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Anne Kim: The AP Exam and the Standardized Testing Debate

“I think the downside of going test-optional, the downside of ignoring what assessments tell you, means that you might end up ignoring the underlying structural problems and never fixing the inequities.”

On October 12th, Anne Kim joined Merion West editor-in-chief Erich Prince to discuss her recent Washington Monthly piece “AP’s Equity Face-Plant,” which chronicles some of the shortcomings of advanced placement exams and how they have arguably failed to meet their goals over the past nearly 70 years. A lawyer by trade, Ms. Kim is a contributing editor at Washington Monthly, and, in February of last year, she published a book entitled Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. In their conversation, Ms. Kim and Mr. Prince discuss the original purpose behind the exams, where they have potentially fallen short, and how this issue intersects with broader questions about the place of higher education in the United States today. (This interview can be read alongside Mr. Prince’s July, 2021 interview with the Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz “The Devaluation of Higher Education.”)

Anne, to get started, can you talk about the original purpose of the AP exam, which, as you point out  in your piece, was multipronged and aimed to provide more curriculum rigor while also looking to level the playing field with racial minorities and people from lower-income backgrounds?

Sure—the AP program began in the 1950s. It was really intended to be a way to accelerate high-performing, ambitious, and precocious high schoolers to get them ready for college, and you have studies finding that the kids who took AP were doing really well in college. They weren’t, of course, looking at whether AP caused these kids to do well in college versus there being just the correlation between who took AP and who succeeded in college. Nevertheless, education reformers seized upon the Advanced Placement program as a way to raise the bar for everyone, and I think that was actually well-intended. If you can get AP in every classroom, perhaps that could increase achievement across the board, and certainly it was the case that—from an equity perspective—it was important to have access to an accelerated curriculum for everybody. You want to raise the bar for everyone; you want to give everyone a chance to excel, and that was what the expansion of AP was intended to do.

As you narrate in your piece, it didn’t play out as many expected. You quote Yale’s William Lichten who described the outcomes following when Philadelphia widely introduced the AP in its public schools in 2006. He called it “nearly a total failure,” citing that “among 41 schools, nearly offering 179 AP classes, many schools do not have a single AP exam score as high as three.” 

It’s horrifically depressing but probably not surprising. What they learned—the hard way here—was that you cannot drop an accelerated curriculum into a high school where the students have not been prepared from Pre-K to succeed. And that is, ultimately, the problem with the quick-fix approach. Saying, “Let’s expand AP” is the fast and easy way of trying to solve a problem that really begins in kindergarten. AP is a great program, but it’s an insufficient band-aid. It’s too little too late to try to fix all the inequities that have built up over time from the environment that students, especially those in Philadelphia schools, were facing from the first day they started school when they were five years old.

You bring that up in your conclusion when you write, “Nevertheless, the bottom line is that no single program—whether dual enrollment or AP—can substitute for the top-to-bottom reforms that K–12 education needs.” If the academic problems are already compounding by the second or third grade, by the time it’s the end of high school, it’s probably too late. So do you have suggestions for how we can improve things earlier on? Obviously, it’s a big question.

One reason I wrote this article was that I was concerned about what was happening with so many schools going test-optional. So what happens when you go test-optional is that the schools start looking at grades and academic rigor. AP is a signal of rigor, and the young woman I interviewed in the opening of the story is an example of that. She took AP classes to show that she was capable of handling the work. In her situation, she couldn’t get the AP classes she needed, but that’s what schools were going to be looking at. Now, when you have a situation where potentially a lot of students either don’t have access to the classes or have access to the classes but not enough support and are failing those classes, they may potentially be in a worse off position than before. But all of these things (tests or the AP) are measurements of a system that is failing huge numbers of students. Ultimately, it doesn’t do any good to go test-optional if you don’t fix the underlying problems, and what I fear is low-income, minority students are potentially going to be worse off in the long run.

You have this poignant metaphor in the piece where you’re saying you don’t want to throw away the thermometer (insofar as AP performance results are that thermometer), and you have to have some way of gauging when things aren’t working out. Maybe some people’s knee jerk assessment is: “Let’s get rid of that gauge.” But you’re saying that we need to view this as a way to identify that there are some significant issues going on.

