Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, Advanced Placement courses were for the elite, which schools defined as mostly white, and mostly male (more true in STEM courses). My high school in Silver Spring, MD, had only two sections of Lit for the 2,200 or so students. We did very little direct test practice and of the 55 or so students, only the top were “invited” to take the exam. Schools reported data on the percentage of 4’s and 5’s, so only students the school expected to achieve those scores took the test, even after taking the course.
Then, in 1997, along came Washington Post education reporter Jay Matthews, who “invented” the Challenge Index. This measure divides the number of graduating seniors by the number of AP or IB (International Baccalaureate) tests taken by all students, to arrive at a score that he maintains measures how challenging a high school is. At first he only reported data from DC-area schools, but quickly his measure became the national standard, and it’s now how all American high schools are judged.
I heard him speak in 1998 and as I went into his presentation, I was skeptical. I knew that high schools should be judged on a wide range of criteria, from the drama and journalism programs, to athletics, to teacher quality, to parent engagement. I was dubious that this one piece of data should make so much difference. I left his speech a convert. Once I saw how the AP programs were inaccessible to students of color and poor students, and how this simple change in data reporting would change that, I realized the potential to “bridge the gap”, as the effort to get students of color to achieve at the same rates of white students is now called. I also realized how exposing the course skills to as many students as possible benefits them all, regardless of race or any other factor.
Very quickly, through the late 1990 and early 2000s, schools began to not only encourage, but to push students into their AP courses, and all students in the courses are now encouraged to sit for the exams. If the number of 4’s and 5’s no longer matter as much, but the raw number of tests taken does, then of course schools want students taking as many exams as possible.
This is a boon for the for-profit College Board, the company that produces the AP program (and trains the teachers). Critics of the AP program point out the dangers of making any part of education for-profit, and those are valid concerns. Parents have also pushed back, questioning why we are working kids so hard, with hours upon hours of homework. Movies like “Race to Nowhere” ask what it’s all for, when the result is stressed, depressed, sometimes suicidal teenagers. Again, a valid concern.
But as a teacher of AP Lit (on and off since 2000), I can vouch for both the content of the course, and schools’ push for many students to take the course.
Imagine you are planning your senior year activities. Your friend is encouraging you to run cross country and you are intrigued but you have concerns. You are worried that it will be too much work, that you won’t be any good at it, that it will take up too much time. Your friend reassures you: the coaches are invested in helping you get better, running is a skill that you can enjoy over your lifetime and it’s so good for you, and it looks good for college. Most of all, your friend says, you will be surrounded by other people who enjoy running as much as you do, who understand how hard it can be and will support you through the hills, and it will be fun.
That right there is the best reason I know to take AP Lit: It will be fun. You will be surrounded by other students who enjoy reading as much as you do, and who enjoy talking about what you read as much as you do. You will learn how to read and think about what you read in a deeper and more enjoyable way, and that is a skill for a lifetime.
The academic challenges students face today are different from those of 20 years ago, and there are certainly concerns, but for students of color, students from low-income families and communities, and for those who simply think learning is fun, these increased challenges are all good.