AP exams negatively impact classroom learning


Nic Fishman

It is hard to separate the pressures imposed by AP exams from the reality of their importance. The fact is that colleges probably don’t care if you get a one on that World History exam, and the kicker is that you don’t even need to report your scores. What colleges care about is that you took the class at all, and what your grade was. Despite this, school comes to a halt at the beginning of May. The irony of this is staggering. All colleges care about are the classes, yet across the nation, all high schools care about are the scores. And worse, the classes are taught to the test, as opposed to the test matching rich and interesting content, meaning all colleges see when they look at a transcript with AP in front of a class, is a year of prep for an exam that is irrelevant as soon as it’s over.

The culture at Wilson around AP tests perfectly exemplifies this. Students are expected to do well, and are prepared well in advance by teachers hoping to get a fistful of fives. Weeks are wasted prepping for the exam (as opposed to actually learning) and after exams, many classes start to deteriorate, proving that the exam was clearly the point.

To some extent this is understandable. Especially at Wilson, where teachers are judged by how well students perform on the exams. Scores are not necessarily used to decide salaries or change teaching, but the fact that AP scores are reported to all DC teachers means they’re a powerful metric. Exams often feel more important than the actual subject, which is exactly counter to reality.

There is a profound integration of the AP test and the classroom at Wilson. APs serve as surrogate finals, with all the prep and pressure that they involve. Students at Wilson are required to take APs and the tests are almost completely subsidized to allow for this. In other districts, each exam costs 92 dollars, but not in DCPS. Students at Wilson are protected from this, but the rest of the nation is not. This perpetuates a classist elitism, to say the least. Only the wealthy can take the tests, and that is just unfair when the only option for those tests is extremely expensive. Sure, the College Board gives a 30-dollar discount to some families, but 62 dollars for a test is still too much.

The fact that Wilson students don’t have to pay that price is incontrovertibly a good thing. It frees students to take as many exams as they want. It also creates a ton of stress for students and teachers alike, over something that is important for no apparent reason. Why does it matter if a student gets a two on an exam? The exams are meaningless, irrelevant in the college applications process, and aren’t used to determine school funding levels or teacher salaries. The myth that they can count for college credit is just as ridiculous. To be frank, most AP classes aren’t college level, and students need to expect they’ll have to take them again after graduating high school. Requiring students to take the exams is wrong. If students are taking three exams or more, coercing them into taking all three puts undue pressure on that student. That is ridiculous. If students have a poor AP teacher, and have to take the exam, they will do poorly. That is ridiculous. If seniors don’t want to take a pointless exam that they feel will have no impact on their lives, they shouldn’t have to. Making them do that is ridiculous.

The AP exam reduces a year of what is supposed to be challenging learning to mere prep for a silly test that is largely, if not entirely irrelevant in almost any conceivable context. Students don’t take classes to take tests, they take classes to learn. Requiring students to take the AP exam undermines that mentality, replacing it with the implicit idea that the test is the goal.

What is often missed is this true power of AP tests; it is the way they shape what students are taught that makes them so important. AP exams set the topics that are taught in AP classes. It is through these exams that the College Board actually controls the curriculum of classrooms across the nation.

So, is the AP curriculum a valuable thing to teach?

The answer to this question is not satisfying: it depends on the teacher. The AP curriculum is incredibly restrictive for excellent teachers. They are forced to teach a very broad swath of their subject, without going into very much depth at all. Take for example, AP World History, a class many students at Wilson take. It is ridiculous to learn the entire history of Rome in a single class period, and yet that is how the greatest empire in history is treated in a class that covers 20,000 years of human history.

The same is true of the worst teachers. They feel the pressure to teach too much material, and often end up missing the point or losing the cohesion of the subject they are teaching.

As with so many things in the education system, the AP curriculum most benefits the average teacher. The teacher who likely won’t change students’ lives for the better or worse. For these middle-of-the-road teachers, the test ensures they teach a relatively diverse set of topics on the subject, and that students are generally well prepared to build on the basics instilled by AP classes. It may not be wrong to design a system to benefit the average, but the original intent of AP classes was to be anything but average. AP classes were created with the intent of having a rigor, richness and complexity rare in a standard high school classroom. In this the College Board has unquestionably, categorically failed.

The College Board is a monopoly, and one of the things I’ve learned in the AP US History class that culminated in their AP exam is that the College Board should be dismantled with aggressive antitrust legislation. The College Board reports that last year 2.3 million students, 15 percent of all high school students nationwide, took AP exams. It does not report how many took AP classes, because all it cares about is the $230 million it made. The idea that Advanced Placement, a College Board trademark, has made its way into the courseware of every high school in the country is insane. The idea that Advanced Placement, a College Board trademark, is a “brand” so valued in college admissions offices is crazy.

AP classes are invested with extraordinary import. Around the country. At colleges. AP exams shape the curriculum of at least 2 million students. They are invested with extraordinary import in high schools. That is where the disconnect is. Colleges want students to actually learn the material. High schools want students to do well on tests. This is one of the few cases where colleges aren’t overvaluing standardized testing, and yet we still allow it to dilute what actually happens in classrooms.