When The Times reported that the number of Advanced Placement exams taken in the Los Angeles Unified School District had hit an all-time high, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is that a good thing? AP courses help high school students gain admission to prestigious colleges, but not necessarily because of the course work. What matters is getting the AP course on the transcript.
Heralded as a civil rights success in some corners, AP classes are really a numbers racket and a way to play the college admissions game. Most colleges reward applicants for taking AP courses, the more the better. Rather than evidence of strong learning or superb college preparation, AP has become a credential that helps students gain access.
First seen as an exclusive feather in a cap, AP courses were added to the public school curriculum to keep elite students from fleeing. As courses have expanded to urban and rural schools across the country, they are invariably described as a “rigorous college-level curriculum in high school.”
As a former history teacher with L.A. Unified, I am most familiar with the AP U.S. history exam. It asks students to answer — in 55 minutes — 80 multiple-choice questions covering 400 years of history, to respond to two essay questions and a “document-based question” that requires them to weave in material from sources they are seeing for the first time, all in 115 minutes.
I’m not really troubled by the skill sets pushed by the latter two components — the ability to decipher a challenging question, make and support an argument, analyze documents and synthesize information — although because the topics aren’t announced, teachers must teach as much content as possible to give students a fighting chance.
I do have a big problem with the multiple-choice portion, which requires students to develop skills of little value — rote memorization and recall under pressure. Content from the pre-Columbian era forward must be covered. “Covered” is the operative word — not analyzed, evaluated or synthesized, words common to academic and intellectual investigation in a college class.
Some teachers teach against the AP test, determined to build in time for deep analysis, connection to present day, critique, writing genres and themes that connect historical movements. The AP system forces much content to be “taught” quickly, which leads to low retention and even less analysis. Students are generally on their own to read, process, understand and remember an outrageous amount of information.
I’ve seen gifted AP teachers who were compelled to reduce the complexity of World War II to two 55-minute classroom lectures, and to cover the New Deal and the civil rights movement in one class. To explain the compression, teachers cite the press of time, the wealth of material and the impending weight and doom of the final AP test, given a full month before the school year ends.
There is value in learning to examine complicated content, but the AP test takes it to an extreme. The exam also fails to reward exceptional or powerful writing, preferring a particular style of writing that fits a set rubric. The focus on multiple choice questions reduces complex historical events to “correct” answers: a, b, c or d.
College professors complain about students’ inability to write well and their lack of creative thought. Faculty members have told me that students seem so intent on providing the answer they think the professor wants that they all end up writing their essays in much the same way. Students seem uncomfortable with complexity and want professors to guide them to the proper answer.
The skill set developed by AP courses seems antithetical to what college life should be: the exploration, deeper understanding and investigation of the world’s complexities and uncertainties.
As AP courses have expanded, and as universities depend on them to separate and sort applicants, high schools have developed their own skill sets to ensure higher success and pass rates in both the courses and their associated exams. Sadly, the space for more inquiry- and discussion-driven, deeper and more complex learning is all but disappearing.
Brian Gibbs taught in LAUSD for 16 years. He is a doctoral candidate in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education.
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