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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Many thousands of high school students enroll in AP classes every year. They hope to strengthen their high school transcript, earn college credits. But in a recent piece for theatlantic.com, retired college professor and former high school teacher John Tierney argued it's mostly a scam, that few colleges accept AP credits, and for good reason, he says, because most AP classes don't come close to college level. He also argues that AP exams are a cash cow for the company that administers them, the College Board.

AP students, how did the AP Program work out for you? AP teachers, does this program get kids ready for college? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

John Tierney joins us now. He's a contributor to theatltantic.com, retired college professor and former high school teacher. He is with us from member station WBUR in Boston. Good to have you with us today.

JOHN TIERNEY: Thank you, Neal. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And a scam, really?

TIERNEY: Well, there's a little bit of hyperbole in there. But my deliberate exaggeration of a few of the terms in the article was meant to bring attention to a piece that I think is important. As you say, a hundreds of thousands of students around the country take these courses every year. The growth in AP participation over the past 10 years has been enormous, more than double since 2001. And it seems to me that AP programs have become something of a sacred cow in American secondary education. And like most sacred cows, they are venerated and not frequently enough subject to scrutiny. So there are a number of college professors and researchers and institutes around the country that over the last five and 10 years have produced critical reports of AP programs, but I don't think that most students and their parents are aware of the criticisms. So my piece was aimed at calling attention to some of these criticisms.

CONAN: And at the same time, though, a lot of kids sign up for those courses because, well, it'll make their transcript look better. They might look better to colleges. In fact, if they don't get them, the college is going to say, how come?

TIERNEY: Well, in fact, I think that that's the chief reason that participation in AP courses has gone up. Every survey of American AP high school teachers conducted for the Thomas Fordham Institute, roughly a 1,025 teachers surveyed around the country, found that most - 90 percent of the AP teachers in that survey believed that their students are taking those courses not because they want to challenge themselves academically, not because those courses have any real academic rigor, but because they believe those courses will improve their chances of getting into selective colleges. So yes, this growth in AP participation is largely demand-driven. It's driven by ambitious students and in many cases, of course, their ambitious parents.

CONAN: The senior vice president of Advanced Placement Programs at the College Board responded directly to your piece in the comments section of theatliantic.com. And I know you've read this, but let me read it - some of it to the audience. They took issue with your claims about the quality of AP classes, saying, quote: "5,000 college professors from the nation's leading colleges and universities participate annually in the review of every AP teacher's course, the writing of each AP exam question, the scoring of AP exams. These professors consistently attest to the overall quality of AP teachers' work and its comparability to the best outcomes of introductory college courses." So obviously you say you have your studies, they say they have theirs.

TIERNEY: That's right. We can cherry-pick the data from these studies from now through the new year. The College Board likes to claim that its AP courses are comparable to - in quality and rigor to introductory college courses in the relevant discipline. Independent studies, that is to say studies not conducted by College Board employees or paid for by the College Board, in fact, questioned this assertion. And most of these studies, going all the way back to, well, in the 1990s, but famously a National Research Council study in 2002 and then a study in 2007 by Sadler and Tai, a study by Saul Geiser at UC Berkeley, they all questioned this assertion of comparability.

And my concern has chiefly to do with the rapid expansion of AP over the years because I think that it has led in part to what I think is a decline in the quality of AP courses. I, you know, am all in favor of high school students challenging themselves academically in any way they can. I'm in favor of students trying to, you know, grapple with the rigorous courses.

But I think that as the AP student population has expanded, it has forced AP teachers to - I don't want to say dumb down the material but to go through material more slowly, they can cover less. All of this at the same time that these courses are criticized for having far too much content that the teachers have to go through too quickly and too superficially and so on. So, I mean, there are a number of points you can make about the lack of comparability, but basically the independent studies make that argument.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking about AP high school classes. And let's see, we get Mark on the line calling from St. Louis.

MARK: Yes. Hi. First, I just wanted to say that the high school - I have some experience with the high school courses because in the late '90s, I started teaching some very brilliant high school students who had AP calculus, a more advanced calculus course. And what I discovered was that they did not know what most of us consider as the essence of calculus, without which, it's not really calculus. It's just calculations. And I asked colleagues of mine what was happening, and they said, oh, they changed the AP exam and they left that material off.

CONAN: So there were being taught to the test, and the test wasn't getting to the point of calculus?

MARK: Right. But what's more important, though, you just said somebody from the AP said that, you know, thousands of college professors have gone over these exams and so forth. The first I talked to when I called your show asked me if high school AP calculus was a scam. And I said, well, not if - only if college calculus wasn't a scam. So, unfortunately, there are many, many colleges that don't cover that material either.

CONAN: I see. So just because the AP high school courses don't teach it doesn't mean that the college courses teach it either or (unintelligible).

MARK: That is correct. And that is - gotten to be a very serious problem. So it doesn't surprise me that the gentleman you're talking to there said that the people at Berkeley said that the AP material wasn't up to college material. I wouldn't be surprised if the people at MIT and Harvard and Carnegie Mellon or schools like that, where they really teach calculus, would look at the AP exam and say, well, this is no good. But, unfortunately, there are many, many highly ranked schools that never ask the students to learn that material either. And I think that that is a very important factor behind our country not producing really good engineers, scientists and mathematicians.

CONAN: Mark, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MARK: Thank you.

CONAN: And...

TIERNEY: Well, Neal...

CONAN: ..John Tierney.

TIERNEY: ...Mark makes a good point. The Sadler and Tai study that I mentioned earlier looked at - specifically at AP science courses - chemistry, physics, and biology - that are generally regarded as the most rigorous of AP courses and seen as the ones that are, if any, most comparable to college introductory courses.

