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Editorials

Advanced Placement or the (Other) Devil We Know

By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

In a 2022 staff-editorial concerning the SAT, our Board called standardized testing “the devil we know.” In 2023, a related ghoul maintains that invidious epithet.

Due to lost revenue as a result of colleges’ shifts away from use of the SAT, the College Board has loudly advocated for the expansion of its Advanced Placement program.

The AP program offers accelerated, college-level courses to high school students and has seen widespread adoption, with one Boston school even building curricula around AP courses. Yet while the College Board rakes in almost a billion dollars in annual revenue, including millions of taxpayers’ dollars, over a third of test takers nationwide earn failing scores on AP exams.

Though we recognize the College Board and its offerings as flawed, we still see value in a rigorous curricular option for high-school students administered by a non-governmental organization. Ultimately, education can never be one-size-fits-all, and schools should individually determine what curricula serve their students best.

The College Board is certainly devilish: It’s a private organization that sets the curriculum and standards for a significant share of America’s high school courses, and yet we hardly know if its product is effective. A 2018 paper found that AP classes have “minimal to no impacts” on students’ college outcomes, and a study from this year found that AP test takers were no more likely to enroll in college than their peers following standard curricula.

Not-so-shockingly, a research brief released by the College Board concludes that even those who earn failing scores on AP tests tend to have greater college success than their non-AP peers. But the College Board conspicuously failed to publish the full study write-up and the underlying data, sharing only the flattering results, and itself conceded that the study was not causal.

(Perhaps their researchers were not properly apprised of instrumental variable regressions, a topic omitted from the AP Statistics curriculum.)

More rigorous and transparent research must take place to justify the expansion of a program that has become so ingrained in the American educational system. We call on the College Board to release more convincing evidence that their programs genuinely prepare students for college.

Alongside this uncertainty about efficacy lies a simple concern: AP exams are expensive. Current fee waivers fail to sufficiently level the playing field. Meanwhile, low-income students who are able to take these tests fail at disproportionate rates.

More work must be done to ensure AP classes don’t only serve the already advantaged. Harvard should continue its practice of evaluating applicants in the context of the opportunities they have been given and not penalize applicants who do not take APs.

Suffice to say, the AP system is far from perfect. But as distrustful as we are of the College Board, we’re equally uncomfortable surrendering education to the whims of state governments. In recent years, states have attempted to politicize education — including Florida, which mounted a repugnant pressure campaign on the College Board this spring to censor parts of the AP African American Studies curriculum. In such cases, the College Board’s offerings had a greater chance of survival against the worst impulses of government leaders, whose efforts to prevent teaching about marginalized identities have succeeded at the state level, while continuing to provide robust education.

Herein lies the strength of a private organization: the ability to stake out neutral territory during partisan political wars.

Furthermore, abolishing APs would deprive many students of the benefits that those courses can provide, from the chance to enroll in challenging classes for educational enrichment to saving on tuition costs by accruing college credit early. AP courses certainly have a role to play in scaffolding a quality education system, particularly when students are encouraged to enroll out of genuine curiosity about the subject matter.

The College Board has already taken commendable steps to expand its curricular offerings. We applaud efforts to make online study material free through partnerships with Khan Academy and hope the program expands to all AP courses. We’re similarly impressed by new offerings like AP African American Studies and hope the College Board introduces more courses that speak to the totality of world history beyond the United States and Europe.

In the end, we can only evaluate AP tests for what they are: high school courses intended to provide college-level rigor. The quality of a university applicant goes beyond the number of AP courses they’ve taken, and the quality of a school transcends the quantity of its AP offerings; increasing the number of students who take these tests is not good in and of itself.

For many students, alternatives like dual enrollment or International Baccalaureate – not to mention standard or remedial courses – may be more suited to their educational needs. And for many schools, the best investment is classes and teachers that target students who need the most educational support.

But for now, here’s hoping for reforms that can make AP courses more than just the lesser of two evils.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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