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Pass, fail

Are A.P. Classes a Waste of Time?

Advanced Placement courses are no recipe for igniting the intellect beyond high school. They’re a recipe for extinguishing it.

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An empty classroom in Hollywood, California

In 2019, an anonymous high school student posted on Reddit that they had worked out a “nice formula” to game the Advanced Placement English language test, one of the 38 subject areas in which the College Board, a private company, sells high school students a chance to take exams for college credit. By “very deeply analyzing the organizational patterns of high scoring previously released essays,” the student found, one could avoid the kind of independent analysis the A.P. language test is meant to measure. “Even though it’s kinda weird imitating other people’s styles of expression,” the Reddit poster writes, “it definitely may improve your score nonetheless because you’d be writing exactly as they want you to.”

At Colby College, where I teach, we don’t accept A.P. English Literature for credit or for placement, nor does Colby’s Writing Program accept A.P. English Language in lieu of the college’s first-year writing course (W1), which all matriculating students are required to take. But many students arrive here and elsewhere having taken A.P. classes; in 2022, the College Board boasts, roughly 1.2 million students took more than four million A.P. exams in public high schools throughout the country. And when I teach a first-year writing course, or an introductory course in the English major, I inevitably spend the first few weeks undoing the damage the A.P. system does to how students understand both writing and the study of literature.

Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students
by Annie Abrams
Johns Hopkins University Press, 240 pp., $24.95

The damage is familiar to college faculty across disciplines: writing as a form of Frankfurtian bullshit for which it’s more important to be superficially convincing than rigorous or factually correct; the study of literature as exercise in literary device-hunting, a trick-mirror image of literary formalism from 75 years ago. If you want to ruin an English professor’s mood, just say “logos, pathos, and ethos,” which show up every year in a preponderance of first-year student essays, regardless of subject matter. In more concrete terms, the A.P. English exams make it harder for college faculty to teach students how to write for the rhetorical situations they’ll actually face—such as writing the City Council to get a dangerous intersection fixed or explaining to a co-worker what’s misleading about a client’s data visualization—and how to engage with literature for a lifetime rather than for a mark meant to exempt them from college-level work.

As Annie Abrams documents in Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students, the choice not to accept A.P. English and other A.P. exams for credit or placement is the norm at highly selective colleges and universities, like Colby, in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, the Ivy League, and at other perennial targets of the nation’s most privileged high school students. Private academies that aim to place their students in highly selective colleges and universities also eschew A.P. in favor of a more substantive and autonomous curriculum.

The result is that, although the A.P. program is meant to create egalitarian pathways to a rigorous and rewarding education, it ends up encouraging still more rote learning—especially in less privileged high schools—replicating the system it was meant to replace. Today’s A.P. system may purport to scale advanced learning opportunities beyond the elite, to give as many students as possible a chance at college-level work in high school, but what it really teaches is which boxes to tick so you don’t have to do college-level work in a given subject. What’s supposed to be the beginning of inquiry too often becomes its ending. 

A.P. emerged in the mid-twentieth century, in the wake of World War II, when many of the nation’s leaders had an eye on how to reform education to promote democracy. Harvard president James Conant, among others, was an influential proponent of “general education,” which Abrams tells us was a synonym for a “liberal education” that was “soulful, democratic, and multidimensional.” Gordon Chalmers, then president of Kenyon College, wanted education reform as, in Abrams’ words, a “response to concerns about the Korean War, Communism, and increased demands for a well-educated polity.” Chalmers partnered with the Ford Foundation to promote “intellectualism and individualism” as twinned public goods, providing institutional and financial backing to committees to study education reform.

One such body, the Blackmer Committee, was initiated by Andover headmaster John Kemper after lunch with popular Andover English teacher Alan Blackmer. The goal was to figure out how best to coordinate between schools and colleges. One of Kemper’s suggestions was that “schools could take full responsibility for liberal arts, while colleges could focus on specialization.” Another was to “somehow shrink the last two years of high school and four years of college into four years total.” In 1951, Andover would join a group of prestigious schools and colleges—Exeter and Lawrenceville, along with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—as part of a study of the relationship between school and college curricula.

