American Public Schools Are NOT Failing — For Example, Look At Advanced Placement Tests

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.

advanced placement tests 1955-2011


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.

Published in: on April 14, 2013 at 9:01 pm  Comments (7)  

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. brilliant


  2. So might your data on increased AP participation suggest that American public education is serving a very tiny elite minority of students very well, while completely ignoring the abysmal performance of the vast majority of students? Sortof like a century ago when the elite of the elite students were paraded around while quoting impressive-sounding trivia to convince a skeptical populace to support the controversial new public education system. But even most of the best of the trivia-quoters didn’t have a clue about critical thinking skills, and the rest of the kids, all the non-skillful-trivia-quoters were completely wasting time and resources by sitting in classes that didn’t do a thing for them….


    • When I took the AP exam in 1966, it was a ‘tiny elite minority of students’. But not today. According to the NCES, ( ) these days, there are about 3.2 million graduating high school seniors each year. And if you look at the data I provided, there were about 2 million distinct students who took AP exams. That is about 63% of ALL of our HS graduating student body, each year!

      That being said, yes, I agree, there are serious problems remaining with the minority of students who take no AP classes, who drop out of HS and stumble into crime, drug addiction, and so on. We have the hugest gap between the academic and financial “haves” and “have-nots” of any relatively advanced society on the planet. It’s a very real problem. And none of the policies being promoted by Rhee, Gates, Duncan, Bloomberg, Klein, Wal-Mart, or the Koch brothers do anything whatsoever to help them. Teachers who struggle in the schools that attempt to serve these difficult-to-educate students are being pummeled from every direction by impossible demands.

      But do not call the mass phenomenon of Advanced Placement success a ‘tiny elite minority of students’ unless you like being called a liar.


  3. I mostly agree with your premise, but I think your proof is more of the success of the AP exam for College Board than necessarily of the students.


  4. I agree that the AP exams are a reasonable basis for critical thinking. I use the AP Computer Science exam as supplementary material for my programming elective. The growth in exams taken could be in line with the growth of students in non-public schools. In 2001-02, there were about 1M students in independent, religious, and charter schools, By 2009-10, there were almost 5M students in these types of schools.


    • John,
      Your facts on the # of students in those schools appears to be incorrect, based on the data you cite.
      According to that data you pointed to, in 2001-2 there were about 7.4 million students in non-public schools, and in 2009-10 there were about 6.6 million in those schools.
      You seem to have missed the near-collapse of the Catholic parochial school system, especially in large urban districts.
      In any case, the number of students who take at least one AP exam now equals about 2/3 of the total number of American students in 12th grade — and the vast majority of those students (about 90% of them) are in regular public schools.
      So, no, the growth in AP student numbers is NOT due to any increase in enrollment in private schools.


  5. […] test completion in the US is, in fact, a striking example of exponential growth . See, for example, here: When I took my single AP test back in 1967, I was one of only 42,000 students who did so. But in […]


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