I always love to read articles that question the wisdom of Advanced Placement courses that ambitious teenagers feel compelled to take in high school. Consequently, I enjoyed this New York Times’ article today that revisited the decision of a wealthy suburban high school to phase out AP classes.
A year after Scarsdale (NY) High School decided to begin shutting down its AP offerings, the bright students there are still getting into the nation’s top colleges and universities. Imagine that!
The knock against AP classes is that they promote learning that is an inch deep and a mile wide. Teachers can’t slow down to linger on any worthwhile topic — whether it’s the essays of Virginia Woolf or string theory in physics — because there are too many facts to cram down the kids’ throats.
In May, a student at the University of Chicago’s University High School wrote an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times complaining about the pace of AP classes and their superficiality:
The problem with the AP program is that we don’t have time to really learn U.S. history because we’re preparing for the exam. We race through the textbook, cramming in the facts, a day on the Great Awakening, a week on the Civil War and Reconstruction, a week on World War II, a week on the era from FDR to JFK, a day on the civil rights movement — with nothing on transcendentalism, or the Harlem Renaissance, or Albert Einstein.
There is no time to write a paper. Bound by the exam, my history teacher wistfully saves we have to be ready in early May.
Sometimes I feel as if the College Board, which administers the AP program, is haunting our history class — a long, gray, flat board with a clock on it looming over us. Like an oracle, it tells us what is worth learning and how long learning should take.
What the AP tests do quite well is help with the College Board’s bottom line. The College Board generates about a third of its revenue charging for the AP Test, which costs students $86 a pop.
With any luck, more schools will follow Scarsdales’ lead.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution.