Forget Uncle Sam for a minute—his nephew, Big Ed, is the nuisance and the threat that confounds your child’s education and funnels his hopes into monolithic and inefficient programs, courtesy of cronyism.
More than 1.5 million students took Advanced Placement exams last year. AP, designed by the College Board and started in 1952, promises to test students’ preparedness for college, possibly providing them with actual college credit or placement above introductory level courses when they do enter university.
Isn’t that a novel idea? Over the past decade, we’ve seen enrollment in AP courses jump dramatically. Both government subsidies and ratings of schools’ performance encourage high AP enrollment. Maryland could be the poster child for this, with over half their public school students graduating with at least one AP class under their belt. The state has expanded AP to schools with disproportionately high numbers of disadvantaged kids, aiming to provide them with more opportunities to succeed.
That approach seems to have caught on with the 41 other states who received a total of $28 million in federal grants last year to subsidize the fees for low-income students to take AP exams. State and federal taxpayers have poured $400 million into AP over the past decade alone. With its massive expansion, AP is arguably the gold standard for public high school performance and academic rigor, with even many struggling schools now offering at least one AP course.
Points for extra credit, but AP still flunks its own course.
The Advanced Placement Casino
Not even a majority of AP test takers pass the exam, and even fewer score high enough for their results to transfer to their college of choice as actual college credit—and some colleges do not accept AP credit at all. The rate of Maryland seniors who passed at least one AP exam hit 31.8 percent in 2014, but according to The Baltimore Sun, in some of the state’s schools like Woodlawn Elementary, failure rates are commonly as high as 75 percent. And this number doesn’t account for the struggling students who enrolled in AP courses but transferred out to easier classes before test day arrived.
Even students who stick through it can achieve above average grades in the course and still fail the actual exam, as occurred in several high schools in the Baltimore region, where nearly half of students with an A or B in their course failed the test. As the Sun reports, Steve Syverson, a board member of the National Association of College Admission Counseling, noted that high course grades can “lull students into a false sense of security,” and the exam is a rude awakening that they are not adequately prepared for college work, or at least what the College Board deems to be college-level academics.
Motivated kids are drawn into AP classes, and many wear their participation as something to flaunt in front of peers, since their courses are more challenging and require much more work than normal high-school classes. People get the impression that AP students are achieving at college level while their peers are still doing high-school work.
Making a Nice Profit While Kids Flunk
The numbers show that this impression is mostly false. Overall, just 1 in 8 students sit down for an AP test and get a 3 or higher (3 being the minimum passing grade). That’s actually double what it used to be a decade ago, when just 7.6 percent of high-school students took and passed these exams. Fees are around $91, paid by a variety of parties depending on the student’s socioeconomic status, including the parents, the school, the College Board, and federal funding. With close to a quarter of test takers using a government fee reduction, those fees are adding up on taxpayers, not to mention the inflated cost of putting students through actual AP coursework.
Analyses indicate that schools can spend significantly more per pupil on administering AP courses than on normal or remedial classes—no doubt due in part to the troubling dropout rates that produce low student-teacher ratios.
I’m not the first one to raise doubts about the efficacy of Advanced Placement, and I wouldn’t be the last to criticize the College Board for making bank on the shattered college dreams of floundering AP pupils. As a nonprofit organization, the College Board is the education industry’s equivalent of the National Football League, with a virtual monopoly on not just “advanced placement” curriculum and exams, but also the nearly universally accepted SAT, the ultimate test that can determine whether a student goes to Yale or a state university.
But what is most troubling about the College Board remains, for me, the whole Advanced Placement approach to education. It isn’t just the low pass rates, which one could simply chalk up to extra high academic standards. Instead, it is the alarming number of school districts and state governments eager to jump on board with the College Board’s vision of exceptional academic achievement and college preparedness, although this draws resources away from the remedial classes necessary to catch struggling students up to the rest of their peers, and even away from core material nearly every school claims to focus on (writing, math, and science) by adding electives like sociology or world history.
Big Promises, Little Delivery
As in everything, there are opportunity costs. But in this case, they may be disproportionately affecting minority and low-income students, the very same group that the College Board and government are targeting for increased opportunity.
Is it ignorance on the part of the education officials, or are the subsidies and good standing that AP classes give participating schools too good to pass up, no matter the impact on actual education? Is the College Board just peddling a bad product and exploiting school officials’ desire to see their students succeed?
Probably some of each. Like predatory lending and shady real-estate practices, consumers should know better based on previous experience. On the other hand, the party selling the services is still a dirtbag for doing business the way he does and exploiting people’s naiveté and desires. Both parties are at fault for producing superbly cruddy outcomes.
So it is with Advanced Placement. The College Board is bordering on scam artist territory, easily drawing revenue from a U.S. Department of Education eager to prove it can really leave “No Child Left Behind,” and clients who want to show they’ve got the best school around by buying and advertising their high-end product.
Schools get higher marks for enrolling more AP students, particularly low-income and minority students, the College Board rakes in the dough, and the DOE gets to say it did something to improve education. Whether enrolling kids in AP actually benefits them is an entirely different matter.
Money for Results, Not Shiny PR
It is the quintessential government “solution.” Resources flow in as bureaucrats pledge new legislative converts to the fantasy of success. The cogs creak into motion and set to rolling a massive administrative apparatus for the next 20, 30, or 50 years. At first glance it looks like everybody is winning (why else would an idea stick around so long?), but a double-take tells you that, like virtually all government-run or government-sponsored programs, it fails epically at what was supposed to be its goal: getting kids a jump start on college education.
So let me rephrase. Everybody wins, except the students (and you, the taxpayer). That, of course, is the nature of “Big Education,” or the public-private machine that brings us such wonderful products such as Common Core curricula and standards, near-universal standardized college entrance testing, $300 14th edition college biology textbooks, and “Advanced Placement” that places only a handful of students above the pack while washing out millions of others, tax dollars swirling in their wakes.
Call it a scam, call it cronyism, cahoots, bed-buddies, or whatever—it’s an approach that fails by its own standard and drags students who think they’re gaining an advantage through unnecessary failure to do it.
Government will always be enamored with high-profile, “leading edge” education programs like AP. It will always swoon for the smooth-talking looker that seems to have it all, but leads only to empty pockets and broken promises.
What our country’s education system really needs now can’t be pinpointed exactly. It can’t be weaved into one giant program to which legislators, educators, and desperate parents alike pin their hopes for a brighter future. Education is, and should be, different for everyone, and the best way to ensure we have as many effective options as possible for our future generations is to let a market free from cronyism and overbearing government influence innovate in ways that have propelled us so far in other industries.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 1 of 8 students who take AP classes passes the subsequent test. One in eight of all high school students, not just those enrolled in AP, take and pass AP tests.