Half of NYC Public School Students Will Fail Their AP Exams, So Why Are We Spending Millions to Expand Access?

Feb 12, 2020 12:00:00 AM

by Gregory Wickham

AP (advanced placement) classes are designed for students to fail. 

In 2018, just over 50% of New York City public school students who took one or more AP exams passed at least one of the exams. That number goes down to 43% for Hispanic students and 26% for Black students. 

Despite these alarming numbers, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) recently launched the AP for All initiative which “aims to ensure that by fall 2021, students at all high schools will have access to at least five AP classes.” 

AP for All is part of the DOE’s Equity and Excellence for All agenda, run by the Office of Equity and Access (whose website is effectively inaccessible due to an SSL certificate which somebody at the DOE apparently forgot to renew by January 14, 2020, at 6:59:59 PM. If you do visit their website, however, you will see that their copyright notice is still stuck in 2012.).

If you need accessible information on this agenda, I suggest you visit this single page on the DOE’s official website.

There is a multitude of issues with this AP for All agenda, starting with one extremely important design feature of AP courses:

[pullquote]These should not be the passing rates encouraged by an “Equity and Excellence for All” agenda[/pullquote] and definitely not the passing rates of an educational system that prepares students for college.

When a student signs up for an AP course, they are required to pay and register for the AP exam administered in May, during the month of October. At this point, students have virtually no knowledge of the extent to which they may or may not end up mastering the material. Seniors who may wish to take AP courses to earn credit at the college that they will attend the following year haven’t received their admission results, so they can’t base their decision to take an AP on the AP credit policy at their future college.

AP registration forces students to make uninformed decisions. Most other standardized tests are offered multiple times per year and allow much later registration. The SAT, also administered by the College Board, requires registration only one month in advance or as little as 18 days in advance with late registration for an extra fee. This allows people to register for the test only when the student makes the decision that they are satisfactorily prepared. With AP exams, this is prohibited.

The College Board Profits Off Failure

Both the DOE and the College Board know that nearly half of the NYC public school students taking an AP class will fail the exam. The DOE, instead of creating a system to help students succeed is, instead, creating a system that encourages (in 2018) 26,438 students to pay to fail. 

Despite these incredible failure rates, the DOE is spending millions to expand AP access. This is certainly good news for the College Board, but is it good news for the students? Maybe for some, but on a large scale, [pullquote]there are much more efficient ways to improve college readiness, than simply throwing students at “college-level” courses earlier.[/pullquote]

In 2015, 45% of the College Board’s revenue came from AP exams and instruction materials. Since then, the fee for taking an AP exam has been hiked to $94, and these figures disregard the costs of teacher training, and materials, costing the DOE tens of millions of dollars annually.

That was 2015. Since then, the number of students taking at least one AP exam has increased by a third. The number of students passing has increased by 28% meaning proportionally more students are failing than ever before. [pullquote position="right"]Students should not be paying the College Board to fail.[/pullquote] Nonetheless, the DOE is encouraging more and more students to take AP courses for which they are clearly unprepared.

AP for All Hands Too Much Control to a Private Company

The College Board regularly changes curriculum for their courses and changes the format or content of their exams. Aside from forcing students and schools to buy new prep materials every time they do this, this removes the reliability and predictability offered by courses that any individual school may offer and restricts and controls what they teach.

AP courses being pushed by the DOE can displace better, more comprehensive courses that aren’t benefiting the College Board and can be controlled by schools. Just this year at my high school, Stuyvesant, the school administration decided to replace the mandatory physics course for juniors with a mandatory AP physics course.

This received significant pushback and resulted in a compromise in which the school diverged from the stringent AP requirements imposed by the College Board, while still giving students the option to take the AP exam. Clearly, students and parents don’t want the College Board to have such direct control over our education, and yet the DOE is still pushing AP for All as if it will promote excellence and equity. 

[pullquote]When barely half of the students are passing, and Black students pass less than half as often as White students, that isn’t equity or excellence[/pullquote], that’s a private company exploiting our schools for their own profit.

AP for All Ignores the Individual Needs of Students

There are many more ways for students to gain college credit and experience while in high school, and promoting AP for All is likely not the best or even a good option for many students. College Now offers dual enrollment in a CUNY for NYC high school students, for which they can earn credit. Early College high schools partner with specific colleges so that students can earn one to two years of transferable credit. Many colleges offer summer programs, which high school students can take for credit. (These are usually much more expensive, however.)

If the DOE’s only goal was to make sure the College Board is in charge of all college credit dubiously earned in high school, they even failed at that. The College Board offers CLEP exams which many colleges accept for credit. The key differences between CLEP exams and AP exams are that CLEP exams are offered year-round, cost $89, don’t have an accompanying course, and fewer than 3,000 colleges grant credit for taking them. All this is to say they are less restrictive and less accepted, but does the DOE consider that, for some people, this may be just as good or better of an option? Not to my knowledge. (Schools.nyc.gov has exactly zero mentions of “CLEP”.)

Instead of focusing on giving students the skills they need to succeed on any path they may take, and the skills necessary to determine that path, the DOE has preselected a path for “All” students, which sentences countless (55,011 in 2018) students directly into the clutches of the College Board.

Students should be able to make informed decisions about whether they should take AP exams, and schools should be able to make informed decisions about which AP courses and how many they should offer, if any.

[pullquote]Declaring that every high school must have at least 5 AP courses is a way to funnel students’ education into the hands of the College Board and take power away from individual schools.[/pullquote] That may be suitable for some situations, but certainly not “for All.”

This piece originally appeared on New York School Talk as "How the College Board Siphons Public Funds and Profits off Student Failure with AP Courses."

Gregory Wickham

Gregory Wickham is a student at Stuyvesant High School, a 2013 2nd place winner of the Michael Perelstein Memorial Scholarship Discover Your Passion Competition, and a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Young Rewired State Festival of Code. You can find his website at gregorywickham.com.

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