Correct. I mean, basically, what we might be doing is replacing one gauge with another. We’ve thrown out the tests, but now AP is going to become the substitute for the tests, and the same outcomes are going to happen. You’re still going to have affluent, upper-middle-class, white kids being disproportionately admitted to selective schools because they’re the ones who are taking APs and succeeding in them. Admissions officers are going to see that other students either don’t have the access or are not doing well. So, what’s the solution there? Fix the schools. It can’t be to eliminate AP; it can’t be to go AP-optional. That’s not the right answer, either.

From where I sit, it’s very surprising to see this groundswell of people in the past couple of years advocating for these test-optional situations. What do you make of that trend? 

I think that there are legitimate concerns that standardized testing and the AP curriculum are biased in a way that favors the upper-middle-class students who do the best, right? I’m going to quote the one professor there who says, “AP European history—how relevant is that, really, to students of color in an environment where European history is completely not relevant to their life experiences?” How do you expect anyone to do well in a class that’s completely outside of their interest and experience? On the other hand, you can’t eliminate all standards; you can’t ignore what the current standards are telling you about the state of education and the just really horrifying disparities between what kids are able to achieve depending on who they are, where they live, and what they have access to. I think the downside of going test-optional, the downside of ignoring what assessments tell you, means that you might end up ignoring the underlying structural problems and never fixing the inequities. At some point, everybody has to be able to meet some standard. The standard should not be biased, and the standard needs to be as fair as possible; however, there is a basic level of skill that every person needs to attain in order to succeed in the economy today. There’s just no question

On the subject of bias toward upper-class demographics on tests such as these, one of the most popular pieces we had in 2018 was by a young man named Luke Egan. He was talking about the variable of extra time that is so prevalent in some of these elite private schools. Douglas Belkin actually did a follow-up to that in The Wall Street Journal.

Where I went to school, for instance, it was very common for students who didn’t have anything wrong with them to say they need time-and-a-half for standardized tests. As I recall from those standardized tests, time is the ballgame. A lot of these questions, if you have enough time, you can kind of reason them out, but when you have a lot more time than someone else, that changes everything. So that’s another dimension: In some more affluent areas, students and parents can take advantage of loopholes with the testing.

But one of the things that strikes me when looking at the AP situation—as you describe it—is how the entire story might be summarized by the aphorism: “Never mistake activity for achievement.” There are so many examples of education policies that sound good on paper or offer the appearance of doing something but just fail to deliver the results promised. Is the AP another example of this? 

It’s certainly a great bumper sticker: “Let’s have AP and every high school in America.” It’s certainly a worthy goal, but if you’ve ever taken an AP class—I have a high school student right now who’s taking AP classes—it requires experienced teachers, and there’s a big difference between teaching the content and teaching for the test. They are actually two separate experiences.

It requires a level of preparation. If a school is not used to taking on the AP, I can see how it’d be very difficult for them to succeed in very short order being told, “Here, offer AP classes” when maybe the students haven’t actually had any exposure to high-level math. With AP biology, for instance, you have to have taken algebra two in order to succeed.

In your piece, you put forward a possible alternative: Instead of offering the AP exam, you suggest potentially immersing students in actual college courses. You do acknowledge some of the potential limitations. You point out book costs, for instance. But if this were widely adopted, what do you think some of the unintended consequences might be? How would the college students be impacted? Would professors have to teach down a bit more because they now have a number of younger, high school students in the class? 

No, I think there’s a difference in philosophy with a lot of dual enrollment classes. There’s an underlying philosophical shift that needs to take place in terms of what higher education is and what secondary education does. Right now, there is a very strong pure academic focus. You’re getting people academically prepared to go to college and do well in college, but there’s not a lot of thinking about, “So, what happens after college?” The philosophy behind dual enrollment is that you’re looking at the entire trajectory of a student through high school, through higher education, through career. So it’s not just about teaching kids art history, European history, world history, or human geography: things that may or may not have relevance once you go out into the real world. There are partnerships that dual enrollment classes typically have with community colleges as well as for your colleges; it means that you get college credit for academics/career experiences that are going to be highly relevant, potentially, to a lot of students. And that, I think, is where higher education generally needs to be headed in order for it to be more affordable, more accessible, and more successful for a broader range of students.

I think your answer there can definitely be seen in the context of another piece you just did: “Americans Are Growing Increasingly Skeptical of Four-Year Colleges.” I’ve been on a little bit of an education kick recently. I did an interview in July with Kay Hymowitz, and she also is hoping to reconsider some of the assumptions we currently have about college. I know, in that other piece, you also cite some of the widespread dissatisfaction with the direction colleges are going, and I think it does come at a time when a lot of people are starting to reexamine some of the things they’ve thought for a long time about what higher education should be in the United States.

