Why AP classes work

Tom Stanley-Becker's attack on the Advanced Placement-industrial complex, "Bursting the AP bubble," inspired many students and teachers to write in. (See the letters that that made the ink-and-paper medium here.) Here, three students and one former AP U.S. History teacher defend the program.

Sherman Oaks' Brian Wolf, a junior at Oakwood School and editor of his school paper, says he learned a lot in his course, proving it by taking a jab at Stanley-Becker's historical knowledge:

Over the past school year, I have embarked on the journey of discussing and dissecting American culture in my AP U.S. History class. Throughout this course, my class covered the timeline of America from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to the current war in Iraq. We were even able to have discussions on the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen and Madonna for comparison to the materialistic age of the 1980s. While sitting down to take the dreaded test on May 9, I felt that my knowledge of this material, despite the results of a three-and-a-half-hour test, will never be forgotten due to my teacher's ability to construct a course that encouraged us to think independently.

By the way, Tom, if you truly felt interested in the women's liberation march in New York City, you would have known that they did not burn their bras, but rather threw them into trash cans in order to demonstrate a rebellion against stereotypes. Maybe you should have written an article of the history of feminism instead of a paper on the Cold War.

Granada Hills' Michael Koenig, a senior in the medical magnet at Van Nuys High School and AP Calculus Camp alum, explains why AP classes still have value:

While Becker does an excellent job in pointing out the faults in the AP program and how it has diverged from its original intended purpose, he has failed to remark on some of the great things AP exams have done for high school students. Van Nuys High School has had one of the highest AP pass rates in the Los Angeles Unified School District for several years now. I have taken 10 AP courses and will be attending Pomona College next fall.

I love the AP program; the AP teachers at my school are fantastic. Every AP course has become more comprehensive every year since the program's inception, especially science courses. Most top-notch schools only accept kids who have taken AP Physics for a reason; it guarantees a minimum level of education in a certain subject area. AP exam grades aren't inflated. I am competing not against my peers, but the whole of America.

AP U.S. History was a difficult course. We had to cram the last 50 years of American history into a few weeks. However, I learned more than I would have in an honors course, even if the information was a bit more pre-packaged. My peers in the honors chemistry class were two chapters into their textbook while I was halfway through in AP Chemistry. I can safely say that AP Chemistry and AP Spanish easily took up more of my time and energy than every class in 9th and 10th grade combined.

My AP credits will place me out of introductory courses in many departments, letting me spend my college time on classes I want. This is a compelling argument for AP courses. Not only can they help you get admitted into a competitive school, they can help you get the courses you want. At a University of California school, this edge is priceless.

I certainly feel a bit like a Model-T Ford sometimes, but I would rather be made in a good factory than none at all. For students in a socioeconomically depressed school like mine, AP classes are the leg up we need to get into places like UCLA, UC Berkeley, Stanford and Harvard (all colleges that admitted my classmates this year). One student's AP exam expertise won her a Regent's Scholarship at UCLA. Why sell ourselves short by not taking advantage of this huge opportunity? Our teachers stay after school near exam week to help us, something that happens in no other class. AP Calculus Camp (yes, it is as nerdy as it sounds) has helped me prepare for and pass the Calculus exam with flying colors.

AP classes are less lock-step in California than regular classes are. AP teachers are not required by the School Board to buy only one textbook; they have a whole list of choices. An AP teacher is able to expect a more mature and willing class than a regular teacher. There are fewer "state standards of excellence" to follow; people choose their AP teacher based on their pass rate and quality of teaching, much like students do in college for their professors. AP classes also get students from across residential and magnet school lines, further aiding integration.

As for the AP dropouts, fair enough, it's their choice. All I know is that only in an AP class can a high school student learn about Spanish literature, how to program a computer, how to graph a polar equation, how to raise the temperature of a solution in a four-liter bomb calorimeter, and why radical reconstruction of the post-Civil-War South ended, then demonstrate it on their college application. I wouldn't give that up for all the senior theses, bra burnings and stress-free nights in the world.

