John T. Tierney gives the case against AP tests:
AP courses are not, in fact, remotely equivalent to the college-level courses they are said to approximate. Before teaching in a high school, I taught for almost 25 years at the college level, and almost every one of those years my responsibilities included some equivalent of an introductory American government course. The high-school AP course didn’t begin to hold a candle to any of my college courses. My colleagues said the same was true in their subjects.
The traditional monetary argument for AP courses — that they can enable an ambitious and hardworking student to avoid a semester or even a year of college tuition through the early accumulation of credits — often no longer holds. Increasingly, students don’t receive college credit for high scores on AP courses; they simply are allowed to opt out of the introductory sequence in a major. And more and more students say that’s a bad idea, and that they’re better off taking their department’s courses.
The scourge of AP courses has spread into more and more high schools across the country, and the number of students taking these courses is growing by leaps and bounds. Studies show that increasing numbers of the students who take them are marginal at best, resulting in growing failure rates on the exams. The school where I taught essentially had an open-admissions policy for almost all its AP courses. I would say that two thirds of the students taking my class each year did not belong there. And they dragged down the course for the students who did.
The AP program imposes “substantial opportunity costs” on non-AP students in the form of what a school gives up in order to offer AP courses, which often enjoy smaller class sizes and some of the better teachers. Schools have to increase the sizes of their non-AP classes, shift strong teachers away from non-AP classes, and do away with non-AP course offerings, such as “honors” courses. These opportunity costs are real in every school, but they’re of special concern in low-income school districts.
To me, the most serious count against Advanced Placement courses is that the AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification — a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.
Michael Williams talks about his own experience, concurring.
I personally do not have any experience in the way of taking AP courses. As far as my school district was concerned, I was closer to “remedial” than “advanced” despite my being a top performer in most of the (non-honors) classes I took. In middle school, my math teacher inquired about putting me advanced math, but was denied on the grounds that I had been tagged a near-remedial student (I was actually making mostly A’s and the rest B’s at the time, but that wasn’t what they were looking at). Honors classes were out of reach in high school, and AP classes moreso. The colleges took a different view, and I was being recruited by a directional school specifically for their honors college. Southern Tech, where I did attend, accepted me unconditionally into its Honors College.
When I got to Southern Tech, they had me take a placement course. This wasn’t for college credit, but was for bypassing the sequence as Tierney mentions. I scored into the highest English and Math courses, though it turned out not to matter: The Honors College required that I start at the bottom floor in English and the College of Industrial Technology required that I take specifically designed “technical math” courses, which were not appreciably different than the sophomore and junior high school classes I did take. I could see why I otherwise would have tested out of them.
I am, on the whole, glad that I did not take AP classes. It may not have done me any good for math and my Honors English classes were awesome. The only ones I would have wanted to test out of are those that I might not have (namely, science) and ones I would have (Social Studies, English) are ones I was glad to take at the collegiate level.
Tierney points to what I consider to be some solid reasons why AP classes have gone off-track, as far as that goes. On the other hand, some of the same arguments can be used against tracking (Honors/Standard/Remedial/etc) and I am a fan of those. The bit about intellectual curiosity comes is interesting because my impression from my friends - many of whom took honors classes - were that it was much more freewheeling than the classes I was taking. Without thinking about it, I would have guessed AP classes would have been the same. But if the class itself is geared towards preparing for a specific test, I suppose that makes sense. It does seem a little bit odd to me that the best teachers would be teaching these classes, though. I’d have thought that teaching to a test is something that they would avoid (and, along those lines, that non-AP honors classes were considered better because the framework was not as rigid).