A reader who calls him/herself “Democracy” writes a thoughtful comment on the Advanced Placement courses offered by the College Board, responding to the controversy over the College Board’s retreat from its AP African American studies course. The College Board excised content to placate rightwing critics.

Democracy writes:

Well-established myths die hard. Very hard. Scientific evidence doesn’t always sway minds. Parents and students and educators – and reporters – assume that Advanced Placement (AP) courses are inherently superior to other high school classes. The assumption is that AP are more rigorous, offer deeper conceptual knowledge and lead to better performance in college. The problem with the assumption is that it is largely perception; there is little research to support it.

Michael Hiltzik’s column ought to be one of the final nails in the coffin of the College Boards Advanced Placement courses. But it will not be. Hiltzik’s criticisms of the College Board are sound, and calling the College Board “cowards” is more than just a little bit accurate. It’s spot on. But Hiltzik perpetuates the College Board mythology.

A 2002 National Research Council study of AP courses and tests concluded that they were a “mile wide and an inch deep” and they did not comport with well-established, research-based principles of learning. The study was an intense two-year, 563-page detailed content analysis, and the main study committee was comprised of 20 members who were not only experts in their fields but also top-notch researchers who wrote also about effective teaching and learning.

The main finding of the 2004 Geiser and Santelices study was that “the best predictor of both first- and second-year college grades” is unweighted high school grade point average, and a high school grade point average “weighted with a full bonus point for AP…is invariably the worst predictor of college performance.”

Klopfenstein and Thomas (2005) found that AP students “…generally no more likely than non-AP students to return to school for a second year or to have higher first semester grades.” Moreover, they write that “close inspection of the [College Board] studies cited reveals that the existing evidence regarding the benefits of AP experience is questionable,” and “AP courses are not a necessary component of a rigorous curriculum.

College Board-funded research is more than simply suspect. The College Board continues to perpetrate the fraud that the SAT actually measures something important other than family income (for perhaps the single best read on this, see: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/11/the-best-class-money-can-buy/4307/). A favorite of mine is the College Board-produced “study” that claimed PSAT scores predicted AP test scores. A sidebar comment in the study, however, undermined its validity. The authors noted that “the students included in this study are of somewhat higher ability than…test-takers” in the population to which they generalized. Upon further scrutiny, however, that “somewhat higher ability” actually meant students in the sample were a full standard deviation above those 9th and 10th graders who took the PSAT. And even then, the basic conclusion was that students who scored well on the PSAT had about a 50-50 chance of getting a “3” on an AP test, the most common score. Holy moly!

In the ‘ToolBox Revisited’ (2006) Clifford Adelman noted that “a spate of recent reports and commentaries on the Advanced Placement program claim that the original ToolBox demonstrated the unique power of AP course work in explaining bachelor’s degree completion. To put it gently, this is a misreading.”

A 2006 MIT faculty report noted “there is ‘a growing body of research’ that students who earn top AP scores and place out of institute introductory courses end up having ‘difficulty’ when taking the next course.” Two years prior, Harvard “conducted a study that found students who are allowed to skip introductory courses because they have passed a supposedly equivalent AP course do worse in subsequent courses than students who took the introductory courses at Harvard” (Seebach, 2004). Students admit that ““You’re not trying to get educated; you’re trying to look good,” and, “the focus is on the test and not necessarily on the fundamental knowledge of the material.”

The Sadler- and Klopfenstein-edited book, “AP” A Critical Examination” (2010) lays out the research that makes clear AP has become “the juggernaut of American high school education,” but “ the research evidence on its value is minimal.”

A 2013 study from Stanford noted that “increasingly, universities seem
to be moving away from awarding credit for AP courses.” The study pointed out that “the impact of the AP program on various measures of college success was found to be negligible.” And it adds this: “definitive claims about the AP program and its impact on students and schools are difficult to substantiate.”

But you wouldn’t know that by reading any of the current articles — including that by Michael Hiltzik — about the “controversial” AP Black History course or by listening to the College Board, which derives more than half of its income from AP.

AP may work well for some students, especially those who are already “college-bound to begin with” (Klopfenstein and Thomas, 2010). As Geiser (2007) notes, “systematic differences in student motivation, academic preparation, family background and high-school quality account for much of the observed difference in college outcomes between AP and non-AP students.” The Texas, College Board-funded studies Mathews salivates over do not control well for these student characteristics (even the College Board concedes that “interest and motivation” are keys to “success in any course”).
Klopfenstein and Thomas (2010) find that when these demographic characteristics are controlled for, the claims made for AP disappear.

Do some students “benefit” from taking AP courses and tests? Sure. But, students who benefit the most are “students who are well-prepared to do college work and come from the socioeconomic groups that do the best in college are going to do well in college.”

So, why do students take AP? Because they’ve been told they have to. Because they’re “trying to look good” to colleges in the “increasingly high-stakes college admission process,” and because “high schools give extra weight to AP courses when calculating grade-point averages, so it can boost a student’s class rank.”

One student who got caught up in the AP hype cycle –– taking 3 AP courses as a junior and 5 as a senior –– and only got credit for one AP course in college, reflected on his AP experience. He said nothing about “rigor” or “trying to be educated” or the quality of instruction, but remarked “if i didn’t take AP classes, it’s likely I wouldn’t have gotten accepted into the college I’m attending next year…If your high school offers them, you pretty much need to take them if you want to get into a competitive school. Or else, the admissions board will be concerned that you didn’t take on a “rigorous course load.” AP is a scam to get money, but there’s no way around it. In my opinion, high schools should get rid of them…”

But what do students actually learn from taking these “rigorous” AP tests?

For many, not much. One student remarked, after taking the World History AP test, “dear jesus… I had hoped to never see “DBQ” ever again, after AP world history… so much hate… so much hate.” And another added, “I was pretty fond of the DBQ’s, actually, because you didn’t really have to know anything about the subject, you could just make it all up after reading the documents.” And another AP student related how the “high achievers” in his school approached AP tests:

“The majority of high-achieving kids in my buddies' and my AP classes couldn’t have given less of a crap. They showed up for most of the classes, sure, and they did their best to keep up with the grades because they didn’t want their GPAs to drop, but when it came time to take the tests, they drew pictures on the AP Calc, answered just ‘C’ on the AP World History, and would finish sections of the AP Chem in, like, 5 minutes. I had one buddy who took an hour-and-a-half bathroom break during World History. The cops were almost called. They thought he was missing.”

An AP reader (grader) noted this: “I read AP exams in the past. Most memorable was an exam book with $5 taped to the page inside and the essay just said ‘please, have mercy.’ But I also got an angry breakup letter, a drawing of some astronauts, all kinds of random stuff. I can’t really remember it all… I read so many essays in such compressed time periods that it all blurs together when I try to remember.”

Students, parents, teachers, and school leaders –– not to mention politicians and reporters –– would do well to heed the research and ignore the propaganda and lies spewed by the College Board.

Belief is a powerful thing. Sadly, people too easily believe things that are not true. And public education — not to mention American democratic governance — suffers for it.

Editor’s note: All standardized tests reflect family income. Those whose families have the highest income have the highest scores. Some rich kids score poorly. Some poor kids get high scores. They are outliers that do not change the overall trend.