From the beginning, Abrams shows, A.P. was explicitly designed to serve the most advanced and elite students. “The program was more concerned with reproducing habits of mind in the emerging ruling class,” Abrams writes, “than it was with understanding the American education system as a mechanism for rapid social restructuring.” Hence the schools and colleges in the inaugural study were a sampling of the most elite institutions. And the final report of the Blackmer Committee explains its intentions to improve education from the top down, starting with the most elite with the hope that the benefits would ultimately extend further through the system: “We believe in the ‘Jacksonian’ ideal of extending the benefits of education as far down the scale of ability as it is possible,” the authors declared. “But our task in the present study is to emphasize the ‘Jeffersonian’ concept of the right of every able student to the best education from which he is capable of profiting.… While we have tried to outline a program of study which would offer all students of college caliber a better education, we have been particularly concerned about the superior student.”   

Abrams makes clear that Conant, Blackmer, and Chalmers, in their various ways, saw the systematizing of college-level education for elite high schoolers, and the standardizing of learning assessment across schools, as a path toward the expansive and thoroughgoing study of literature, history, mathematics, and other subjects that would enrich civic and intellectual life in America. Conant, an admirer of the philosopher John Dewey, “hated dogma”; Blackmer was an English teacher who hosted Saturday evening salons for his students. Chalmers “was committed to strengthening Kenyon’s humanities program.” William Hafner Cornog, charged with implementing Chalmers’s ideas for studying education reform, wrote “poetry is more important to our salvation than rocketry.” This was not, in other words, an assembly-line approach to education meant to bring pupils to heel. As Abrams writes, “Chalmers warned against education programs that were ‘training those to be governed, not the education of governors. This means the education of slaves, not free men.’”

The first of Abrams’s two major theses, then, is that the reality of A.P. today—mechanistic, superficial, increasingly delivered through an artificially paced, software-forward program, and with too many constraints on those trying to teach it—neither democratizes elite education nor achieves any of the liberal humanist ideals of its founders. One of those founders, Henry Bragdon, wrote in 1968, “Tests too often encourage bad pedagogy,” therefore “teachers should emancipate themselves from the tyranny of testing-cum-grades and try to evolve a variety of intellectual exercises in which grading is subordinated to training in reading, writing, discourse, methods of inquiry, and critical thought.”

Today, however, the A.P. test score is the alpha and omega of students’ experience with A.P. coursework, with lesson plans and pacing shoehorned into test-preparation packages dictated by the College Board. Abrams describes the assessment rubrics for A.P. English essays:

Starting in 2019, for both exams, the College Board pivoted away from holistic grading toward a mechanical rubric. The new English rubrics for all six essay types attach the same point values to components: one point for the mere presence of an arguable claim, of any quality, anywhere in a piece of writing, and up to four points for evidence and “commentary.” Cogent analysis is unnecessary. Credit is possible without introductions, conclusions, topic sentences, or meaningful transitions between thoughts. The only reward for coherence or style comes in the form of a single “sophistication” bonus point.

Because school administrators have incentives to encourage strong performance on A.P. tests, teachers have incentives to abide by the constraints of A.P.’s narrowly prescribed content, lesson plans, and rubrics. Accordingly, students enrolled in A.P. courses often come away with a cheapened, possibly irreparable impression of the subject matter. Whereas students have no shortage of encouragement or opportunity to pursue subjects in science and math beyond high school, so may come to richer and more dynamic experiences of those subjects, an A.P. course may be the last course in literature, history, or government a student takes, especially if they’re taking A.P. to test out of the general education requirement in college.