And their conclusion was that the College Board does not have the evidence that they need in order to make the argument that these courses are comparable in quality, content and rigor to introductory college courses. That's why, as Mark suggests, not only elite schools, MIT and so on, are refusing to offer academic credit for even high AP course - AP exam scores, but more and more schools are saying, we don't even want you opting out of our introductory courses if you've got a high AP score because we're not confident that you've learned what we really need you to know, not confident that you have the command of key concepts and have the deep understanding that we want you to have.

CONAN: We got another caller in. This is Catherine(ph). Catherine on the line with us from San Antonio.

CATHERINE: Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CATHERINE: Well, I took the AP in 2005 and in 2006. And in total, I had approximately 21 hours of credit going into university. When I studied abroad for a semester in West Africa, unfortunately, three credits of that whole semester transferred back to my home university. And so having that buffer of 21 hours that I had gained when I was in high school enabled me to graduate on time in 2010. Now, I know a lot of different schools can pick and choose. I got a five on the AP Art History, and my university chose not to accept that. But they did choose to take my U.S. History and my English.

CONAN: And that proved to be a lifesaver.

CATHERINE: It did because I was able to graduate on time and minimize the amount of student debt that I had to get from those four years I was in college.

CONAN: And, John Tierney, minimizing student debt. That's a factor that's going to appeal to a lot of people.

TIERNEY: Well, of course, it does, Neal. And it's true, as Catherine says, that that's one of the motivating factors for many students in piling up the number of AP courses they take. Catherine and lots of other people have been able to avoid having to pay college tuition for a semester or even, in many cases, for a full year because they were granted credit for AP courses. The truth, though, is that more colleges are saying, we're not going to do that anymore.

And, as I say, more and more colleges are also saying, we don't even want to give you the option of opting out of the introductory course. So I think Catherine's lucky, and other people who've been able to capitalize on their AP performance are similarly fortunate. But whether that will continue to be the case in the coming years, I think, is highly questionable.

CONAN: Well, Catherine, thanks very much for the call, and congratulations on graduation.

CATHERINE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with John Tierney of atlantic.com about his piece on AP classes. You can find a link to that at our website. Go to npr.org. You can also find there the College Board's response. And again, that's npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And in your piece, you also claimed that AP was a cash cow for the College Board. And in their response, they said, well, in fact, they reduce the cost for a lot of the people who take the test to minimal or free, and a lot of the money they do make off the test, they plow back into education.

TIERNEY: Well, I think that's probably true. I don't doubt that they do. That is - we would hope that's what the College Board does, and that's ostensibly their primary mission. But it's the case that the College Board earns over half of all of its revenues from its Advanced Placement program. So if you'll look at its other revenue streams, SATs, PSATs and so on, they don't bring in nearly as much money as the AP courses do.

And while it's fine for the College Board to say, look, we could be bringing in even more revenue from AP than we are, it's also the case that the College Board has been widely criticized on a number of dimensions, including how tightfisted they are with data. It's very hard for outside researchers to do meaningful studies of AP courses because the College Board guards zealously access to those data.

It's also the case that people criticize the College Board for, for example, paying its recently - the CEO who recently left that job was Gaston Caperton, who was earning $1.3 million a year. Now, many people say, well, that's fine. It's a big organization and, you know, they can pay you what they want. But that's pretty far out of line with what most so-called nonprofit organizations pay their executives.

So the College Board comes in for a fair amount of criticism, not only from me, but from organizations like the Americans for Educational Testing Reform and so on, who gave the College Board a D and cited numerous areas of misconduct by the College Board.

CONAN: Here's an email from Catherine(ph): AP classes helped me immensely in my transition from high school to college. I came into college with 39 credit hours and got to escape most of my general education classes. Now, I'm ahead of majors curriculum schedule, and I'm able to take on a minor and still have room for useful elective classes.

Also, I wasn't slapped in the face by the difficulty of college classes because AP classes laid a solid foundation of self-accountability and critical thinking abilities. And let's see if we'd get another caller in. This is, let's see if we can go to Ben. Ben on the line with us from Buffalo.

BEN: Yes. Hello?

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Ben.

BEN: Hi. This is awesome. I'm a high school student, and I have taken a few AP classes. And I'm currently in international baccalaureate right now, which is very similar. And I found that the one thing that help me with AP class the most more than the actual curriculum itself with the level of work required. Like AP Euro, for example, European history, the sheer amount of work you need is borderline ridiculous. And the...

(LAUGHTER)

TIERNEY: Not just borderline. It is ridiculous.

BEN: And simply the amount of material that needs to be covered, really, I feel has prepared me to take other advance classes and sort of allows me to sort of deal with the workload much more efficiently than I would otherwise.

CONAN: So it is a sobering preparation, in other words.

BEN: Yeah.

CONAN: And...

BEN: It's just sort of...

CONAN: I just wanted to get a response from John Tierney. We just have a few seconds left.

TIERNEY: Well, here's some people would say in response to that, is that, sure, it's great to have that experience. It's covering a lot of content. But what you may be surprised by when you get to college is that you're missing some of the sinus that connect a lot of that material. You may be missing important concepts and grounding theories in the discipline that, you know, AP courses are kind of notoriously poor at covering.

CONAN: Ben, good luck with the sinus and everything else when you get to college.

BEN: Thank you very much.

TIERNEY: Good luck, Ben.

CONAN: And, John Tierney, thank you very much for your time.

TIERNEY: Oh, Neal. It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: John Tierney, a contributor to the atlantic.com, a retired college professor, a former high school teacher. He joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. Tomorrow, "Escape from North Korea." We'll talk with Melanie Kirkpatrick about hew new book. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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