We should stop letting AP courses count for college credit. Or at least that’s what Michael Mendillo argues in an Op-Ed written for The Chronicle of Higher Education that was published this week. Mendillo, a professor of astronomy at Boston University, believes that:
All the things a student accomplishes in high school—grades, extracurricular activities, sports, volunteering—are application credentials for college. There should be no carry-over of high school accomplishments into the collegiate transcript.
In how many AP classes in high school does the physics instructor say, “At the last American Physical Society meeting, one of my students presented a paper on this very topic”? Or, in an astronomy class, “My upcoming observations using the Hubble Space Telescope will address this dark-energy issue”? …The end result is that in many introductory college courses, the top students are simply not in the classrooms. For them, faculty-student interactions are not possible and the overall value of a university education is diminished. All of these aspects of educational disservice are due to the existence of the AP system.
But introductory courses are rarely taught by these full research professors Mendillo describes. When I arrived at the University of Wisconsin, I was enrolled in “Introduction to International Relations,” a class of about 550 of my closest classmates, which was taught not by a professor, but by a lecturer. This introductory course, like many others I took, involved an exam that consisted of multiple choice and short answers—not incredibly different from an AP exam, except that AP exams often include essay sections. It was only after I enrolled in upper-division courses that I was able to interact with professors in the way Mendillo mentions. It was the AP credits I received that allowed me to enroll in those classes sooner in my collegiate career.
Personal experience aside, the quality of courses in high schools and colleges can (and do) vary widely across institutions. The difference is that a poor-quality AP class would presumably be reflected by performance of students on a standardized, transparent, and nationally-normed exam. The same cannot be said for college courses, since content and assessments at the college level are much more dependent on who is teaching the course. Similarly, course assessments and grades are not externally validated, giving little indication of actual student learning outcomes.
Mendillo has an ivory-tower view of what general education at a college looks like. That’s just not the reality of the vast majority of students who attend public colleges and universities and find themselves buried in the back of a lecture hall taking first-year Psychology 101. The true “educational disservice” here is not what Mendillo contends, but rather the assumption that the learning outcomes for college courses are better than college-level courses that are taught at high schools. The evidence just isn’t there.