What do Advanced Placement exams, homecoming court, your SAT/ACT scores and a pimped-out varsity jacket have in common? All are utterly uncool to mention once you’ve reached this institution of higher education.

Angela Cesere

But some things – such as talk about AP credits – we shouldn’t let die.

On a pragmatic level, the University’s chaotic system of awarding college credit keeps most students on their toes and AP savvy. But what AP has become nationwide is also indicative of our current education system – and especially the racial inequalities that persist in it.

The Advanced Placement program, launched by the College Board 50 years ago, pushed students to pursue higher learning and allowed them to earn college credits – part of a movement to boost American academic dominance in the middle of the Cold War.

Since then, the program has expanded exponentially. Once available only to an elite few, nowadays more AP programs have made their way to more than 15,300 high schools worldwide. Newsweek even uses an equation that includes the number of Advanced Placement tests taken by students to determine its list of the top 1,000 high schools.

AP has almost become the norm – and at first glance, it seems to be successful. Most research shows that AP students perform as well as, if not better than, their peers who took the equivalent college classes.

But then there is the ugly side of the APs. The fact that students who take APs instead of college courses do better later shouldn’t be too surprising, but it also shouldn’t be attributed to the success of the AP program. A student who has had the opportunity to take APs is also clearly coming from a wealthier district and superior high school. He is doing better in his second-year course because he is a better overall student after years of solid training, not just one AP course.

And just like we’ve heard a million times, blacks and other minorities disproportionately go to schools that can’t afford to offer many AP courses. The availability of AP courses is heavily skewed toward white, wealthy high school students. The numbers speak for themselves. In 2003, of more than one million test takers, only 4 percent were black. Whites and Asians made up 56 and 13 percent, respectively, while Hispanics were 14 percent.

Even when they take the exam, underrepresented minorities fare much worse on APs. Only 31 percent get a 3 or higher, compared with 64 percent of exams taken by whites.

The College Board hasn’t exactly tried its hardest in correcting this institutional inequality, and the system is still imperfect when it crosses over to the university level.

In theory, AP courses are supposed to give high school students the experience of a college-level curriculum, and the scores at the end should reflect a college-level understanding. Under the assumption of this comprehension, colleges and universities nationwide will award credit and exemptions to its students. Teachers, however, know how these tests work. Just as complaints have risen concerning standardized tests required by President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, critics argue that instructors have begun “teaching to the test” – a concept that might pass muster with the MEAP, but is completely antithetical to the university experience, especially in the liberal arts.

My own extensive personal experience with AP in high school has shaped my thinking of the program. At my relatively well-off school, I was encouraged to take the American history AP test in 10th grade. Despite some uninspired teaching – where rote memorization of dates and people was the custom – I managed to earn some college credit. Six years later, as I complete my 100-level American history requisites, I can only embarrassingly recall a scant number of facts: the North won the Civil War, FDR helped the poor and Vietnam was a mess. Worse yet, no one ever talked extensively about the role of slaves in the American Revolution, when the dislocation of Native Americans actually started or the horrible conditions of Japanese internment.

Clearly not all subjects are created equal, and the case for English and history is different from that of math and science. But one recent study, which focused on math and science, showed that students who have taken APs fare little better than those who did not. This isn’t surprising news for some – the faculty in the University of California system has considered dropping the AP credit system program altogether, while the University of Pennsylvania now will only credit students with the highest score possible, a 5.

Few drastic measures of this kind have been taken by the University, which lets its departments decide for themselves what credits to award (for the record, the history department does not allow students to use AP credits instead of say, taking History 160 or 161) – and I’m not even arguing it should change. What the University should do, however, is to keep in mind both the AP program’s tainted racial circumstances and the benefits of a real college education. If it doesn’t, then minorities and non-minorities alike will lose.

– Go can be reached at aligo@umich.edu.

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