For over 60 years, educators graded Advanced Placement English exam essays according to holistic guidelines, with open-ended rubrics that enabled them to use their knowledge and discretion to measure the success of students’ choices as writers. Starting next spring, however, the College Board will move from a nine-point holistic rubric to a new six-point analytic rubric that functions as a checklist. Gone from the course bulletins are long-standing warnings against teaching to the tests, and indeed these rubrics will encourage and reward simplistic, formulaic thinking.
Now, students may be able to receive college credit and place out of introductory writing courses without understanding that writing has anything to do with intentionality, thoughtfulness or clear thinking. More than ever, the essays will not measure a meaningful grasp of the writing process, but a basic ability to conform and regurgitate. Importantly, the new rubrics also restrict graders from making qualitative judgments that require knowledge and trust.
While the AP brand signals reliability and continuity, this change is just the latest sign that the program has dramatically departed from its roots over the past decade, weakening the quality of education and threatening to turn the AP into a shell of its former self.
These recent curricular changes represent a sharp break from the AP program’s conceptual foundation. In 1948, as the Cold War developed, Harvard President James Conant called for sweeping educational reforms. In “Education in a Divided World,” he warned against thinking of people in terms of “economic symbols,” as he claimed Soviets did.
Instead, he argued, Americans “must analyze our problems ... in terms of human motives, of social ideals, and the relation of these ideals to a well-formed picture of the future of the nation.” In line with Cold War liberal ideals, Conant advocated for an educational system that fostered the kinds of social relationships that, to his mind, marked healthy democracy. “The relation between the structure of our society and our educational system is reciprocal, of course,” he wrote. Conant’s book inspired educators to develop programs designed to train gifted students to contribute to public welfare.
In line with Conant’s concern for preserving democracy in the face of communism, early proponents of these new curriculums imagined strong liberal arts programs in secondary schools. One group of educators explained, “One of the glories of our society is the value which we attach to human differences and to the right of each person to grow according to his own bent, to achieve his own kind of excellence.” Accordingly, composition assumed a place of pride in the curriculum. The bulletin announcing the first slate of exams in 1954 encouraged teachers “to know and deal with each of his pupils as a thinking individual,” and to think of “writing not as a means to an end but as an intrinsically valuable process of mental self-exploration and orientation.”
In the first year of the program, which launched in a small number of America’s top prep and public schools, the English exams included a variety of writing tasks, each designed to train students to engage with information in different ways. The hope was to simultaneously strengthen and diversify students’ skill sets as readers, writers and independent thinkers.
Conant’s vision — and the original plans for the Advanced Placement program — embraced teacher autonomy, which necessarily produced unequal outcomes, as no two teachers would see things exactly the same way. But this attitude left the door open to a more pernicious inequality, shaped by bias and bigotry. While Conant’s book had included specific plans for ameliorating racial tension, critics like Harlem Renaissance leader Alain Locke had lamented Conant’s “concessions to local initiative and control” because widening equality “will involve a snail’s pace gradualism.”
And that became increasingly unacceptable as Americans became more conscious of racial inequality in U.S. education. Fostering greater equality meant guaranteeing every child the same quality of education regardless of locale. While all educators share this goal, the dilemma was how to achieve it without taking away some of the best prescriptions of educators like Conant.
Over the past two decades, legislation like George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 and Barack Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 tried to do so by holding schools accountable. Yet by trying to achieve accountability, these bipartisan measures promoted a huge market for privatized, “objective” exams and curriculums ensuring that a student’s teacher would not determine the quality of his or her education.
Despite the College Board’s nonprofit status, the Advanced Placement program is now best understood as one of these market solutions that seek to eliminate the messiness of subjectivity from education.
Money shapes the AP program’s structure in pernicious ways. The College Board has sought to address demands from the education system by positioning the AP program as providing rigor and consistency for every student taking its classes, even as the program grows. While the program doesn’t mandate a prescriptive or dogmatic curriculum, accountability comes in the form of testing — and teachers must be cognizant of preparing their students for the exams. While the College Board’s goal is to bring more students into the program and to create a more level playing field, there is a perverse incentive structure: The more AP classes can be consistently replicated, the more money the College Board brings in from AP tests.
The program is the College Board’s greatest source of revenue. In 2009, students sat for 2.9 million AP exams. Last year, the company sold 5 million tests at $94 each. The company markets the program’s expansion as a matter of equity and access, touting the growth in availability of AP classes in both independent and public schools and touting a roughly 14% jump in the number of public schools offering them between 2013 and 2018 and a 33% increase in the number of independent schools.
But some educators and administrators have noticed a change in the programs: Many top private schools — the places that initially gave the AP program academic clout — and wealthier public schools are dropping AP because of its rigidity, though the decision has proved controversial. Additionally, while many more states and state systems offer credit for AP classes than in the past — with roughly 20 states legally requiring credit be awarded for students who earn scores above a three on AP exams — the top colleges, who originally saw AP classes as analogues of their own, are now reassessing whether to award class credit, particularly in humanities subjects.
Conant’s framework — emphasizing careful attention to the social relationships underpinning educational structures — initially shaped the AP curriculum and it is crucial to understanding the trouble with the AP program’s current makeup.
According to College Board officials, the new English rubrics were adopted to increase fairness and consistency across graders without changing how students write. Nonetheless, the rubric for all six essay types attach the same point values to components that align with College Board CEO David Coleman’s controversial Common Core prescription for writing: one point for the mere presence of an arguable claim, of any quality, anywhere in a piece of writing, and up to four points for evidence and “commentary.” The only reward for coherence comes in the form of a single “sophistication” bonus point that attempts to acknowledge the variety of forms that good student writing can take and crediting students for a broader set of attributes than the other points.
But one point is not enough to avoid the risk of turning teachers into franchisees and students into automatons. The drive toward mechanical thinking in combination with the program’s presence in the majority of American public schools takes away too much power and judgment from students and teachers.
Despite social critics (like David Brooks) pushing for attention to social and emotional learning, the AP has moved sharply toward a model that eschews the non-quantifiable, cultural functions of education Conant articulated. Instead of trying to foster civic engagement and recognizing that good teaching and valuable learning can’t always be measured in quantifiable ways, the College Board has produced a reductive, easily replicated program that’s dangerously lopsided in terms of financial and academic worth. It might save many students thousands of dollars in tuition, but it will do so by rewarding subpar work, stunting the emotional and academic growth of the next generation of citizens and breeding rote replication in lieu of critical thinking or developing individual perspectives.
This model also threatens to incentivize relationships between teachers and students that are largely transactional, potentially depriving students of the sort of mentorship that can foster a love of learning and shape lives and career paths.
James Conant hoped that secondary school students would mostly learn “individual integrity in dealing with other people, human sympathy, and moral courage.” Educators writing about social and emotional learning are actually returning to a point Conant made in 1948: Individual growth is not cleanly quantifiable. Civically responsible education requires an emphasis on meaningful interactions among teachers and students. The College Board’s economic power challenges — even undermines — academic authority, endangering the social relationships at the heart of education.
Annie Abrams teaches and writes in New York. She wrote this article for the Washington Post.