What happened to my AP curriculum - it's gone!


Rear view of a graduate

What do you remember about AP Calculus? AP Biology?  AP English (which wasn't offered at my math and science heavy high school)? If you remember writing papers, proofs, designing and executing your own experiments - it seems as though that's just not done anymore.  I remember challenging classes where the teacher had no expectation that any or all of us would actually take the AP test. So, the teacher spent time teaching, not prepping for the test.

Apparently, that academic program is history.  

APs have become the way high schools compare to each other. Perhaps it was US News & World Reports or Newsweek who came out with high school rankings - but offering a lot of AP classes and getting a lot of good scores on AP tests has become a critical success measure. And according to Dr. Tony Wagner, as more high schools offer AP classes, fewer colleges are accepting them for credit.  Turns out that the colleges didn't feel that the AP credits were earned doing college level work.

AP tests today measure content. Content is pretty easy to find - through a phone or a laptop. Knowing if the content is reliable and analyzing, presenting and using content - that's hard. That's what's expected in college courses and it's not what's being measured in a multiple choice standardized test. You can graduate with a robust AP curriculum and never write a research paper.  It's not a requirement of the curriculum (individual teachers and schools can have their own requirements, of course).

You teach what you test.

I was an excellent test taker, so I have no story about how testing hurt me. Assessment is crucial for students, teachers and parents - it's how we know that we're learning the intended skills. The problem is the unintended consequences of using a content literacy test as the sole measure of school quality. The only logical thing to do when your institution is measured on a specific test is maximize performance on that test.

  • Is the most important skill for an academic high school junior or senior memorization? 
  • Or is it critical thinking and analysis?

My kids will go to college in a long time and I expect they'll be carrying digital textbooks and always-on devices that make content universally accessible.  So, when they're preparing for college, I hope they'll be learning to analyze and present content - perhaps even in collaboration with others. Kudos to Scarsdale High School in New York for eliminating AP course - they have Advanced Study, but it's not test centric. Kudos to Sequoia High School in Redwood City for having the International Baccalaureate program.

Do you think the use of AP scores as a measure of high school quality has helped improve education? What else could we use to assess high schools?  What are the unintended consequences of those choices?