Montgomery Blair High School's Online Student Newspaper
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May 9, 2012

The Advanced Placement problem

by Mimi Verdonk, Online Sports Editor
There was a time when college credits were earned…in college. But that time is over. With the next two weeks dedicated solely to Advanced Placement (AP) testing, a significant chunk of Blair’s student population is away taking a test with the hope of receiving college credit. Thus, the madness ensues.

Students spend hundreds of dollars to take AP tests in addition to the money spent on other studying aids. Courtesy of
Students spend hundreds of dollars to take AP tests in addition to the money spent on other studying aids.
AP tests are designed by College Board, the same organization that makes the SAT and PSAT. The tests are created for students in AP classes, which are college level classes taken in a high school setting. AP offers 34 unique tests, ranging from Music Theory to Calculus. But what if your school doesn’t offer one of these courses? Increasingly students are self-studying, not taking classes in subjects that they’ve already mastered or that are unavailable at their school but instead learning the material on their own to take the AP exam. Students can end up taking upwards of six of these tests, at a cost not just to their wallets but to their education.

Self-studying is nothing new. More often than not, it’s a student's method for final exams or the SAT. But to self-study without having taken a class is an entirely different matter. Not taking a class means a student misses out on the classroom feel, the direction of the teacher and the learning experience. The open discussion and exchange of ideas that are created in a class filled with other students are completely remiss. People spend months applying to schools for classes that students can "pass" in three hours on a Tuesday morning.

Another disconcerting factor about AP tests is the amount of money being spent. At $87 a pop, the cost of multiple APs tests can easily approach the price of a new laptop. Though a couple hundred dollars is a highway robbery compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are likely to be spent on a college education, in reality APs are not all they are made out to be. Though they do provide college credit at many schools, they are in the form of elective credits, meaning that every AP class, be it Chinese or Studio Art, is given the same worth, no further increasing a student’s quest for a degree in a certain subject. In other cases, the class counts for nothing, serving only to accelerate the student to the next tier by excusing them from the entry level class in college. If the class will end up counting for nothing and a brief college placement test proves a student has learned the same thing, are APs really necessary at all? When the class is given full credit in its broader subject, for example, fulfilling a science credit with AP Chemistry, students can be pushed ahead to skip whole grades and enter college already with the credits of a sophomore. But like in the issue of self-studying, it is important to keep in mind what the student might be missing out on by advancing, perhaps too far, with AP classes.

Almost the opposite of the college before college phenomenon is the strategy of overloading on AP tests to avoid taking final exams. Particularly for sophomores and juniors who want to stop going to school as early in June as possible, APs are an easy excuse out. No matter the score on the AP, which isn’t received by students until the third week in July, students who choose to take the AP for their class are given automatic exemption from finals. Students are willing to shell out nearly $100 to pay for what could potentially be the difference between passing or failing, if a student runs the risk of failing a final exam.

When we get down to the heart of the matter, APs are just another form of tracking, putting some students on the path to a quicker college graduation, and allowing others to slide by, taking the tests as a means to pass a class. Maybe by eliminating the test and alleviating the pressures to receive fours or fives, the American education system would be a step closer to leveling the playing field.

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  • Adam on May 10, 2012 at 9:24 AM
    Lately there's been speculation about whether CollegeBoard might come under federal scrutiny for unfairly monopolizing the testing market. The notorious for-profit nature of the CB, combined with its terrible treatment of students (customers), makes it the perfect candidate to get slammed by the DOJ's antitrust laws. I really hope this happens.
  • asdf on May 10, 2012 at 1:36 PM
    collegeboard is the devil
  • I agree! on May 10, 2012 at 5:36 PM
    Nice article...:)
  • ____ on May 10, 2012 at 6:21 PM
    Of course APs are a form of tracking. Is that good? Maybe not. That being said, I think APs work well for many students. I have taken APs both as self-studies and in normal classroom settings. As a self-studier, maybe I missed out on classroom discussions, but my 5 shows I clearly still mastered the subject. I'm looking forward to going to college with sophomore status because I'll be able to skip a lot of huge gen-ed lectures and spend more time taking classes relevant to my major.
  • Anonymous on May 10, 2012 at 11:35 PM
    I completely agree that the original intent of the AP exams is completely gone. However, AP exams are a good way to measure your mastery of a subject, especially in comparison to students around the country. It's true that it creates competitiveness and builds up stress, but if you keep your scores private to yourself, it's nice to know where you stand and how much you've mastered a subject.
  • Alumnus on May 11, 2012 at 12:49 AM
    Opinion articles are much stronger when you offer *evidence,* not just half-baked semi-intuitive hypotheticals. For example:

    "But like in the issue of self-studying, it is important to keep in mind what the student might be missing out on by advancing, perhaps too far, with AP classes."

