The AP Debate

"We believe a college-level course should be offered on a college campus, taught by a college professor with college students in the room."

This quote from an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education summarizes a view that has gained currency in academe, and is a cornerstone of the TAMS philosophy.  TAMS has been a highly successful vehicle for bright high school juniors and seniors to earn two years of transferable college credit.   Sophomores contemplating TAMS should, of course, take honors, pre-AP, and accelerated classes whenever possible.

But what about AP classes strictly as an equal alternative to TAMS -- a way to earn college credits and reduce undergraduate requirements? It may come as a surprise that AP credits are not universally accepted by colleges, and that there is divided professional opinion about AP courses in general.

While AP courses have the solid support of legislators and education agencies (most notably the College Board which administers the program), critics find fault less with the AP concept than with the course content, and with the uneven acceptance of AP credits. In the following excerpt from an online article [Ask The Dean], AP credit is praised as "a good buy," a "preview of college-level work," and a means of saving time and money. However, the article goes on to state:

  • “If you are taking AP courses specifically to reduce the amount of credits you'll have to take once in college, or to have specific classes 'waived' during your freshman year, be aware that every college treats these classes differently.  Taking AP English does not necessarily get you out of taking English 101. The faculty, not the admissions office, decides how an AP course is treated in light of all credits needed to graduate. Call and find out before you assume your credits will transfer over 'one-for-one'."

Regarding the end-of-course AP final exam on which students must earn a score of 3, 4, or 5 (depending on the college) to get college credit:

  • “Colleges are inconsistent,” said Donna Main, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. government in Maryland. “Sometimes they don’t accept AP at all. Sometimes they ask for 3 or better, or a 4 or better. Sometimes they say, ‘it’s great that you’re taking AP, but we want you to take our writing course.’”

Other cautions are noted.  Consider two quotes from the Chronicle article referenced above, authored by Leo Reisberg:

  • "David E. Mills, an economics professor at Virginia believes that AP courses are tailored to the exams, and that high-school instructors impart test-taking strategies at the expense of writing and critical-thinking skills."
  • "AP-credits are not always an accurate gauge of student learning. High AP scores in chemistry, for example, may indicate that students understand the basic concepts, but that doesn't mean they know what to do at a laboratory bench." (Bobby Fong, college dean and English professor).

Similarly, the president of Bard College in New York believes "AP is a second-rate alternative to advanced teaching.  It's a test-driven curriculum, and that's completely anathema to anything a university does." Consequently, Bard is not accepting AP credit. Two related criticisms of AP programs are noted in a February 1, 2002 New York Times article (High School Drops It's A.P. Courses, and Colleges Don't Seem to Mind):

  • AP courses restrict teacher creativity and the ability to probe enticing themes.
  • AP syllabi cover so much ground that “there is very little liberty for the teachers” to extend discussions.

Finally, a National Academies release summarizes a critique of AP math and science programs:

  • "Accelerated classes that cover a smorgasbord of topics and final examinations that devote insufficient attention to the integration of important ideas cannot produce superior learners, says the report, which concentrates on biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics in Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs in U.S. secondary schools. AP and IB have raised the level of mathematics and science education in the United States. However, their efforts to emphasize the key concepts in science disciplines have been largely unrealized because of the excessive number of topics covered in each subject."
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