• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

'Noteworthy'

On AP exams and those who take them.

 

June 19, 2018
 
 

This isn’t intended as a pure defense of AP exams, or of standardized tests generally. That said, I was struck at this line in the IHE story about several elite private schools in the DC area dropping AP exams and courses:

“Taking AP courses has become so popular that doing so is no longer “noteworthy.””

“Noteworthy.”  In this context, I think that means it no longer makes a student stand out. Making students stand out is the business that elite private schools are in. If your kid could get the same bump from your local public school as she could from the elite private, what is all that tuition for?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the elite private schools moving away from AP comes just after a wave of public high schools extending AP classes and exams to more low-income students and students of color. As Yogi Berra reportedly said of some restaurant, “nobody goes there anymore. It’s gotten too crowded.” With the Great Unwashed streaming in, AP just doesn’t offer the cachet it used to.

Jeff Selingo pointed out on Twitter that it has been a rough couple of weeks for the College Board.  First the U of Chicago drops the SAT/ACT, and then a bunch of elite private schools move away from AP.  That’s true, as far as it goes, but it misses a key distinction. Chicago dropped the SAT out of concern that it didn’t tell them anything. The private schools are dropping the AP because it doesn’t make them distinctive anymore. The former is about students, mostly; the latter is mostly about the schools themselves.

We’ve used AP exams as part of a dual enrollment/early college initiative.  Not every high school has master’s-qualified faculty in every field, and with bloc scheduling, we can’t always send our own faculty to each school.  AP exams offer a way to fill in gaps. For all of their flaws, they work as a sort of credit-by-examination system with national norming. If such a thing were drawn up from scratch, it would be considered a breakthrough. Institutionally, part of the beauty of AP is that schools can use whatever teachers they think will do a good job; either the students perform or they don’t. For all of the well-known flaws of standardized tests -- and again, I’m not denying those -- they allow talented students from out-of-the-way places a chance to prove themselves.

To the extent that elites withdraw, the talented students from out-of-the-way places lose the chance to prove themselves against those elites.  Which may, in fact, be part of the point.

As several folks have pointed out recently, the elites will find ways to advantage their own. That’s the story of legacy admissions, and for certain sorts of schools, that’s the story of athletics. (How many working-class high schools have crew teams?) For all of their flaws, exams are at least available in lots of different places.  Apparently too many.

Ultimately, of course, much of this is distraction. As Michael Young noted in his classic novel Meritocracy, the whole point of the meritocratic myth is to drape aristocracy in moral virtue, and implicitly to lead those on the bottom to blame themselves for their fate.  Arguing over which lucky few get to break through is fair enough, but the premise of “a lucky few” is the real issue. And that’s where community colleges get looked down on. We take the top 100 percent of our applicants, and let them show us what they can do.  That increasingly flies in the face of a polarized culture, but that’s why it matters all the more.

 

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