An entering student at Pomona College last fall submitted the results of 14 Advanced Placement tests, all but one with the top score of 5. In all, 20 members of the entering class each reported the results of 10 or more such exams. Obviously, these are highly talented students who will benefit from the broad range of advanced courses that Pomona offers. But it is far from clear that this proliferation of AP courses — along with the accompanying pressures — truly makes for the best high-school education, or, for that matter, prepares students to get the most out of their college years.
When I was a high-school student in the 1960s, students in good schools might have taken several AP courses, all during their senior year. Now, however, in order to accumulate 10 or more AP exams, it is necessary to begin far earlier. At some high schools, a 10th-grade chemistry course (the first chemistry course a student takes) is now designated as “advanced placement” so that introductory as well as college-level material can be compressed into a single year of work. In a few subjects, AP courses are now available as early as ninth grade. Can a ninth grader truly be said to be doing “college level” work in European history?
David Oxtoby is one of the most interesting men in American higher education today. He first strikes you as another brilliant but nerdy scientist, which is how he got started, with a doctorate in chemistry from Berkeley and a splendid record as a professor and researcher. But he also had people skills and became president of Pomona College just as my daughter was arriving in 2003 for the start of her freshman year.
I think he is a terrific person and teacher, which is why I was so upset when I saw he had written a piece for the April 27 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The Rush to Take More AP Courses Hurts Students, High Schools and Colleges.”
I think he is wrong, and wrong in a way that reveals the frustrating refusal of some of our best colleges to see what great benefits AP and other college courses are bringing to the vast majority of high schools that rarely, if ever, send students to extremely selective colleges like Pomona.