Beating the AP class scam


With college tuition perpetually increasing, parents are highly motivated to cut costs. One way to cut costs is to enroll kids into “AP courses” in high school. Advanced Placement courses provide college credit, at least if the students can pass the AP exam…and there’s the rub, as that test costs around $100 to take.

Because there’s a huge demand, high schools are greatly expanding AP enrollment. Hey, it looks good to say half the kids in the school are taking AP courses, right? Of course it does. However, it used to be that getting into an AP course required some demonstration by the student that he was interested (tough to get from a teenager) or talented enough to survive the more rigorous coursework.

   Scarsdale High School is a place where 70 percent of the 1,500 students take an A.P. course…

It used to be that AP courses were the rare courses. I went to a double session high school, for example, with thousands of students at the school. I didn’t take any AP math classes (I was a slow starter, assuming I ever did start), but I did take the (only ) AP English class the school offered (the valedictorian and all the other top students were in that one class). We’ve gone from 30 students out of 3,000, to 1,000 out of 1,500.

Do the teachers think the “new and expanded” AP offerings are a good idea? Of course not:

More than half, 56 percent, said they believed that “too many students overestimate their abilities and are in over their heads.” Even more teachers, 60 percent, said that “parents push their children into A.P. classes when they really don’t belong there.”

Fifty-two percent said such courses should be open only to students who could demonstrate that they could handle the work.

–sorry to quote a fake news source, but sometimes they’re reasonably accurate.

The teachers of the courses know what they’re doing is wrong, but much like in higher ed, educators have very little influence on education today. With the flood of incoming students, they responded the same way we have in high ed: reduce the standards so you don’t end up failing just about everyone.

What happens, of course, is a bunch of students enroll in the AP courses, a bunch of teachers reduce the content of those courses, and then a bunch of students take the AP exams, which are based not on what the teacher did, but on what the College Board says should be in a college course.

Hey, how does that work out?

Just more than 1 in 5 high school juniors and seniors nationwide (nearly 1.5 million students) took an AP exam in 2014, and just more than 1 in 8 received a passing score on any exam.

Hmm, this is a $100 test, and only 1 student in 8 passes the test…so, mathematically, if the college you intend to go to charges less than $800 for a course, you’re better off not taking the test. Hold the idea of “take the course, not the test” in your head a bit, we’ll come back to it.

Now, the College Board has been softening up the tests in recent years, so passing rates are going up, but bottom line we have loads of students taking these courses, and it’s very clear many of them don’t even have a remote chance of succeeding.

So, is the “AP Course” idea a scam? Well, it depends on how you use it, though some people believe as much:

The College Board earns over half of all its revenues from the courses—and, in an uncertain environment, students keep being suckered.

–another fake news site, so I’ll have to clarify this quote a bit. The College Board also runs other college-related tests, like the SAT.

To clarify, the College Board gets its money from the tests. $100 a pop for a test that, once you’ve paid a professor a few hundred bucks to make, costs nothing to print, and very little to grade (if that much, much of these tests are fill-in-the-bubble tests taking under a second to grade).

$100 is rather pricey considering the overhead here. As is so often the case, the high price is because government is involved:

In California, they note, $2.8 million in federal funds are used to subsidize AP tests for students.
The above “subsidy” only covers 28,000 tests—that could easily be less than 10,000 students, since many students take 3, 4, possibly even 5 AP exams. The criticism of “AP courses” as a scam has a fatal flaw:

The AP program imposes “substantial opportunity costs” on non-AP students in the form of what a school gives up in order to offer AP courses, which often enjoy smaller class sizes and some of the better teachers. Schools have to increase the sizes of their non-AP classes, shift strong teachers away from non-AP classes, and do away with non-AP course offerings, such as “honors” courses. These opportunity costs are real in every school, but they’re of special concern in low-income school districts.

And? I mean, seriously, you’re a parent, you want your kid to have the best education possible despite 90% of the money you spend on it being sucked up into a grotesquely huge and overpaid bureaucracy. Small class sizes? Better teachers?

Yes, you want those things. AP Courses are not a scam, it is perfectly rational for parents to get their kids into such courses if at all possible.

Even if these courses are watered down…you’re still getting a better deal than if your kid was in a non-AP course (it’s the same price either way, after all).

But the AP test? No, don’t do that to your kids. You’re not saving any money here, even if your student passes the test.

Allow me to explain what happens, at least from a math professor’s viewpoint (and, I promise you, I saw this with my own eyeballs, many times). The good student takes the AP Calculus course, for example, and passes the test. Great, he’s got college credit for Calculus 1, right? He’s just saved tuition on one course, based on a watered down test from a watered down course. In theory, he’s ready for the next course.

Then he enrolls in Calculus 2….and fails, most likely because AP doesn’t mean what it says it means. I saw it time and again. It’s not a sure thing, mind you, but what goes on in the next course varies wildly from campus to campus. AP courses and tests change every year…but university courses don’t. There’s room for some huge, and I do mean huge, gaps in preparation here, and I emphasize I’ve seen it with my own eyes many times.

The bulk of the students that take Calculus 2 on a campus after taking Calculus 1 on that same campus? They do well. The bulk of the students that “AP” into Calculus 2? They fail. They’re not prepared, at least not in the same way for the same course that the “normal” students are.

The high-school AP course didn’t begin to hold a candle to any of my college courses. My colleagues said the same was true in their subjects.

This is what happened to me, incidentally, as I went from a “weak math student” in high school, to blowing away my “more advanced” students in college. I started a semester behind because I didn’t even take AP courses…but I passed my “AP Calculus” friends from high school in the third semester, as they were forced to retake the course or change their majors as they hit brick walls that only existed because the calculus they took in high school wasn’t remotely comparable to the calculus of college…they learned enough to pass the AP exam, and that’s all.

I promise you, there are better paths to success for most kids coming out of high school than going straight to college. That said, you still want your kids in the AP courses because they get smaller classes and better teachers.

Anyway, that’s the trick to avoiding the AP scam: take the AP courses, don’t take the AP tests. The student ends up being better prepared for college this way. Taking the test not only is expensive, but if the student passes, he’ll lose most of the benefits of that “advanced” preparation by having to retake courses.

One more detail:

Many critics lay the blame on the College Board itself, a huge “non-profit” organization that operates like a big business. The College Board earns over half of all its revenues from its Advanced Placement program — more than all its other revenue streams (SATs, SAT subject tests, PSATs) combined. The College Board’s profits for 2009, the most recent year for which records were available, were 8.6 percent of revenue, which would be respectable even for a for-profit corporation.

This whole “incredibly profitable non-profit corporation” thing is getting big in higher education. I glanced at a little at this when I looked at the college debt hall of shame, and I’ll look at how this scam works later…just so many scams in higher education it’s tough to stay on top of all of them.