The latest edition of Newsweek's "100 Best High Schools in America" recently hit newsstands. It ranks public high schools according to how they fare on the magazine's Challenge Index, which relies primarily on the number of Advanced Placement (AP) tests students in a school take.
Available online is another list: "Excellence without AP," which catalogs 58 public and private high schools that are rethinking their relationship with the AP program.
Schools on the first list push students to take AP courses. Schools on the second have dumped the program entirely. Guess which list sends a higher percentage of graduates to Harvard.
Once upon a time, AP courses on a transcript sent a powerful message about both students and their schools. They were marks of prestige that gave students an edge in college admissions. No longer. The Newsweek list has become a "best of the rest" list, while elite high schools with pipelines to the Ivy League are dropping AP and distinguishing themselves once more from their less-privileged counterparts.
But this trend comes at a cost: It's widening the achievement gap between inner-city and elite schools. The widespread adoption of AP courses in the past 20 years helped level the playing field. By abandoning them, top schools threaten to tilt it again, and in so doing, strike a blow to public education.
The AP program was originally developed 50 years ago by elite schools as a way of connecting high schools with colleges and challenging top students. During the cold war, AP was perfectly aligned with professional opinion about rigorous teaching and the concern with challenging the best and brightest. Not surprisingly, the program quickly gave top students an advantage in an increasingly competitive college admissions process.
In an effort to promote equity, school reformers pushed to expand the AP into inner-city public schools. Give everyone equal access to rigorous curricula and a shot at earning admission to top colleges, they argued. And, miraculously, it worked. Whether students were from fancy prep schools or from big urban public ones, the AP test was the same. That fairy-tale ending in the movie "Stand and Deliver" was real. Jaime Escalante's kids passed the AP Calculus test and went on to schools such as Harvard and Wellesley.
Through AP, students in public schools had access to the same courses taken by students at schools such as Andover and Exeter. In some cases, the AP curriculum increased the rigor of public school courses dramatically. More important, though, it closed the gap between elite and nonelite schools, and began to restore faith in public education among students, parents, and teachers. Maybe public schools weren't destinations of last resort after all.
But AP was not without its critics. Teachers at elite schools began to grumble about the program: It was a mile wide and an inch deep, it focused on memorization over critical thinking and analysis, and it restricted the curriculum to stodgy survey courses. AP was on shaky ground; yet, as long as colleges still smiled on the program, even elite schools couldn't risk dropping it.
As AP continued to spread through America's schools, however, it began to decline in prestige. In recent years, many colleges have stopped giving it weight in admissions and have raised the bar for those who want to receive course credit for their AP test scores. Consequently, top schools – in some cases the very schools that started AP – are dumping it like yesterday's newspaper. Instead, they're offering their own home-grown courses, which they bill as more rigorous than AP.
Leaders at elite schools no doubt genuinely believe they can do better than AP. And they probably can. But their move away from it is also about staying on top. High tuitions, after all, come with high expectations. Further, their move has consequences. In trashing AP, elite schools are sending a message that the apex of the public school curriculum is second-rate, no matter what Newsweek bases its public school rankings on.
And that's a shame. Not because the AP program is particularly special, but because for a moment it provided a glimmer of hope: that public education, particularly in urban areas, was not solely the reserve of those with no other options.
There is no quick fix for America's inner-city schools. But if the fleeting success of AP teaches us anything, it is that urban public schools can work if we shake off the impulse to dismiss them and instead fight to make them places we might send our own children.