What Advanced Placement Means for the Future of American Education and Common Core

By Ulrich Boser and Max Marchitello

In many ways, education reform initiatives have become like boy bands from the 1990s. They'll score one Billboard hit and then fade away into obscurity. Take something like small schools. For a while, everyone hailed the approach as the solution to all of our education woes. But within a few years, the reform strategy had been tabled as reformers moved to the next Big Thing.

But when it comes to education reform, there's one approach that's proved largely successful: The Advanced Placement program. The AP program is run by the College Board and allows students to earn college credit in high school. A couple decades ago, the program began with just a few schools. Over the years, growth in the program has been massive, and AP exams are being administered to millions of high schoolers around the country this week.

What might be the most striking, though, is that the AP programs offers a glimpse of the kind of success that we can expect from the Common Core State Standards. To date, 44 states and the District of Columbia have adopted these new, more rigorous standards, which detail what students should know to be ready for college or a job. But in recent months, the new standards have sparked controversy. Last month, for instance, comedian Louis C.K.'s online rant against the Common Core and its associated tests went viral.

But given the success of the AP program, the controversy around the Common Core standards seems misplaced. After all, the AP program suggests that high standards and robust exams are a successful reform approach. What's more, both the AP program and the Common Core originate from a realization among educators that far more needs to be done to raise expectations for students. In short, critics should look to the AP program as a model of what the Common Core can become -- a successful education reform that improves teaching and raises student expectations.

As for the AP program, it dates back to the late 1950s. Some of the nation's most esteemed prep schools came together to create the more rigorous courses, which would signal to colleges and universities that their students were ready for more advanced work. Over time, more and more schools used the program, and today nearly 14,000 schools offer some AP classes with over a third of high schoolers taking at least one AP exam.

The program has become so popular because it outlines clear expectations, allows educators to deliver deep knowledge, and measures student success in a meaningful way. For years, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews has been ranking every high school in the nation based on the rate at which students take AP exams and other tests of similarly advanced courses tests. Mathews calls the approach simply "The Challenge Index."

In many ways, the Common Core standards has taken a page from the AP playbook, and the two programs are deeply similar. Both were initiatives that came from the ground up and aimed to improve the quality of education by setting high standards. In the case of the AP, the standards are aligned to first-year college classes, while the Common Core was developed by states and is benchmarked against "college- and career-readiness."

Both programs also seek to prepare students to think more analytically, solve more complex problems, and write more compellingly. In other words, both approaches raise expectations for students. And then there's the fact that the assessments of both programs are far more thoughtful than the typical state-administered multiple-choice exam. The Common Core tests -- like those developed by Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium -- equire students to perform tasks demonstrating their critical thinking and problem solving skills. The AP program offers assessments that include lengthy writing prompts.

Of course, both programs have their detractors. Some believe that the AP program focuses too much on basic skills. Others argue that the AP tests are simply too hard. The Common Core has had a few issues too, and in some states, implementation has been inconsistent. But when it comes to improving our nation's schools, the AP program reminds us that we need a bit more common sense: We need to set high standards and create robust and rigorous tests that measures the things that people care about.

Or think of it this way: By creating a tightly coupled set of rigorous standards and high-quality assessments, the AP program paved the way for the Common Core. Now we need to make sure that the nation stays on that successful reform path and do more to support the Common Core and its next-generation assessments. 

 

Ulrich Boser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Max Marchitello is a policy analyst at the center.

Ulrich Boser and Max Marchitello
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