The Advanced Placement (AP)is a series of courses given at public and private high schools, wherein the content of the courses and the tests are administed by an entity outside of the school, the College Board. High schools like AP courses because it reduces demand on the curriculum; parents like APs because students who score well can earn college credit (possibly reducing college costs); college admissions departments like APs because the scores are standardized (reducing grade inflation and making it possible to compare students from disparate schools). Students must meet specified criteria and have teacher approval to enroll in AP courses.
So what's the problem? One problem is that the AP curriculum, especially in the social sciences, focuses on survey rather than exploration. One teacher at a well-established private school, says he was not sympathetic three years ago when a student complained about having to keep to the AP curriculum without stopping to explore some intriguing side roads. But then, the teacher says, he realized that when-ever a student in his AP American-history course asked a thoughtful question not quite on the topic, he often heard himself saying, “That’s interesting... but we have to move on to the next era.” Another problem is that the APs tend to be very very rigid as to learning styles.
Nonetheless, the APs are booming in popularity. From 1998 to 2002, AP participation by underrepresented minority students increased 77 percent and participation by low-income students increased 101 percent, while overall participation rose only 48 percent. There are complaints that many of the new AP-students are failing the tests.
Who promotes the APs? The program is surely a profit center for College Board, which sponsors the AP, of promoting the program in order to collect the $80 test fees from all those students eager for an advantage in the college-admissions race. APs are also used by Newsweek to rate "top high schools", by rating how many APs are offered and what percentage of the student body takes them.
On the other hand, there's some good evidence that raising the bar by offering college-equivalent courses is good for a low-performing high school, and really can change a student's self image. Even students whose grades and test scores in high school were mediocre are more likely to graduate from college if they have had some challenging high-school —courses such as AP and IB, according to a 1999 study by U.S. Education Department researcher Clifford Adelman. That finding was particularly true for minorities. The Science Academy of South Texas, a public school that draws students from three rural counties in the Rio Grande Valley, has sent several migrant workers’ children to high-tech colleges by exposing them to difficult AP assignments.
Go check out The Irascible Professor for more stupid uses of the AP.
I am deeply ambivalent about a strong independent high school offering APs, instead of developing a strong curriculum.