AP Tests are a racket but my son took them anyway

As a family we’ve been isolated from the community feeling that test takers get when everyone experiences the pressure at the same time. This round of AP tests was our first time. I found myself having similar experiences to other homeschooling moms and my son found himself having similar experiences to kids on Reddit.

There’s a whole world of kids helping each other with AP tests on Reddit, and then making jokes about being unprepared. The AP commentary is breathtakingly smart and clever. We spent a lot of time laughing about the memes.

Then, in the middle of the two-week test period, the College Board got themselves a Reddit account and posted a reminder to the students that they made a contractual agreement to not divulge any questions after the test. Which is a farce. Because you can find full blog posts analyzing the tests just days after they have been taken.

The first responses were predictable to everyone except, apparently, the College Board:

Suck my dick college board

The answer to 1 is A

AP Gov had a frq on the 28th amendment, come at me

The AP gov test is a joke – it’ll just take longer if you cheat

You could also tell it was six months after a lot of AP test takers had been accepted to college:

My AP number is 8273 192 8 cancel my scores CB

Then of course someone made a fake account and started responding to everyone’s comments. But then the kids got serious:

A capitalist company should not be able to have such a huge stake in our education

I was struck by the deep truth of that comment. So I did some research.

When the College Board is funding the research, the results all revolve around the evidence that kids who take AP tests do better in college. But this has nothing to do with kids who score highly. It’s actually about kids who took the difficult classes in high school and then showed up to the test and try. It reminds me of the research that shows kids who apply to Ivy League schools do as well as kids who get in.

And of course rich kids do better at AP tests, so now there’s been a push to help lower-income kids take the test too. Lower-income students require a teacher who is incredibly gifted and also one who has manic energy and persistence. But for the most part, this push to make AP tests more than just a rich-kid sport has meant getting lots more kids to take the test and fail, which means more money for the College Board.

Admission departments at colleges make decisions based on a combination of  SAT or ACT scores, difficulty of course load, and GPA. So for most kids, getting high scores on APs doesn’t help with getting into college.

What colleges want to see is you took the most challenging courses available to you, and you did well. So in a rich-kid private school they don’t need APs because the schools only have hard classes, and why on earth would you teach to the test if you don’t have to? And in many schools with poor kids there are no AP classes to enroll in so colleges don’t penalize the kids for not taking APs.

So then who should actually take AP tests? Kids who don’t go to school. Like homeschoolers. Because those kids need to demonstrate they had a demanding curriculum in order to prove they can handle college-level work.

Which is why we are steeped in AP biology this week, but in between flashcards on mitosis we marvel over the kid who wrote: I failed AP stats, my meme got 1.4k upvotes!


12 replies
  1. Virginia
    Virginia says:

    Would your son have any interest in taking a community college course? I think that would look great on a college application and it might be less stressful than studying for a single test.

    • Deborah Flanagan
      Deborah Flanagan says:

      Some universities will consider a student a transfer student instead of an incoming freshman if they have taken ANY previous college courses (You can lose the ability to qualify for freshman scholarships)

    • David
      David says:

      The College Board is cronyism, not capitalism. Capitalism implies a choice. As a college educator, I have never found much value in standardized tests. How can we evaluate whether a student can skip Calculus because of a number from 1-5 on a single standardized tests? And the SAT really tests only test-taking skills. I once interviewed for a tutor job at a major test prep company, to find out that they wanted me to tutor in the verbal as well as the math section. That says it all right there. I like the community college idea, it proves the ability to succeed in a college class, something which I think is much more valuable.

  2. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I see two different topics intersecting here. One is the problem of credentialing as a homeschooler. Mommy grades only get you so far; at some point a kid needs proof from someone besides mommy, preferably an organization with some prestige.

    The second topic is what a racket AP has become. Here’s another aspect of the racket: schools giving kids a grade boost for taking AP classes (e.g. an A is worth 5 in the GPA, not 5). Is this a bribe from a school to the students for doing something that helps the school’s numbers?

