In an old, but organized science lab students are baking cookies.
Mrs. Donham, a vibrant and veteran teacher, monitors a group of teenagers gathered at a faded green, slate countertop. A student is carefully mixing flour and water into a beaker.
Another student writes down the ratio of the liquid to the solid.
The rest of the group observes, each one’s attention fully captured.
A student wearing a black hoodie over her head, asks the group which ingredient they should replace for the second portion of the assignment.
“Sugar with salt.” another girl replies. The group laughs.
“Anybody know the chemical formula for those?” Mrs. Donham asks inquisitively, squinting through a pair of brown-framed glasses.
A boy with braces and a bowtie gives the right answer. The science teacher smiles in approval.
In this class, Advanced Science and Theoretical Research, the learning is active. There aren’t desks and some days kids don’t even sit down. Throughout the year, students will discover the chemical processes involved in baking cookies, learn the unique anatomy of a hammerhead shark and analyze the contents of owl poop to determine it’s most likely birthplace.
This type of experiential learning is pedagogically sound and socially beneficial (don’t tell any of the kids, but it’s also fun). Yet, in the landscape of education today, opportunities like this are on the brink of extinction.
Outside the classroom, in the hallways of Central High School in Little Rock, I talked to Mrs. Donham about the projects she’d been working on with students. She tells me that these projects are great, but classes like this one are hard to keep populated with learners.
“I just don’t have the numbers anymore.” she laments. “Not since AP Exams became what they are now.”
Her statement highlights a broader trend in education where a hyper-focus on standardized tests is diminishing genuine learning experiences. This reality is especially true with the ascendance of the Advanced Placement Exam (AP). Around for decades, the test has seen its importance intensify as the path to elite colleges has narrowed for today’s graduating seniors.
AP programs are often touted by school administrators as proof of a rigorous curriculum. But, the grim underside of the Advanced Placement curriculum is that they are tearing apart schools and strengthening the divisiveness of society. And while the course work is indisputably difficult, the side effects are nothing to brag about.
The AP exam is institutionalized racism.
Insidious in nature yet obvious outcome, the Advanced Placement curriculum is segregation’s newest facade. In February 2019, the College Board released data demonstrating a shocking disparity between the number of black and white students passing the exam.
According to the data, 749,958 students scored a ‘3’ or higher on the exam in 2018. Of those students 32,499 identified as Black/African American and 405, 069 identified as white; a 1246% disparity.
Of all test takers, less than 10% completing the exam were black.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that separate wasn’t equal. That same year, the first AP exam was given, ensuring education praxis would remain the same despite this landmark change in philosophy.
The advanced placement track and the related gifted and talented program has continued to grow a systemic resource disparity responsible for the national achievement gap. Efforts are being made by the AP College Board to improve test scores of non-white students and they are quick to point out even the most minuscule signs of improvement, but the solution is the problem. Standardized assessment and advanced placement classes were never meant to serve those students in the first place and they never will.
Because the theory behind standardized testing neutralizes a student's social location it ignores the fact that not all students come to class with the same academic resources at their disposal. Therefore, the AP track becomes yet another tool that enables the privileged at the expense of the marginalized.
The impact of this systemic segregation is deteriorating empathy.
Imagine a discussion about the civil rights movement in a US history class where there are no black students.
Or a Spanish lesson, in a class without native Spanish speakers.
Based on the data we have, we know this is a reality for many AP classes.
Inside a typical classroom, there’s a lot of memorization of facts. Students taught well beyond their grade level will amaze you with their academic abilities. Even more amazing though is what’s missing from these classes: students that look, talk and believe differently.
This homogeneity detracts from the social learning that’s necessary to combat discriminatory practices outside of it. When students interact with others from a different worldview, it can be very beneficial for everyone involved.
Yet, with few exceptions, learning to communicate with others is not a priority in American education. And we really need it to be. Empathy is on the decline. One needs to look no further than the office of the president. Even the first lady’s “Be Best” campaign is hypocritically selective. Yet, it should come as no surprise that those in power have a hard time caring for the plight of others. No one is teaching them how to. No one is telling them it matters.
We got to this point because of an overemphasis on standardized testing and academic tracking. This model of education once made sense, but today seems moot. So why isn’t there a bigger focus on the thing that really needs to be fixed?
When you prioritize achievement at the expense of acceptance you create highly intelligent but emotionally agnostic students. Those students, fast-tracked to successful careers and positions of power, take both the content and the norms they’ve been taught into their adult lives and the end result is what we have on our hands now.
Of course, you can’t solve for the complete divide between societal segregation. But, if the public education system is for anything, it ought to bring a nation together. And we can’t do that in a hyper-individualized, accolade driven model of education.
Along with our ability to empathize, AP Exams are eliminating authentic learning opportunities.
The impact of AP testing is not only segregating classes, but it’s also cheapening student's educational investments. By reducing the school’s teaching potential and narrowing a student’s value to a singular score, the AP Exam comes with a tremendous opportunity cost.
Classes that are project-based and student-centered are quick to go by the wayside in schools that are highly motivated by AP Exam scores. Research has shown project - based education improves knowledge retention while simultaneously building intrapersonal and interpersonal communication skills.
Additionally, AP Exams override extracurriculars for America’s best and brightest. Often too stressed to take on anything else or literally out of time, students are willing to give up or do the bare minimum for activities like the school play, Model UN, competitive debate and robotics in order to clear their schedule for tutoring or more studying. Even the ones that do participate, It becomes merely a college resume bullet point, rather something they invest serious effort into.
In addition to watering-down the learning experience, the AP curriculum is also harmful to a student's well-being. A 2018 study conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, found that students' desire to get accepted into prestigious colleges with all-time low acceptance rates is harming students, citing an “excessive pressure to excel” as a key environmental factor contributing to student trauma.
Of course, the students who care the most about being admitted to top universities will do virtually anything to get in, including sacrifice their well-being. Their drive to be the best overrides literally every other part of what being a teenager is supposed to be about. And rather than be the adults in the room, our education administrators are playing along to the detriment of education writ large.
The way forward, without AP
Mrs. Donham’s science lab is now filled with the smell of carefully baked, gluten-free sugar cookies. The students pack up their things as they enjoy the delicious rewards of their academic labor. A kid asks what the next project is going to be and she tells them that they will have to wait and see. There is a genuine excitement in the room. Classes like this one can’t be on their way out. Here, kids love learning. Ending AP is the way to save them.
The origin of AP exams and standardized tests as tools of cold war paranoia and biological determinists is well established. Yet, poor pedagogy has remained like an urban legend, passed down from one administration to the next since the end of the first world war.
Schools that have moved away from the AP curriculum have already found success. The actions they’ve taken for a more equitable approach to education have been rewarded with genuinely diverse classrooms, more empathetic students and stronger school cultures.
Eliminating the AP exams is not sufficient to completely fix our broken education system, but it is necessary. Of course, some classes are better suited for a project-based approach than others and there are a host of implementation issues to work through. But, all classes can be improved with an integrative focus on course decisions. And if schools are about the students inside of them, there is no reason not to move forward.
Ending the AP exam is not only good for the best and brightest, but it is also in the best interest of every one student that comes to class and that is how education ought to be.