I think that’s right. I mean, for most people, higher education needs to be a lot more practical than it has been, particularly for the amount of money that the schools are now beginning to demand from students.

Every time I look, the prices are shooting up. It’s unbelievable.

It is unbelievable. And the returns are potentially diminishing, though I guess it depends on what you major in. If you’re an English major coming out of a large state university, your debt levels are not going to be that much lower than if you’ve gone to a private school, depending upon whether you’re in-state or out-of-state or whatever. But it’s going to be significant, and you may or may not be able to find a job that’s in demand in your area. I think there is more of a push to make higher education generally a little bit more connected to what’s happening in the economy, regionally [and with regard to] what’s happening in terms of the skills that employers are demanding. That connection should happen in high school, in part so that the transition from high school to higher education happens much more seamlessly and so you don’t lose people. A lot of what happens with first-generation lower-income people without sufficient resources to make that transition successfully is that they don’t have that handshake happening between high school and higher education. If it doesn’t happen right then, it doesn’t happen at all, so having a more relevant curriculum that promises to pay off at the end of the day in terms of a meaningful career that will not only get you college credit but also will provide a way to make a living can help more students stay engaged.

Insofar as we want to accomplish this goal, how do you see it best done? I would imagine there would be some internal resistance within colleges themselves. Maybe the English department says, “We’ve been doing this for the last 200 years, why do we need to change it?” Do you see it being led by the universities or being pushed by factors outside of the university itself? 

I actually think that students are beginning to demand it themselves. You’re also starting to see employers demanding workers with the right skills. So the smart institutions are moving into partnerships with the employers in the region and actively getting involved with economic development. They’re tailoring their curricula to churning out the types of workers that regional employers need. You’re always going to have the private, non-profit, elite schools. They’re just going to go off and do their own thing. So what we’re talking about here are the schools that are, kind of, your regional land grant universities, your community colleges, the places that actually educate the bulk of Americans. For the longest time, those schools have been trying more to emulate Yale, Harvard, and the Ivy League schools instead of trying to service the students that are in their backyards.

But that, I think, is starting to change—in part because students are becoming a little bit more skeptical about the product these places are offering and also because employers are demanding it. They see that they can play a valuable role in economic development.

There’s this widespread cliché of the English major who can’t find the work he’s looking for after graduating, and I would imagine that a lot of people would be waking up to that.

You’re right; they are. That’s the stereotype of the person who can’t find the job. Unfortunately, I think the stereotype rings true in a lot of contexts, especially when that same person is holding a lot of debt and may not have gone to an elite institution where they picked up supremely valuable contacts to be able to segue into a career that has nothing to do with what they majored in. That’s the value of going to an elite university, right? It’s more about the community that you’re a part of and the network that you build. But if you get that same degree from an institution that doesn’t have those social capital resources, you’re not going to do as well. If you’re an English major from Harvard, you’ll do fine. If you’re an English major at a much lesser-known university or regional school and you don’t have hard skills that employers are looking for, you may not do as well.

What do you make of these efforts that are sometimes talked about, about a private disruptor, whether it’s a technology company with a lot of cachet like Google or Apple, coming in and trying to shake up education by offering certificates that might serve as a substitute for these very expensive four-year degrees?

That’s happening a lot, and it’s a good thing, for the most part, to have that kind of disruption because it signals that it’s less about the degree and more about the competencies and skills so long as the certificates that these companies are offering actually do measure skills that they value and the credentials actually have value in the marketplace. In that case, yes, it sends a very useful signal to other institutions of higher education that they’re going to have to compete head-to-head with these alternative credentials and make the case that their credentials are just as valuable as getting a Microsoft certification, or Google certification, or a Java certificate, or whatever it is. At the moment, in certain fields, you can do better [with these certificates]. If you go and look at the reports that the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce have put out, in fields like IT, you can do better with the sub-baccalaureate credentials than you can with a bachelor’s. These credentials have more value in the marketplace, and this is what employers want,

But I would imagine there’ll be a little bit of a lag time because, for the last 50 or so years, the conventional wisdom has been: Go to college because in decades past when fewer people had college degrees, that was the path upwards. But I could now foresee a world in which that sort of expectation begins to dissolve. I know, for instance, Scott Galloway at NYU Stern has described higher education as one of the biggest possible disruption opportunities. A company with that aforementioned cachet could come in, recruit the best professors at Harvard and Yale, hire them, pay them more, cut out a lot of this administrative stuff, and charge the students less, and just make a more efficient form of higher education. And I just wonder if some of the things we’re not now starting to see from Google and other companies represents people picking up on this. 