    My son is transferring from one type of school to another this fall. The type of school he’s leaving is the competitive public school. I have the impression these schools are all very similar: the states mandate the curriculum, and the schools can’t change it, so they compete by loading on the extracurriculars, the homework, and the AP classes.

    At my son’s current school, 100% of students take AP classes, with a 91% pass rate. It offers 24 AP courses. The top students will typically take four or more AP classes simultaneously, plus some exams for self-study courses, so many will graduate with more than a dozen APs. It’s a full-out arms race, and these numbers all get counted in rankings.

    My son hates that school. It’s all memorization. The kids are excellent sheep. He hasn’t gotten to the AP part yet, but he knows he would hate a class a mile wide and an inch deep.

    As PT points out, some of the best private schools are now ditching AP classes entirely. Schools that have dropped AP entirely include Phillips, Choate, Dalton, Fieldston, Concord, St. Marks, Spence… some of the top public schools are now getting on the bus too. These schools have decided that AP represents a lot of what is worst in contemporary education. In English, instead of learning a variety of types of writing, the only important genre becomes the 500 word AP test essay (intended to be graded in a huge stack by temp workers, so use some ten-dollar words!). In science, the time that should be spent learning to ask questions is abandoned in favor of memorizing answers.

    In the fall, my son is going to try out a small private school with a progressive educational philosophy. The school offers almost as many AP classes, but fewer students take them; about half the students graduate without any. The school considers that the regular classes are likely better than the AP classes, and so limit students’ participation in AP. The school has talented, enthusiastic teachers with advanced degrees and complete curricular freedom – why would the teachers want to spend their time going over rote learning for AP tests? Why would students want to spend their whole year doing nothing but that? Each AP test has a huge opportunity cost.

    I’d love to argue that my son’s new school should give up participation in AP entirely, but I think that is a privilege that comes with recognition. Only schools that are sufficiently prestigious on their own get to give up competing on the AP standard with other schools. The school that gives up AP is giving up ranking on those numbers. Students need to borrow prestige from somewhere, and AP is more necessary if the school itself doesn’t have enough on its own.

    Which brings it back to credentialing for homeschoolers. AP classes are surely part of this. Other popular sources of confirmation for homeschoolers include CLEP tests, dual-enrollment college classes, SAT subject tests, competitions, and accredited programs like CTY.

  3. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    It will be interesting to see what happens to colleges/universities as the knowledge gets out that children are capable of learning most college level material by the time they are 12/13 – if it’s presented with their intellectual context in mind and tied to their values.

  4. jessica
    jessica says:

    Just wait until you start reading the capitalist, monopolistic history of Blackboard.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      OMG I just read about blackboards!


      Shocking, yet so obvious when I think about it. Before the teacher could write on a blackboard at the front of the room each kid had their own book and went at their own pace and the teacher taught kids individually.

      So the blackboard was a way to save money. Its not like someone said, this will he better for kids. Although every time schools have messed up education in the name of cutting costs the schools defend it saying now poor kids have access to education.

      Thanks for pointingnme to that, Jessica.



      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        I think she meant the widely hated educational software monopoly Blackboard Inc., not the 19th century technology.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          That’s funny. It’s infinite all the avenues I can find for outrage over our education system.


  5. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Man, I had no idea this is what the AP tests have become.

    It looks like it breaks down by class, too. Lower/working classes need them to prove their worthiness. The upper class doesn’t need them because connections will carry them through.

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      The AP tests were created in the 50s (during sputnik hysteria) by a group of top prep schools with the idea of creating a higher standard for American math and science education for college-bound students.

      In 1957, less than 10% of American men had a college degree, and less than 6% of women.

      Fitting the AP test program to today’s very different society changed how it functions, as did College Board’s insatiable thirst for profit.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I wouldn’t label the College Board as a capitalist company by any stretch. If they competed in the marketplace with other capitalist companies, then they could be labeled as such. In fact, they’re an entrenched, protected non-profit organization with exclusive rights to a few required tests necessary for college and university admission. They are a monopoly. I get that these students are upset and they have every right to be. However, what’s not right is to bash and malign capitalism wrongly. There are plenty of crony capitalists willing to do that.

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