About the Book by Annie Abrams Titled “Short Changed: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students”

Form a Washington Post review by David Perry headlined “How the Advanced Placement curriculum undermined its original goals”:

In the 1950s, mired in the thick of the Cold War, a small group of educators — all White men at elite institutions — came up with an idea. What if promising high school students could take advanced classes, engage with the liberal arts and be lifted into top colleges even if they came from nonelite backgrounds? Those demonstrating potential could, they imagined, move more quickly past the rote drudgery of high school and into the pursuit of knowledge that was, in their estimation, America’s core advantage over the Soviet Union.

With a view toward the public good and enough private funding to give them independence from public oversight, these men ended up building a new entity that today we know as Advanced Placement. Theirs was a vision of meritocratic sorting, not a plan for egalitarian access to the best possible education. Still, according to “Shortchanged: How Advanced Placement Cheats Students,” a new study of the origins and current role of Advanced Placement exams by historian Annie Abrams, the founders of AP had both a profound respect for the vitality of liberal learning and a disdain for simplified assessments via standardized tests.

Flash forward to today and, according to Abrams, who teaches high school English and has a PhD in American literature, almost nothing of that original vision remains. Instead, she argues, we get tests that neither measure the quality of the student’s high school education nor stand in for introductory level college courses. They have become, she writes, just a “regime of profitable standardized tests disproportionately affecting public school students attending public universities.” Students don’t learn to love reading. They don’t learn to love history. And, she argues, they don’t become the kinds of citizens that we need in this turbulent time. In that regard, especially, the current system stands in ironic opposition to the one imagined by the elitist founders of the College Board in the mid-20th century.

“Shortchanged” is organized into two distinct sections. Over the first three chapters, Abrams investigates the origins of Advanced Placement. Abrams explores the intellectual history of debates about education by mid-century contemporaries like Harvard president James Conant, Phillips Andover teacher Alan Blackmer and Kenyon College president Gordon Chalmers. They had disagreements but shared a belief in “education as a humanistic, rather than mechanistic, enterprise aligned with notions of the American political tradition in which citizens rely on each other’s humanity in a system of self-governance.”

But abstract debates aren’t the whole story, because ultimately men like these found funding, formed committees and wrote reports. The roots of the problems facing Advanced Placement today, and the problems that AP is causing for the entire edifice of advanced humanities education, emerged out of the shift from abstract principles to practical outcomes. Abrams locates a key point of transition, for example, when Blackmer and a committee of his peers finished drafting a report animated by “high-flying ideals” of intellectual freedom for students and autonomy for teachers, then went back to teach at Andover. Harvard’s director of testing, a man named Henry Dyer, was left to write an appendix on implementation. Dyer believed in tests, quantification and psychometrics. He worked with subject experts to put together “achievement tests in specific fields … to demonstrate candidates’ academic promise.”It’s not necessarily inevitable that AP would devolve into the organization that Abrams so criticizes, but certainly here in this appendix is one starting point of that devolution. But it’s not the only moment. Throughout this fascinating history, Abrams locates a deep tension between lofty rhetoric about humanism and uplift and implementation through a bureaucratic process of testing. Testing won.

In the second part, Abrams shifts to the modern context, laying out the many problems with the AP regime that will be more familiar to readers. For example, AP U.S. history, she argues, is replacing the teaching of college-level American history across the country, but not with a course that replicates what a student would actually encounter in college. Instead, driven at least in part by an online “AP Classroom,” U.S. history is transformed from a complex, contested, essential subject into something a framework that “attempts to fix US history into a set of stable ideas.” Instead of celebrating the autonomy of instructors, a key point made by the founders, the goal is now mechanization. For AP English, AI grading is threatening to turn writing, too, into a mechanistic exercise, devoid of actual engagement with literature, that “violates the potential for essay writing to help students organize experience — their own and others’.”

The problems don’t end with English and history, of course. It inheres, instead, in the very nature of trying to shape complex college-level material into something that can be standardized, delivered increasingly online and assessed by an easily graded test, an endeavor that requires both simplification and rigidity. The AP depreciates, she writes, the skills of thinking and knowing that it most claims to celebrate. She worries she will be “panned for failing to offer a clear path out of this mess,” but the first step may be simply recognizing that we are, indeed, in a mess.

Abrams’s book hits the shelves as AP finds itself at the center of ongoing right-wing attempts to seize even greater control of public education at all levels. In the early part of the year, Republican officials in Florida, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, rejected a new AP African American studies curriculum on the grounds that it “lacks educational value.” The College Board shortly thereafter released a version of the course that removed mandatory engagement with topics such as intersectionality, queer studies, reparations and Black Lives Matter. Over the next few weeks, Florida officials claimed victory while the College Board strenuously denied that it had edited the course as a result of political pressure, then announced in late April that it would revise the curriculum after all. These developments obscure a basic truth that Abrams clarifies: By its very nature, the AP is constructed in a way that precludes actual engagement with difficult material. Structured around a common test, the courses must cave to a common denominator, which leaves little room for the needs of individual classrooms or thoughts of the diverse students who fill them out.

In other words, the problems that Abrams explores transcend politics, which is why her focus on the goals of the founders is so important. They were elitists, but they also had good ideas about the importance of access to humanistic education as necessary for both a good life and the preservation of democracy. Today, thanks at least in part to students clearing their liberal arts general education requirements by taking AP classes, many don’t take humanities classes in college. They don’t have to. They’re told not to.

“Shortchanged” is a brilliant book not just because of its content, but because of the way that Abrams grapples with the potential of a humanities. She encounters a problem (students in AP English classes who are prepped for tests instead of being exposed to literature) and wants to know why this is happening. So she studies the history, digs into archives, places the issues in their political and economic context, and then, when ready, makes an argument to a broader public. This book is everything we say that the humanities can do. And it’s everything that, according to Abrams, the Advanced Placement regime is likely to destroy.

David Perry is a journalist and assistant director of undergraduate studies in the history department at the University of Minnesota. He is the co-author of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.”

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