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SPINKS: Placing out of learning

The University should not grant AP credit to incoming first years

It’s that time of year again — high school seniors are in the process of applying to college and/or panicking about the applications they have already submitted. A major concern that many high school students have is whether or not they have taken a sufficient number of Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Like most students at the University, I took a rigorous curriculum in high school, which included many AP classes. When I arrived at the University, I made the decision to retake most of my “AP-equivalent” classes, preferring the prospect of a repetitive or easy course to taking the credit and being overwhelmed by the upper-level classes. I quickly found, however, that my AP classes weren’t equivalent to their college-level counterparts at all. In my opinion, the Advanced Placement program is broken and somewhat corrupt, and the University should stop granting credits or exemption for AP tests altogether.

First, let me speak anecdotally, because my personal experience is largely to blame for my lack of faith in the AP system. I think it is important to establish immediately that while I will criticize my AP classes for not accomplishing their purported goals, I certainly do not feel that my AP curriculum lacked value. I found many of my AP classes to be rigorous, challenging and taught by intelligent and inspiring teachers who had profound impacts on me both academically and personally. I do not regret my decision to enroll in the classes, because although they ultimately failed to prepare me for their college counterparts, they still imparted me with useful skills such as the ability to build student-teacher relationships, a strong work ethic and a certain tenacity.

There were marked differences between the expectations of my high school classes and my introductory college courses. Classes that have corresponding standardized tests such as AP classes are often criticized for merely “teaching to the test” or preferring breadth of information over true depth — meaning that students will often complete the class without having developed critical-thinking skills. If you had asked me upon graduation whether I considered myself a critical thinker, I probably would have said that I did. Upon taking my first introductory chemistry exam, though, I realized that memorizing facts and diagrams wasn’t going to be enough to do well, which was shocking because it had been largely sufficient in high school. In my humanities classes the story was much the same. While in high school it had been enough to merely understand historical events, political theories or important people independently of each other, in college the ability to synthesize many pieces of information into a greater storyline or historical context was mandatory — and I found that my skills were lacking.

Besides the fact that the skills necessary to succeed in AP classes differ from those necessary to succeed in introductory college classes, I found that the curriculums were not analogous. I covered a vast amount of material in AP Chemistry, but it simply was not the same as the information covered in general chemistry at the University. I have found time and time again that the understanding of historical events that I gathered from AP World History and AP Government is shallow or insufficient as well. My high school experience was not worthless — I obviously learned a lot and grew significantly as a person and a student. That said, I don’t think I learned the same information that introductory courses at the University have taught me. Thus, to grant me (or anyone else) credits would be misleading and undeserved.

Of course, anecdotal evidence alone is not enough to validate my argument. The AP program is problematic for a number of reasons. High schools often have an “open-door” policy for the AP classes — meaning they allow anyone to enroll regardless of their academic qualifications — because their own reputation is based largely on the number of students enrolled in these classes, rather than their actual success or eventual test scores. Almost 40 percent of high school students are enrolled in at least one AP class, which makes the distinction of being an “AP student” virtually meaningless, anyway. Colleges should stop stressing the AP curriculum and look more deeply into students’ applications during admissions. Rather than valuing a large number of AP classes, admissions counselors should focus on the depth of a student’s curriculum, their grades, the clarity of their writing and the cohesiveness and dedication level of their extracurricular pursuits. These factors are already considered to some extent, of course. But ultimately, I would argue they are more important and tell you more about a student’s preparedness for college than standardized test scores from AP classes and SATs.

In closing I will cite my favorite study that I’ve come across when arguing against the AP system. This year, Dartmouth College stopped issuing AP credit completely, even for students who had earned fives on their exams. They justified this decision with the following study: they administered the final exam of their introductory psychology class to the more than 100 admitted students who earned a score of 5 on the AP Psychology exam. Of those students, less than 10 percent passed Dartmouth’s exam. The material simply wasn’t the same. It was abundantly clear that the ability to score highly on the AP exam did not translate to guaranteed success in a Dartmouth course.
Our University should follow Dartmouth’s lead and stop valuing AP test scores as well. We should stop granting credit because it seems that doing so is an empty or even fraudulent gesture.

Ashley Spinks is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. Her columns run Mondays.