exams are still used, almost everywhere, Harvard included, for college course placement. It remains possible to skip mass-lecture introductory classes by submitting evidence of having mastered that content in high school. And thousands of other colleges continue to rely on those exam scores as the basis for conferring degree credits and the possibility of shortening one’s time within the ivy walls—and reducing one’s total tuition hit.

Perhaps the biggest sacrifice being made by the D.C.-area private schools is the opportunity for their students’ work—and ultimately their teachers’ effectiveness and their own institutional value-add—to be judged impartially on a national metric that’s retained its rigor in a time of grade inflation and that’s scored anonymously by veteran high school teachers and college professors. Advanced Placement is about as close as American K–12 education has today to a gold standard—and as close as we come to a quality national curriculum at the intersection of high school and college. While independent schools are of course free to shun all such forms of standardization, the thousands of public and private schools that have embraced AP are enhancing their students’ access to assured educational quality and academic rigor. One day, the elite institutions that say they can do this better on their own may find themselves sorry that they scorned an approach that’s stood the test of time since 1955.

 
 
Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.