Don’t forget that the market for higher education has changed dramatically on the demand side, as well. We’re not just talking about 18-to-22-year-olds anymore. We’re talking about 30-year-olds, 40-year-olds, people who are looking for new careers. That has enabled a lot of this disruption that we’re seeing now because people don’t have time to go back to school for four years, especially if you’re looking at people in parts of the country where they’ve been displaced because manufacturing jobs have gone away. They had neither the time nor the money to go back to school to rescale or upskill, and it’s these alternative credentials that employers and others are offering on a short-term basis (for not a lot of money) that are going to seem incredibly attractive. There, I think, community colleges will face the most competition from the industry-sponsored credentials for that particular slice of the market.

Returning now to the AP specifically as we wrap up, in the piece, you write that “First, success is not dependent on a single test at the end of the course administered by the College Board, but on course work throughout the year.” I know this can be seen in the context of this general skepticism about “high-stakes testing,” but what do you say to someone kind of like our writer, Alexander Zubatov, a lawyer like yourself who asserts that it’s a really useful skill to be able to perform at a high-pressure situation. He says, “I can’t just say I can’t show up to court today because I’m too stressed out,” and it’s a really important skill to be able to have everything on the line and be able to ace it.

Is that really necessary as a barometer for whether you succeed in college or not, or in life?

I think there’s something to being able to perform under pressure. If you saw, Daniel Henninger had a piece in August at The Wall Street Journal on the Simone Biles situation, and he was extrapolating about the potential pitfalls of a culture where being able to perform at the top level, even when it’s really difficult, is possibly under siege.

Yeah, but if you go back to the initial impulse that led to the expansion of Advanced Placement, to expand the availability of advanced curricula to everyone and to enable, in theory, a wider range of kids to succeed, if that ultimately is the goal, then perhaps the structure of the program should accommodate that. And it may or may not be the case that a single high-stakes test is the best way to achieve that particular goal. There’s no reason why there has to be a single AP exam that’s administered in May to everybody in a particular subject. That’s just the way it’s been done.

If we’re looking at ways to make Advanced Placement work for more kids, everything needs to be on the table in terms of what will enable more students to succeed, setting aside the bigger structural problems that make it very difficult for someone who hasn’t had the requisite foundation in math, science, or English. All those things need to be on the table too, and this program, which was developed back in the 1950s, needs to be modernized to be better adapted to what today’s students are like, from the different circumstances that they’re in.

So that leads me nicely to my last question. It’s a question about premises or what the overall goal is. So you’re obviously looking at in the context of that 2006 quotation you provide from then-College Board President Gaston Caperton about getting all groups up to speed (“Our hope [is that AP] can serve as an anchor for increasing rigor in our schools and reducing the achievement gap”). What would you say to somebody who takes a different lens and says, “I don’t care if one group’s succeeding more than another. Let’s look at it in terms of national competition with other countries”? Or, “Let’s get the best and brightest people as cultivated as possible. So what if another group is falling behind”?  

So when there’s a single group that is always winning, the lack of diversity ultimately will hurt the country, as far as our competitive advantage over other nations. To the extent that we have one group that succeeds and others that don’t, you’re only going to sew larger internal divisions that are going to weaken us from within. To the extent that one group succeeds and others don’t, we don’t receive the benefit of the experiences, talents, and wisdom that other people can bring to the table because of potentially what are artificial barriers to success and mobility. So I’m not advocating for diversity for diversity’s sake. I’m advocating for diversity and inclusion because these lead to overall net benefits for us as a whole, and we need to develop the tools to enable that.

For the people who have potential, we need to enable them to succeed. If the barriers that are preventing them from achieving their potential are relatively easy to fix, like childcare on a college campus, that’s actually not that hard to figure out. Or food security—that’s really not that hard to solve. Basic instruction in math and science is a little bit harder to figure out, but it’s totally doable. [We need] better teachers and more resources. We need to fix the financing of schools so they’re more equitable. The solutions are there, but the political will is not, and that ultimately is the biggest obstacle to reform.

Anne, I really appreciate your time. I think this is an interesting debate within education that has some broader implications. Thank you for a very interesting chat. 

Thank you, Erich.

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