The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Scholar knocks AP classes but needs to see more of how they excite kids

5 min

Annie Abrams is a high school English teacher with a doctorate in American literary history from New York University. She has received well-deserved praise for her new book, “Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students.”

I have been writing about Advanced Placement since 1982. Wise classroom teachers have convinced me it is one of the best things ever to happen to high schools. But Abrams, who taught AP classes for several years, is a smart and industrious educator with important things to say. I have been trading thoughts with her in hopes of finding some agreement on what we need to do for the AP classes that enrolled more than 3 million American teenagers this year.

I have learned about AP, which offers 37 subjects, from observing and talking to teachers and students around the country. The classes are, in effect, introductory college courses taught in high school. AP students can earn college credit if they do well on three-hour-plus final exams, longer and deeper than high school tests and even most university finals.

In her book, Abrams focuses on the history of AP, particularly how scholars and teachers developed the college-level English classes she has been teaching at the Bronx High School of Science, a famous public magnet school in New York City.

The education leaders who developed the original AP program had their faults. “I sighed at the original committee’s demographic makeup — privileged, white, Protestant men so self-assured about their rarefied understanding of the nation,” Abrams says in the book. “But surprisingly — not least of all, to me — there are intellectual orientations in the original vision that are worth perpetuating.”

“Some of them are straightforward and concrete, if expensive,” she says in the book. “Limiting class size and facilitating exchange among teachers and professors about materials, mission, and pedagogy could help promote the kind of discussion about values that democracy requires. More debate and communication about the meaning and purpose of liberal education across secondary and higher education should lead to policy that is respectful of students’ growth and teachers’ intellectual autonomy.”

Her criticism of the College Board’s new digital platform, AP Classroom, for getting in the way of communication between teachers and students has merit. She said the online instruction it provides “curtails teachers’ autonomy” by encouraging students to get what they need from the platform rather than from more thoughtful exchanges from their AP teachers in high school.

Her book is worth reading because, as she says, with 573,171 test takers in 2020, AP English Language was the most popular AP course. It and AP English Literature together represented nearly 19 percent of all AP exams administrated.

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Abrams has not had a chance to look at the other 35 AP subjects with that same care. More time seeing what is going on with other disciplines in other schools would, I think, help her understand the extraordinary spread of AP teaching. Bronx Science where she teaches is a wonderful place but has a selective admissions system based mostly on test scores.

I have spent 20 years reporting on the growth of neighborhood and charter public schools that focus not on the most talented kids, but on low-income students who need a challenge. Advanced Placement has proven to be their most effective tool.

The portion of AP exams taken by low-income children increased from nine percent in 2003 to 22 percent in 2018. Students have come to realize they can learn more in demanding AP courses than in regular high school courses even when they fail AP final exams written and graded by outside experts. Some public charter school networks focusing on impoverished students, such as the IDEA, KIPP and Uncommon, have made AP the standard for nearly all students.

When I told Abrams many teachers, parents and students in charter systems such as these have praised how well AP prepared kids for college, her response was: “I acknowledge that the brand can be powerful, but the question for me is always whether there is a better way.”

She said she would love to write more on 20th-century education theorists such as James B. Conant, Morris Meister and Ralph Ellison and their good ideas. I said I hope she also has time to look at present-day AP classrooms.

I think she will see that College Board devices such as AP Classroom have little to do with what happens with students. Energetic teachers who embrace AP standards are the key to learning in such classes. They demand homework. They call on every student. They emphasize thinking.

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One example is an 11th grade biology class at an Uncommon charter school in New Jersey where small groups of mostly low-income students took turns discussing key concepts. One group had to conceive an experiment that would test whether variations in the body armor of a three-spine stickleback fish were inherited.

Abrams wisely doesn’t suggest solutions to the problems she sees with AP. “My goal with the book is to promote conversation, not make a one-size-fits-all prescription,” she told me.

“I would like to see high schools more like liberal arts colleges that encourage teacher and student initiative,” she said.

I think once she visits more high schools, she will find AP teachers and their students creating classroom experiences even better than what happens in many university introductory courses.

Course discussion groups on big campuses are often led by graduate teaching assistants whose skills don’t come close to what you find in an AP teacher like, for instance, Annie Abrams. I suspect she has good ideas for fixing that too.

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