Are AP classes a fraud? According to "High School Classes May Be Advanced in Name Only" in Monday's New York Times, it's a real possibility. It turns out that just as colleges engage in grade inflation to boost their reputations, our nation's high schools might be caving to pressure to enroll more kids in AP courses. Schools dumbing down the curriculum and slapping an AP label on a class just to look good is problem enough. But the real losers in this scenario are the students who think they're learning AP material when they're actually not.
Back in 1990 (when being an honors student was still prestigious enough), only 5 percent of students enrolled in AP classes. By 2010 the number of students taking supposedly more challenging AP classes rose to 13 percent. The percentage of kids taking AP exams has also almost tripled over the past decade, from 1.2 million in 2000 to 3.1 million in 2010.
Unfortunately, the failure rate—the number of kids scoring only 1 or 2 out of 5—on the exams is higher than its ever been. For students that took an AP exam in 2010, 42.5 percent of them failed. No, the exams aren't easy—after all, both the classes and exams are supposed to reflect college level work—but on some a student only needs to answer half the questions correctly in order to pass. If the classes are actually being taught at the level of rigor they need to be, the pass rate should be higher.
Why label classes as AP when they're really not? One, the No Child Left Behind Act evaluates high schools based on how many students take AP courses. Even if a student doesn't have the skills to keep up in a faster-paced, more challenging class or ultimately pass the AP exam, the school looks good if more kids are enrolled in AP. Anxious parents and students worried about acceptance to top tier colleges also demand to be enrolled in the classes. Nobody wants their kid to be the one who's not "smart" enough to be in the AP class. Teachers and administrators figure it's easier to tell a parent that their son can sign up for AP English than it is to have an honest conversation about whether or not he can actually handle more challenging coursework. Many school districts also weight GPAs higher depending on the number of AP courses taken, and colleges want to see transcripts full of supposedly tougher classes.
School officials like to justify their fakery by claiming that even if a student struggles in an AP class, doesn't master the content, and ultimately only scores a 1 or 2 on the AP exam, they probably still benefited from exposure to a more rigorous level of instruction. Except, that level of instruction isn't always more rigorous. The kids are failing because they're not being taught at a real AP level.
Those schools that allow unqualified kids into AP classes just to boost their enrollment numbers also do a disservice. Being frustrated in a class that's too difficult can be just as harmful to a student as being bored in a class that's too easy. And, real college-level coursework can be a shock to kids used to getting by in fake AP classes. When they get to college and can't cut it academically freshman year, that's a real blow to self esteem.
Instead of cheating kids by pushing a false AP designation on them, schools would be better off actually teaching an appropriately challenging high school curriculum, period. That's what will ultimately set students up for success in college and beyond, not some fake label.