AP marketing serves high schools, fails to serve high school students
The US News and World Report college rankings were instituted in 1983. A rankings frenzy took hold of the higher education community, and high school rankings quickly followed.
There is a bevy of organizations that release annual rankings. Houston’s own Children at Risk releases widely read rankings of greater Houston area public schools yearly. National publications such as the Washington Post and Newsweek have also gotten in on the game. The US News and World Report releases their own “Best High Schools” list in conjunction with their popular “Best Colleges” list.
Ranking high schools, particularly public high schools, is a little trickier than ranking universities. Some high schools are zoned by housing area, some are actually magnet schools that have a rigorous application process and some operate under charters. Curriculum varies by state, and there are socioeconomic factors to consider. There’s no handy set of entering freshman data to crunch.
To solve the problem, ranking methodology often relies on the College Board’s Advanced Placement program registration.
AP courses are typically more challenging than regular courses. If a student passes AP exams administered by the College Board, they can earn college credit at hundreds of universities across the nation.
The AP program has seen massive expansion in recent years. The College Board now offers AP courses in subjects ranging from calculus to music theory. According to recent College Board data, about 845,000 students participated in the AP program in 2000. In 2013, over 2 million students participated in the AP program.
Because AP enrollment can be interpreted as a sign of course rigor and student college readiness, it is factored heavily into high school ranking methodology.
The Washington Post ranking methodology is simple: the ratio of AP, International Baccalaureate or Association of Independent Creative Editors test takers to the general student population. The official Houston Children at Risk methodology report states that the number of AP/IB test takers and AP/IB tests passed are weighted at 5 percent respectively, for a total weight of 10 percent. For comparison, TAKS Recommended Reading and Math combined are also weighted at 10 percent.
The US News and Report evaluates college readiness “using Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate test data as the benchmarks for success.” The college readiness index involves a simple AP/IB student participation weight of 25 percent, and an AP/IB passed exams weight of 75 percent.
Colleges have historically fiddled with application numbers, yield rates and entering freshman SAT scores to climb the rankings. High school administrators seeking to make the same type of ranking jump have been heavily marketing AP courses.
AP courses can be a good option for high school students seeking an intellectual challenge or cheap and early college credit. The AP marketing push, however, has resulted in unprepared students overloading themselves with difficult courses for the sake of college admissions and high school rankings. Students are loading up on as many as five or six AP courses in a year.
A 2012 Baltimore Sun investigation reported that a growing number of students are receiving high grades in AP classes but failing the AP exams.
Many students load up on AP courses to gain an edge in college admissions. Many colleges evaluate AP course registration during the admissions process, and high schools often award extra GPA points to students who take college courses.
The growth of high school rankings and the AP marketing push has resulted in unprepared students taking AP courses, when they might be better served by honors or academic level courses.
High school rankings are another offshoot of the national obsession with numbering and ordering everything from hospitals to food trucks. The College Board, which has a stranglehold on the college admissions process in the United States, has a lot to gain from pushing AP weight in the rankings process.
AP courses can be useful, but their ubiquity in high school rankings and college admission is damaging to high school students.