    The premise of this sentence is not necessarily bad, but it is horribly underdeveloped. What constitutes "advancing too far?" What would the student "be missing out" on by doing so? Be specific. Offer evidence. Your writing will be much stronger for it. As it is, it comes across as flimsy and unconvincing.

    Finally, what is wrong with tracking? Is separating students with aptitude in a certain field from those without an inherently bad thing? What does "leveling the playing field" entail, and why is it necessarily something to be desired in education? Equal opportunity for all students does not mean equivalent academic experiences for all students. The former is necessary, the latter would be idiotic. Again, *support* your opinions, don't just ramble off buzzwords and cliched phrases.

    Furthermore, how does this conclusion follow from the rest of your article? Why are you ending an opinion piece on a point that is introduced only one paragraph before the end of the article?

    It's disappointing, because of all the legitimate criticisms that can be made of College Board and of AP exams, this article chooses the absolute weakest of them, and then fails to provide adequate support even for those. You can do better, SCO.
    • I agree. on May 11, 2012 at 5:36 PM
      It feels like sometimes SCO writes articles just for the sake of filling a quota.
      • bakke v regents (View Email) on May 12, 2012 at 8:22 PM
        From what I know this is sort of how the system works, even if it is an oversimplification.
  • Calm down on May 12, 2012 at 9:05 AM
    Maybe if you guys were a little bit more observant you guys would have seen that this was just a blog and not an op-ed in which facts would be needed to back it up. Relax.
    • woah there sunshine (View Email) on May 12, 2012 at 8:23 PM
      When you make any kind of argument some variety of facts are usually a good idea to have on hand... Any kind of persuasive piece, formal or informal, would certainly benefit from them.
  • Don't be so harsh on May 13, 2012 at 1:51 PM
    I wouldn't undercut this article so blatantly; I think this blog is nicely written and speaks some truth. There are two strongly opposing viewpoints on this issue that are hard to reconcile, and it's really easy to get emotional about something like this. I think APs are a great way to learn college material and to get a head start in college, but the fact is students who are unable to afford these exams are getting left behind. Nowadays, it's almost "expected" that students go into college with at least some AP credit. Students are now even self-studying for thick subjects like physics and bio - which are not only difficult school subjects but even harder to learn on your own. I think this goes along with the whole idea that education is accelerating too rapidly and maybe it is time to consider slowing down, for the benefit of everyone. Of course, this is a two-sided problem and there is no easy answer. But I think it's an issue that we need to continue discussing. Let's not blame SCO; they do well with their stories and I think this is a perfectly legitimate and necessary topic to cover.
    • Alumnus on May 14, 2012 at 1:58 AM
      Again, you put forth ideas but don't fully develop them. What do you mean, "accelerating too rapidly?" What constitutes "too rapidly?" What, specifically, are the detriments of this acceleration? What would be the benefits of "slowing down?" If you want to convince people that there are two sides to an issue, you must *present a legitimate argument* for both. Simply asserting their existence is not in any way convincing - and that is exactly what both this article and your comment do, assert the existence of some detriments to the AP program without outlining what exactly those drawbacks are.

      You refer to this "whole idea that education is accelerating too rapidly" as if it's somehow a widely agreed-upon problem with demonstrable, obvious effects on education. It is no such thing. *What* is this "whole idea?" Explain! If you cannot argue a point yourself, you have no business calling attention to it.

      As an aside, monetary arguments against the AP tests are bunk - AP exams are at least an order of magnitude cheaper than a college course.
  • Caitlyn on May 14, 2012 at 10:48 AM
    I think of APs with the same contempt as I do for the SATs or ACTs. APs just give admissions offices, scholarship programs, and parents another way to simply identify the student as just a number and nothing more.

    Numbers are a huge deal throughout the years leading up to college. Numbers rate students on how well they can test on the SAT and ACT. Numbers represent the amount of money one can spend on taking these tests and test prep courses. Numbers show the frequent hours and days filled with frustration, studying, worrying, and sleepless nights.

    There is a saying I have heard numerous times throughout my college admission process and scholarship search: “You are more than a test score.” Really? I don’t think the College Board understands what this means.
    • Alumnus on May 15, 2012 at 11:41 AM
      Numbers are easily comparable. Can you think of a better way of running college admissions than attempting to quantify the properties you're looking for in potential students?
  • What the hell did I do on August 16, 2012 at 1:28 PM
    I felt pressured into self studying for exams, and ended up self studying for a few exams, even Environmental Science (which I never even took). I ended up doing very well, even after spending only a day studying...what does this even say about that class? How can an entire class be condensed into half a day of "studying" and a three hour test? AP exams are stupid :/
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