AP: Great for gifted high schoolers

Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Andrew Scanlan

The High Flyer (Blog Banner)-NAGC.pngWhen considering the available options for gifted high-school kids, the Advanced Placement (AP) program may not be the first thing that comes to mind. That’s too bad because AP might be America’s most effective large-scale “gifted and talented” program at the high school level. That’s a conclusion we reached while researching and writing Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present, and Future of Advanced Placement, published last month by Princeton University Press.

Gifted programs come in many forms in U.S. schools (and many issues come with them!), but the overwhelming majority of them take place—if at all—in elementary and middle schools. At the high-school level, smart kids have generally been left to fend for themselves by choosing individual courses that suit them, angling for the liveliest or most demanding teachers, accelerating when they can, possibly applying to selective magnet or “exam” schools aimed at students like themselves—often with a special focus such as STEM education—or supplementing their own education with outside experiences and online offerings.

For many gifted high schoolers, the smart move is finding some way to take college-level courses. Increasing options abound, including dual enrollment, its “early college” variants, or the smaller International Baccalaureate, to name a few. But the largest of all is the six-decade old AP program, now operating in about 70 percent of American high schools. Some five million AP exams were taken by three million students last May. Almost two out of five graduates will have taken at least one such exam while in high school.

While all these approaches serve gifted kids in different ways, we identify five reasons why they and their parents and counselors, as well as school leaders and state and local policymakers, should take AP seriously as the premier source of G & T education at this level.

First, it comes with built-in quality control and guaranteed rigor, thanks to how the College Board operates it. In close consultation with university professors, as well as veteran high school instructors, the Board prepares a “framework” for each of its thirty-eight subjects. It reviews every would-be teacher’s course syllabus before approving it as an AP class. And its three-hour exams, while intimidating to some, are expertly formulated, rigorously (and anonymously) evaluated according to a detailed nationwide rubric, and scored on a time-honored five-point scale that, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s Nat Malkus, hasn’t been dumbed down even as the program has grown exponentially. In contrast, dual enrollment (in its many forms), though booming in many states and certainly a viable way to engage with challenging learning experiences, suffers from highly variable content and rigor. Only occasionally does it hold a candle to AP’s nationwide quality control, and the community college “adjuncts” who often teach it may not be the world’s most stimulating instructors.

Second, AP tends to attract a high school’s keenest and most enthusiastic teachers, who find valuable colleagueship, professional development, and intellectual encouragement from a nationwide network that includes peers in thousands of schools, as well as university professors. It’s not unusual to hear teachers remark that an AP institute or summer workshop rejuvenated their work as educators with some going back year after year for more. This can only be good news for the gifted students in their classrooms.

Third, AP is well understood by almost every college in the land, both in the admissions process and when it comes to course placement. At the admissions office, AP success is often viewed as evidence that an applicant has both ability and mastery of college-level academic work. When it comes to placement, a “qualifying score” (3 or higher) on AP exams generally means that students can at least waive introductory college classes and move on immediately to more challenging ones. Often they can establish actual degree credit upon entry and thereby accelerate and/or enrich the undergraduate experience, and perhaps save some money. Moreover, unlike credit earned via dual enrollment, AP credit is broadly portable to public and private colleges around the country.

Fourth, the AP classroom-and-exam experience, besides almost always challenging and stimulating students, actually confers skills and study habits that prepare them for college and beyond. Its courses can be an antidote to senior-year boredom, pushing able pupils to their academic limit and providing a source of stimulation and rigor that they may not find in their other courses.

Fifth, AP provides advanced, college-level coursework to a widening population of students. Entry has been democratized in recent years, and more diverse young people from many backgrounds have been encouraged to enter its classrooms. Once upon a time, the program was generally the preserve of a privileged few. Now, however, able students from every demographic take advantage of its rigorous coursework and externally-validated exam, both to see themselves as “college material” and to show what they can really do. Save for exam fees—which states, districts, and philanthropists often cover—there’s no cost to students.

But AP isn’t all peaches and cream. While its democratization is a key asset in equalizing opportunity in America, it doesn’t always work as intended. It sometimes brings kids into AP classes who aren’t very well prepared for—or enthusiastic about—the challenges of these courses, and who can prove challenging for teachers and frustrating to fellow students. A lot still rests on the quality of instructors, which can depend on the quality of professional development they received, whether those teachers felt compelled to take on the course, or simply whether they lack the capacity or motivation to impart the deep analysis and creative thinking necessary for effective AP instruction.

Access isn’t perfect, either, especially if one attends a small or rural high school. Even schools in sizable cities typically offer just a selection from the full AP menu. (Online offerings can lengthen that list, but it’s not quite the same.) Access within a school may be limited, too, whether because of capacity issues—not enough teachers, classrooms, schedule flexibility—or because entry into AP classes remains “gated,” i.e., requires a teacher recommendation, course prerequisites, or a certain GPA. Like all gifted programs, mindsets need to be changed throughout the system about who should take part in AP and how best to ensure that all kids who would do well in its classrooms are given seats there and helped to succeed.

Finally, we need to note that a few dozen colleges, mostly the elite private kind, are less and less willing to confer actual credit on the basis of AP results or any other work done in high school, and may even require scores of 5—instead of the traditional 3—before honoring AP in making course placements.

All that said, Advanced Placement remains the closest thing America has to a quality, large-scale “gifted and talented” program at the high school level. The time is at hand for educators and advocates to recognize that and embrace the opportunities it provides to deliver the kind of education that high-ability young people need and—we earnestly believe—deserve.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Andrew Scanlan is a research and policy associate at the Fordham Institute. 

The views expressed herein represents the opinion of the author and not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.