Making AP a Bigger & Better Competency-Based System

In case you missed it, two million high school students took AP tests this month.  Here’s a few fast facts about College Board’s Advanced Placement program:

  • In 2011, 3.4 million exams were taken by nearly 2 million students at over 18,000 high schools.
  • The AP Program offers 34 courses in a wide variety of subject areas.
  • The majority of U.S. high schools currently participate in the AP Program.

The good news includes:

  1. Courses objectives are moderately clear
  2. Tests are objectively scored
  3. Tests require a fair amount of writing
  4. Most four-year colleges in the United States provide credit for qualifying test scores.
  5. Steady growth in participation includes more low income and minority students
Here’s the bad news:
  1. Most delivery is traditional cohort-based (i.e, lockstep, not personalized)
  2. The time-based system is reinforced by few testing dates (unlike Cisco Academy which offers tests daily)
  3. The AP Exam fee is $87 per exam.
  4. Exams reinforce content memorization rather than deeper learning
  5. Computers are prohibited
AP may be the world’s largest competency-based learning program.  It has expanded access to college credit opportunities for million of students (and has proven far more scalable than other efforts like early college high schools).  Both are enormous contributions. But there’s an opportunity to make three big contributions in the balance of this decade:
  1. Move the tests online.  Not many students write by hand anymore; it’s crazy to make them do it on a test.
  2. Make multiple testing windows available (e.g., 6-8 times annually) to support competency-based learning.
  3. Encourage the development of personalized and adaptive content with a prize aimed at advances in the most popular courses.
  4. Encourage the development of flex programs that expand access and support increased success (see When Glee Meets FIRST for Coffee and Leaves With an AA & 10 Reasons Every District Should Open a Flex School) by offering program leader bootcamps.
  5. Incorporate automated scoring to drive down test administration costs and improve the quality of performance tasks.
With all of the colleges going bankrupt, College Board could buy one and offer credit directly.  They could even offer an AA degree–making it a massive online early college program available (one way or another) to almost every student in the US.
Add upgrading AP to David Coleman’s list of opportunities as the incoming CEO and another reason his selection was a big deal.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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