To AP or Not To AP?

Much criticism has been leveled at Advanced Placement (AP) exams over the years. Many elite private schools argue that the courses and exams are too shallow and encyclopedic and do not develop a student’s critical thinking skills. We believe that AP exams do serve an important purpose and that the debate should be over when and why students should take APs and when they should move beyond them.

In 2013, more than 2.2 million students took 3.9 million AP exams. These exams are the culmination of a challenging college-level course taken during a student’s high school career. The AP program originally began as a way for high school students to take college-level coursework and to earn college credit for this work. AP exam scores are an objective measure by which many colleges and universities assess a high school student’s readiness for higher-level courses. Many schools permit students with high enough scores on AP tests to bypass introductory courses.

Many colleges and universities also use AP test scores as an integral part of their admissions decisions. Traditionally students in public and private schools cram AP courses into their junior and senior years. Students see the courses as the finishing touches on their high school transcripts and college applications. Many students are motivated to take AP courses not by a desire to master a subject at a college level, but because they know their grade point average will benefit from a weighted grade (i.e. a grade contributing bonus points) if they take AP classes. This focus on the college admissions game is revealed by the question often asked of admissions officers: “Which is better, an A in an honors class or a B in an AP class?”  As admissions officers are fond of answering: “an A in an AP class!” However, AP courses taken during senior year will generally not contribute to a student’s g.p.a, as universities usually make their admission decisions before AP scores are released in July.

Given the rampant grade inflation at all levels of American education, grades earned by students in even the most elite traditional private schools cannot be trusted. Students applying to Oxford and Cambridge learn that those institutions do not care about grades awarded by teachers in American schools. Instead, they care about AP scores because they are validated externally and based upon rich intellectual content and skill development.

AP exams are a distinctly American solution to the problem that standards in American education are subjective and vary widely from school to school. As an objective measure that allows for the comparison of students at different schools, AP exams play the same role as the matriculation examinations used in high-performing education systems in Europe and Asia.

In our increasingly global market, it is imperative that American students face the same requirement of demonstrated mastery of core academic material as their peers in other highly developed economies, and that they are prepared for analytically demanding and information-intensive 21st century careers. At BASIS.ed schools, we use the AP examination system for precisely this purpose.

All BASIS students are required to take six AP exams, including at least one in each core subject (English, Math, Science, and History) in grades 9-11; in our legacy schools, student’s average ten exams. The AP exam serves as the course’s final exam and a student’s score on the test makes up a significant portion of the student’s grade for the course.

In most traditional public and private schools, only the strongest students are admitted to the most challenging AP classes in math and science. Those schools can boast that 100% of their AP students earned a score of four or above. But that system is rigged. Its goal is for the school to look good, not to challenge and support all students to master core academic material before entering college.

At BASIS.ed schools, the model is utterly different—every student takes and passes AP exams. According to U.S. News, only 15 public high schools in America can boast that 100% of their graduated students passed a minimum of one AP exam last year. Two of those 15 schools were schools managed by BASIS.ed.

In a further departure from the traditional AP approach, BASIS students take no AP exams during their senior year. In this regard, BASIS students also differ from students in other advanced economies who traditionally take matriculation exams in their final year of high school. Instead, BASIS students use their senior year to go beyond introductory AP course material in core subjects and integrate knowledge across disciplines.

In the fall trimester, BASIS seniors select from a number of capstone classes, each designed by teachers based upon their distinct disciplinary passions. Each class is a deep dive into a narrowly defined area of knowledge. In their final trimester, BASIS seniors conduct senior research projects, in which they take a topic that has truly engaged them in the classroom and research it in the world at large.

So while seniors in a traditional public or private school are cramming in their last AP courses as the final ornaments for their transcript and battling senioritis, BASIS seniors are engaging in a truly intellectual endeavor in the real world, and firing up the passions that will drive their college experience and their choice of career.

AP courses and exams play an important educational role. In BASIS.ed schools, the AP program is integrated into the curriculum and used to demonstrate high-level academic mastery. It develops foundational knowledge across all core academic areas and provides admissions officers with an objective measure of what the student has mastered in much the same way that matriculation exams do in other countries.

–Michael K Block and Q. Mark Reford

Dr. Michael K. Block is a the founder of BASIS Charter Schools, which are all (15 schools) nationally recognized college prep charter schools and Chairman of BASIS Educational Group. Dr. Block received his BA, MA and PhD in Economics from Stanford University and has published extensively in professional journals.

 Dr. Q. Mark Reford was born in Ireland. He was educated at Oxford and taught there, at Moscow State University and for many years at Sidwell Friends School. He is CEO of BASIS Independent Schools, and is currently opening two new private schools for Fall 2014 in Silicon Valley and New York City.

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