Advanced Placement(?), Students, Real Estate, and Independent Curriculum

April 19, 2016
by Bart Grachan, Director of Transfer Services, LaGuardia Community College (NY)

(Bart Grachan is consistently a voice of reason on the National Association for College Admission Counseling 2565977[NACAC] listserv. A rare and compelling voice from an important and underrecognized sector of American higher education, Bart brings a highly student-centered perspective to conversations that too often focus on the interests of institutions and the travails of a relatively small and privileged body of students and educators. A few weeks ago Bart contributed this post to a conversation about Advanced Placement courses and examinations, and we invited him to share it with the ICG community. We hope you hear its strong echoes of the Principles of Independent Curriculum–Peter Gow, ICG Execcutive Director)

Recently on the National Association for College Admission Counseling listserv, the annual series of laments about AP exams appeared, a true rite of spring if ever there was one. In case you missed it, this year’s anxiety-producing trigger was a question about taking the class, taking the test – Is the test required? Should it be? What does it mean about the quality of counseling, parenting, and the future of mankind if the two are divorced, etc.?

I’d like to throw a kind of sideways approach into this AP conversation, and at the other questions that focus on the number/types/scores of APs needed for admission to top schools. My big question is, when did “AP” become disconnected from the meaning “Advanced Placement,” a la SAT, or for that matter, KFC? As far as I know, the purpose of an advanced placement course was as preparation for the advanced placement exam, which was designed to provide the student with (wait for it)…advanced placement when they started their college experience. That is the literal intent of the exam. So, this brings to mind a few things in response to the many iterations of AP anxiety:

1) An AP course, without the exam, is an honors course. It has rigor, it has weight, but it is no longer intended for advanced placement, which, to my mind, makes it an honors course. Not a bad thing, just different.

2) Institutions that are using the number of AP courses taken as an admissions criteria (or are giving that data point weight in the process), and I want to be very clear on this, are perpetuating the racial and socioeconomic stratification of higher education specifically, and the country indirectly. AP courses are not universally available. A wide range and variety are even less available. Schools that are predominantly made up of low SES students often have very few, if any, AP options. I would argue that AP courses should be not considered at all in admissions, particularly if an institution is using a pretext of need-blindness. If removed from admissions consideration, they actually are to the students’ benefit educationally, but only…

3) Do institutions actually recognize them and award advanced placement? An honors class can provide an enriched educational experience. An AP class should result in actual placement that is advanced.

4) If these were adhered to, high schools could stop trying to offer an endless menu of AP options, and simply enroll students who wanted both the educational experience and (all together now!), advanced placement.

Two economic realities that will make all this impossible, however, and thus perpetuate a system that simultaneously squeezes the life out of wealthy students, the hope out of poor students, and the interest in “education” as anything other than a means to an end, out of all students:

1) Property values are improved by realty metrics that account for the number of AP courses offered and taken, but not tests taken or scores earned. So, school systems, particularly in wealthier communities, have a vested interest in herding as many bodies as possible into as many APs as possible, without any concern for students taking or succeeding on the test. I have taught in one of those towns. It’s not pretty. The multiple shames of this are that it waters down the courses and, more importantly, it dramatically increases anxiety for students, both the weaker who are in over their heads, and for the stronger, who have to take ever increasing numbers of AP courses just to stand out.

2) Highly selective colleges, with large numbers of students who could have advanced standing, in many cases more than a year’s worth as a result of this course packing, cannot afford to have their entire freshman class graduate in abbreviated and staggered times. Budget models are based on freshman enrollments and retention with a four year projection. If they started losing students by the horde after two and a half years, they would be relegated to either increasing their freshman classes (decreasing selectivity!) or admitting more transfer students. So, that’s why the most selective colleges often refuse or severely restrict AP, or IB, or CLEP, or dual enrollment college courses. Plus, of course, the academic reasons of…mumble, mumble, ahem–hey, look over there! Squirrel!

As a transfer person at an enormous community college, I have no direct skin in this game; most of our students fall into that “Wait, your school offered APs?” category. The fact is, most of the colleges that are in this particular conversation are institutions that barely register the fact that community colleges and their nearly 8 million students exist. It is true, however, that stuff rolls downhill, so while questions about advanced standing through transfer credits are secondary to APs at these institutions, it would help everyone to get this right.

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