The second major thesis of Abrams’s book is that the A.P. system has meant that “too many undergraduates show up to campus with an impoverished sense of the purpose and possibilities of humanistic study.” Why? Because “the College Board’s influence over student perception of the liberal arts is arguably greater than any single institution’s.” The pressure to get students through A.P. classes incentivizes teachers to offer a limited diet of texts amenable to the superficial analysis that A.P. expects students to perform on the test. That analysis, what I’d call cold interpretation—like cold-calling someone you don’t know and don’t know much about—doesn’t require the most important thing for explaining any text: contextual knowledge, often gained through independent research. That’s the skill set students need for when there’s no more teacher, no more professor, no more test.   

In a particularly striking anecdote, Abrams describes the remarkable effort and thought she put into her unit on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man for an A.P. American literature section: work she includes, rightly, with pride in her subsequent tenure case at the school. “When I submitted my tenure application in the fall,” Abrams tells us, “my principal threw away the curricular materials and students’ testimonials I’d prepared, explaining ‘I think they’re very nice, but your students’ AP scores are enough for the superintendent.’” One could hardly illustrate more plainly the extent to which the A.P. system influences schools to encourage teaching to the test at the expense of both higher and more practical educational goals, goals teachers are best equipped to achieve with pedagogical freedom and support.

From my experience as an English professor, I think Abrams is right to raise concerns about this system. Most of the damage control I have to do in my introductory college courses involves disabusing students of the truisms they learned from a test-driven A.P. curriculum. One is that writing is a “soft” exercise of rhetorical flourish in which factual accuracy, sound reasoning, research and data-gathering, and appropriate treatment of evidence don’t matter. Another is that literature is purely subjective, so literature’s facts—whether contextual or within the fictional world of a novel or a play—don’t matter; a text is just a prompt for expressing your opinions. 

One problem with such impressions is they reinforce for students the false notion that studying literature or history—or forming an argument in writing—is neither real nor applicable analytical work; that it doesn’t matter if you read carefully or develop a knowledge base that informs what you’re studying and what you get out of it. A more serious problem is that, emptied of the stakes of being right or wrong, accountable or not, there’s no joy in studying something that seems pointless. You write “exactly as they want you to,” you tick the box, you move on. It’s a waste of everyone’s time.

Abrams’s second thesis is also intriguing: We can explain a significant part of plummeting enthusiasm for humanistic study at the college level by understanding how A.P. devalues these subjects for students before they get to college. But one aspect of this argument doesn’t sit right with me. Throughout the book, Abrams appeals to concepts such as “subjective experiences,” “cultivation of subjectivity,” and “meaning” to defend the value of classroom instruction in literature and history, while positioning these against the A.P.’s tendency to value the “quantifiable” and “systematic.”

But the many problems with A.P. are not so much about efforts to produce standards at scale, nor to measure those standards, as about the standards themselves. They function—maybe are designed—to bring students’ engagement with literature and history to an end. Teaching a test with the prospect of exempting a student from college coursework is more likely to weaken, if not deaden, an interest in any subject. That would be bad enough, but to go a step further and call what’s essentially extended test preparation the intellectual and exploratory equivalent of a college course is no recipe for igniting the intellect beyond high school; it’s a recipe for extinguishing it.

The judgment behind this approach is that students don’t need, maybe shouldn’t have, any further instruction in humanistic subjects after high school, and all the better if A.P. can also save them the time and expense of taking any college-level courses in these subjects as well. That’s precisely because the humanities have long since been relegated to the spheres of “subjective experience” and “meaning”—not analysis, not research, not knowledge, which are what higher education is ostensibly in the business of providing. The dramatic decline in humanities majors is just one reflection of such attitudes. And when Miguel Cardona, the U.S. secretary of education, says, “Every student should have access to an education that aligns with industry demands and evolves to meet the demands of tomorrow’s global workforce,” students—particularly those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds—are hearing “return on investment,” not “the humanities.”

I don’t doubt that teachers accomplish more in their A.P. courses than I’ve described here, only that the A.P. program—as opposed to any other pretext for an ambitious curriculum that’s not driven by a test and college placement—is what makes this possible. Broad-based access to quality higher education is both essential and extremely complicated to achieve. A.P. was not designed for such challenges—certainly not the ones we face today—and there’s no good reason to empower it with such influence over high school and college curricular decisions.