Big shots like Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and Michelle Rhee assure us constantly that American public schools are failing and that only their leadership will save us.
Funny thing: every time they get their hands on a public school system, they screw it up worse than ever.
Another funny thing: while I certainly know that US public schools have lots of problems, in many ways they do a fantastic job.
One of those little ways is in offering Advanced Placement (or AP) courses and exams to more and more students.
Exhibit A, here, is a graph of the total number of students taking AP courses since the program began in 1955, up to 2011 (the last year for which The College Board has printed data), and the total number of exams given. (FYI, the ratio of exams to students is about 1.7, which means a lot of kids are taking two or more AP exams). This is not a graph showing things getting worse and worse. On the contrary, it’s a graph of things getting remarkably better, almost exponentially better.
)I’m not making this up. (I give the source at the bottom of the graph.
Let’s put that into perspective. Back when I was a supposedly hot-shot ace scholarship student at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1966, I took (and got a 3 on) the AP calculus exam along with a few thousand of other kids at a relative handful of magnet schools like Stuyvesant in NYC. Last year, nearly two MILLION students across the US took nearly 3.5 MILLION Advanced Placement exams in thirty-some different subjects, many of them getting much better scores than I did.
These AP kids are not all going to private or parochial or charter schools. Parochial school enrollments are dropping rapidly, and the charter schools that I know of here in Washington DC have absolutely miserable AP testing rates. The vast majority of the kids taking those AP tests attend public high schools, mostly in suburban districts.
But do they pass those tests? YES, mostly. A passing score is considered to be a 3, 4, or 5; it used to be that just about any college would grant a semester’s worth of credit for any passing score, but these days, many of our most selective colleges have tightened the requirements greatly, so that they only award credits for a ‘perfect’ score of 5, or don’t allow credit at all.
In the old days, you could get into almost any Ivy League or Seven Sisters college simply by being wealthy or being the son of an Ivy League alumnus. Nowadays, you have to have a GPA over 4.0, plus tons of volunteer work, plus be a varsity athlete, plus have numerous successful AP exams, plus tons of great recommendations. And all that might not work anyway; they turn away more and more applicants every year.
Some folks say that AP exams are superficial and don’t show evidence of thought. How wrong they are. I dare any of my readers to try any AP exam in any subject, and prepare to be humbled. (Of course, if you are currently a teacher of an AP course, you would have a tremendous advantage in that area; so, for this to be a fair challenge, try an AP exam in some other topic altogether. Here is the URL to find sample AP exams that you can download and try, for free.