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Is The Advanced Placement Program A ‘Scam’?

Students work during an Advanced Placement government class at the Academy for College and Career Exploration in Baltimore. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Students work during an Advanced Placement government class at the Academy for College and Career Exploration in Baltimore. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

In 1955 a group of colleges and elite high schools founded the Advanced Placement program. The idea was to give talented students a bigger challenge and possibly skip introductory courses once they got to college.

AP grew to be a huge hit, with nearly one-third of U.S. students taking AP classes during the 2010-2011 school year. Massachusetts ranks 4th  in the nation when it comes to the percentage of students enrolled in AP.

But John Tierney says the AP program has become a rat race, a creativity killer and a money making machine for the College Board, the group that administers the program.  Tierney joins Radio Boston to explain why he thinks the AP program has become corrupted.


  • John Tierney, former political science professor at Boston College; taught high school for 10 years
  • Rebecca Lewis, AP science teacher at English High School in Boston


Other stories from this show:

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  • ToyYoda

    I had a wonderful experience with AP.  I took AP Bio, AP Chem, AP Physics, AP Math, and AP European History.  

    My AP physics course contained two students; myself and one other person.  It was the most feared by all ‘smarties’ because it was really the AP course which was less procedural knowledge and required lots of creative thinking and understanding.  It only met once a week.  I had to spend time tutoring the other student.

    For all my courses we covered lots of material, but for science, I loved it, since that’s what I think about all the time, so, it never felt burdensome.  I did science research every summer in highschool, and won 2 science olympiads, a physics competition, and won the National Honorary Science Award.

    For me, AP sciences it was a very enriching experience, and I am thankful for it.

    (Although, maybe in my case AP was irrelevant, I would have learned the stuff that I did, regardless of whether I went to school or not!!)

  • researchista

    I think you have to separate between math/science and social science/humanities when it comes to AP. Both types of AP subjects are not equivalent to taking the classes at the college level, but for different reasons.
    1. For math/science, the fact that all of the information is on one test is very problematic. An AP test should be equivalent to a final in college and thus should be treated as such. This is not the case when the highest score for AP exams can be obtained by answering about 75% of the questions correctly. Yet, this is still not a bar that most students can achieve in math and science. There is something definitely wrong with this. 
    2. For social science/humanities, the emphasis in college is definitely on the writing. Although there are writing segments on the AP exams, this is not equivalent to writing 10-15 page research questions. This is where I think Tierney is most correct. Teachers should have the flexibility to assign lengthy writing and research projects in the humanities without have to cram all of the facts in there. We have wikipedia for the minute details of battles and such. 

  • MiamiBruno

    AP further segregates the have and have-nots. Taking AP for many students is done for the boost in GPA. Who tends to get into AP? The students who are more academic. So the entire structure of the AP system benefits those who are classically “good” students, students who have had every possible benefit from stable families to a higher socioeconomic status. In short, the system gives those students with every inherent advantage a greater advantage. It serves no real academic purpose.

  • Jeff

    This was an interesting topic.  I have taught AP Chem at Lexington for 6
    years.  Every year we try and get more students
    into the program.  Last year we have 40%
    of the junior’s take the class, about 200 students.  It is not just a class for the elite.  It was a class where everyone wanted to
    learn.  Most everyone was
    challenged.  Those who were on the lower
    end were picked up by those on the higher end, as well as extra help from the

    Even with large numbers of students, many on the edge of
    being able to grasp the material, over 90% of the students got a 3 or
    higher.   All our students come back and
    tell us how easy college is.  I saw a former
    student last week that is at Tufts, he was excited that he was skipping
    intro chem and going right into a materials class.

    It is a hard class for both the students and teachers.  However it is benifical and as one of your
    callers said, it gives kids the chance to level the playing field and show that
    a girl from an underperforming school can do the same thing as kids at prep
    schools (or elite public schools).

    Sure Lexington is not average, but 200 kids taking AP chem. shows
    we are getting a wide spectrum of kids and they are excelling at the task.

  • Liz

    Did I hear correctly when the chemistry teacher, after describing how ‘awesome’ the AP experience is at English High said no students there have even passed the AP exam?

    • Rebecca Lewis

       Hello Liz – Rebecca Lewis responding. The value of the AP program for students extends far beyond the score the get on the exam. They learn an abundance of other skills that will help them in college – work ethic, study habits, problem solving skills. From working in a struggling school, I can tell you that many of our students have significant gaps in their knowledge and skills – an AP level course can help bring students closer to where they need to be in order to be successful in college. Obviously a passing score on the exam would be great, but that is certainly not the only goal of an AP course.

  • Metin Toksoz-Exley

    I am a high school senior taking multiple AP’s and feel as though Tierney’s perspective of there being no flexibility is from the perspective of the teacher. The student never gets to chose what they learn so for us it’s not so different, but maybe it’s good because it helps the teachers understand what it feels like for the students.

  • Sam

    As a Boston teacher who also took many AP classes as a high school student growing up in Minnesota, I could only find one small area of agreement with Mr. Tierney regarding the AP program.

    I do believe that the college admissions game has put pressure on more students than ever to load up on AP courses, and as a result you often find AP classes with some students who are either unprepared or uninterested in the level of work required. This is a shame, and students should not feel so much pressure to compete just for the mark on their college application.

    Outside of that, I’m sorry to say that Mr. Tierney’s complaints sounded like he has extrapolated far too much from his own negative experience. He claims he had students guessing randomly and scribbling on their exams – this is a tragedy but not the fault of the AP program! As far as I have seen, students in AP classes are the most motivated about learning, and with a great teacher leading the class, these students often take pride in demonstrating their mastery at the end of the year.

    Even if colleges no longer give credit for AP exams, students who want to succeed at the college level absolutely need to encounter this level of challenge while in HS. The goal should be an AP class that covers all the content and still includes enriching and creative projects. A challenging and enriching class is exactly the point of AP, and not an impossibility as Mr. Tierney suggests.

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