Sean Laguna of Orange takes us inside the actual test, and it ain't pretty. Still, he says, the process alone helps students:

Sitting in a chair for three hours struggling over a grueling test does serious mental damage to a person – I would know, I've sat through nine and will endure three more by the time my senior year is over. The feat becomes even more strenuous when the test features a student's least favorite subject – mine is U.S. History.

The multiple choice section of the AP test left me worried and bemused – pushing my way through the strangely worded and oddly specific questions only to run out of time had not been fun, and I was not looking forward to the essay portion of the exam. But, when I opened my "green insert" and found questions about the Agricultural Revolution, Theodore Roosevelt, and pre-Revolutionary revolts like the Paxton Boys uprising, not only was I somewhat overwhelmed not only by the spectrum of knowledge that I had to cover, but that I knew it all. My essays spanned more than 12 pages in total, and as I painstakingly collected and organized my thoughts, I realized that U.S. History did not require brute memorization, but a cognitive, constantly changing perception of events, causes, and effects from the past.

The College Board has the hardest job in the world – they have to come up with a way to hash incredibly large amounts of information through an objective process into a single number, 1 through 5. Doling out college credit to high school students must be a mechanized process, or else it would be impossible to complete. The quality of multiple-choice question has to surpass the student's ability to simply reason out the answer, and 70 questions have to cover hundreds of years of material. Essays have to be broad enough for anyone studying U.S. History to answer, but specific enough to force one to know concrete details (and not to mention easy enough to grade in about 45 seconds). Take one yourself, and you'll better appreciate the scope of knowledge necessary to score a 5. And there's always independent study, for specific aspects of history that an individual finds interesting. Pursue your interests and throw them into your essays, and imagine AP graders rejoicing at your originality and insightfulness.

For me, being put into such a compromised, brutal testing situation brought something out in me that I would have otherwise never discovered, and I appreciate U.S. History much more now. So maybe AP tests aren't for everybody; I'll admit that there is a skill to taking them. But, in all honesty, as life unfolds around me, I notice that it is more like an AP test and less like the idealized world in which humanity wants to believe it lives. Sometimes, figuring out what a test is asking for is just as important as knowing the information, deciding the best way to present yourself supersedes what you actually present, and you have to do things that you don't really want to do.

AP testing serves its purpose surprisingly well – from my experience, you cannot get below a 3 if you know the information reasonably well, and you cannot get above a 3 if you do not. That's pretty good for a five-point scale, if you ask me. And you still get your nice heaping scoop of disillusionment for dessert.

And finally, let's hear from an AP U.S. History teacher, or a retired one, at least. Howard Davis of Huntington Beach explains what the class is meant to teach:

As a retired AP U.S. History teacher, it was with much interest that I read Stanley-Becker's opinion article on his decision to be an "AP dropout" and his reasons for condemnation of the Advanced Placement program. I would hope he had the opportunity to enjoy a strong curriculum and a good teacher. If he did, then I am sorry he did not see it through to the end, the test.

AP U.S. History was never designed to be, as he said, "a road more meandering and slowly traveled." The course has always been aimed toward being a survey course of American history, comparable to college level general education courses. It was never intended to be a course to delve deeply into the idiosyncrasies of certain personalities, or whether or not it was actually radical for women to burn their bras. Such subject-specific history classes usually come after a general education requirement. But, even in a survey course, I would not be surprised to see an AP question about the foundations of the women's liberation movement, bras or no bras. And, yes, there are questions, both multiple choice and essay, on Vietnam, Franklin Roosevelt and the Harlem Renaissance. The questions on these topics require more than just rote memorization; they are higher level questions of comparison, application, analysis, and evaluation. A good AP course will go beyond the rush of the necessary historical content; it will also provide students with skills needed to achieve noteworthy presentation. Remember those essay questions and the always important document-based question? Here is where all that content material, and all those presentational skills, come together.

I always felt the class itself could be even more meaningful than the test by being a beneficial stepping stone toward college. Many of my students told me at the end of the term that this was not an easy class; it required time and effort, but it was all worth it.

Stanley-Becker is obviously an observing, analytical, and skillful writer. With some historical content support, and his commendable writing abilities, I have no doubt he could have aced the test. Too bad he didn't.