Advanced Placement (AP) vs. Actual College
I was just in Louisville the past few days, meeting with various school and community leaders to write a piece on the recent desegregation case that's come before the Supreme Court. It's a long, complicated story with a long, complicated history, but race is, of course, not the only issue a large and varied school population faces. So I thought I'd share one issue here. The Jefferson County Public Schools include a number of magnet programs. More or less, the gifted and talented program for high school students is located at DuPont Manual High School, which is just across the street from the University of Louisville.
It's a great set-up; if students run out of, say, math classes, they can cross enroll at the university. Principal Beverly Keepers told me that in years past, as many as 100-plus students would cross-enroll. That number, however, has fallen in recent years. She identified two reasons. First, cross-enrollment is no longer "free" (i.e. underwritten by people's education taxes). State universities across the country have had to raise tuition in recent years and the University of Louisville wasn't thrilled to be filling its introductory classes with non-tuition paying students (though the professors, Keepers said, loved working with such eager pupils). Second, the Advanced Placement program at "Manual" (as residents and students call it) has greatly expanded. Students can take everything from AP Statistics to AP Studio Art. Some 80% of students receive scores of 3 or higher on their AP exams (out of 5); 23% of Manual AP scores are 5s.
AP classes are held at the high school. They're also portable in a way that specific classes at a specific university sometimes aren't. While some universities would gladly recognize freshman biology at the University of Louisville as being functionally equivalent to their own introductory biology classes, others don't. Keepers noted that her own daughter was not able to claim credit for one such science class when she went to college; the school wound up giving her "elective" credit for such a course. Many Manual students intend to go to college outside Kentucky. So they opt for AP courses that they can take with their friends, with portable scores, rather than head over to the University of Louisville.
I have a feeling this is happening at other rigorous high schools across the country, and I have mixed feelings about this. The quality of university classes is uneven, but so are AP classes. A poorly taught AP class with a lot of smart kids can easily produce a lot of "3" scores, but the kids will really flounder if they try to take upper level classes at a university next. Some schools also don't do the AP labs "full out." They tell the kids what should happen and why, but lack the equipment to do the necessary experiments. And the AP labs do involve quite a bit of hand-holding. I took AP Chemistry at the Indiana Academy, which was a very rigorous course. I scored a 5 on the exam, which implies that I knew what I was doing. But I was quite confused about lab procedures and such when I took Organic Chemistry at Princeton. Students who enroll in university courses will get the full university deal, sink or swim.
In addition, AP was originally supposed to be an option for kids who were ready for college level work, but who didn't have ready access to a college. Manual's block scheduling allows for college-length classes, and they have a college nearby. But AP still wins out. I am guessing there's a bit of the college application mania going on here. AP scores are readily comparable and, like perfect SAT scores, make you stand out on a scale that everyone else applying to selective colleges will also be judged on. Local university classes may not indicate the same thing.
So now Manual students tend to enroll at the University of Louisville only if they've blown through AP Calculus BC before their senior years. Then they enroll in the university's multivariable calculus class.
Across the country, AP classes are becoming a national curriculum for the most ambitious college-bound students. A rigorous national curriculum may be a worthy goal to pursue in its own right, but I'm not sure that, on the whole, students who are prepared for college work aren't better off just enrolling in college when they're ready.