AP Exams Are the Biggest Scam in American Education

Bryant and Xu had a plan to make their finals suck less. They had discovered that anything written in the AP booklets, and then crossed out, would not be graded. So, they thought, what if everyone in their high school paused halfway through their essays, wrote “THIS IS SPARTA!” in all caps, then crossed it all out with a single, thin line? And, what if a Facebook group was created that sent the message out to thousands of other high school seniors, who would also write the King Leonidas quote in their English Lit, World History and Music Theory exams? Would others go along with this? Would it add some levity to the stressful tests? Would it drive test graders to the point of insanity?

Their plan more or less worked. The group garnered over 30,000 members. Thousands of test booklets across the country were filled with crossed-out “Spartas.” I know I wrote it in my AP U.S. History booklet. And, like a lot of other guys, I did it because I thought the AP tests were utter bullshit, and in front of me was the roadmap to a (kind of lame) way to protest.

Here’s the thing, though: The Sparta-jokers in 2008? We were the responsible people taking the AP exams. At least we were careful enough to cross out the pop culture reference while we were taking the tests. The majority of high-achieving kids in my buddies' and my AP classes couldn’t have given less of a crap. They showed up for most of the classes, sure, and they did their best to keep up with the grades because they didn’t want their GPAs to drop, but when it came time to take the tests, they drew pictures on the AP Calc, answered just “C” on the AP World History, and would finish sections of the AP Chem in, like, 5 minutes. I had one buddy who took an hour-and-a-half bathroom break during World History. The cops were almost called. They thought he was missing.

Anyway, you can see where this is going. For not the first time in history, the pranksters and the slackers were both equally right. AP exams are a joke and a scam. They serve no purpose anymore. And they probably will not even exist in the next couple of decades.

Everyone has known this for some time, but the first domino fell last month when Dartmouth decided that it would no longer accept college credits for high AP scores. Yes, even 5’s! Because, after years of suspicion that the high school courses weren’t exactly college-level, the school conducted a study that asked 100 incoming freshmen who made a 5 on their AP Psych exams to take Dartmouth’s Intro to Psych final. 90% of all incoming freshmen couldn’t pass it.

“The psychology department got more and more suspicious about how good an indicator a 5 on the A.P. psych exam was for academic success,” said Hakan Tell, a classics professor who heads Dartmouth’s Committee on Instruction, so the department decided to give a condensed version of the Psych 1 final to incoming students instead of giving them credits.

Of more than 100 students who had scored a 5 on the A.P. exam, 90 percent failed the Dartmouth test. The other 10 percent were given Dartmouth credit.

A follow-up effort produced even worse results, Professor Tell said. “We looked at the students who failed our on-campus exam but decided to enroll in Psych 1, to see whether they did any better than students who had never taken the Advanced Placement class, and we couldn’t detect any difference whatsoever,” he said.


Got that? The kids who couldn’t pass Intro to Psych were the ones who actually tried in AP Psych AND who received the highest grade you could possibly get. These weren’t the guys who took the hour-and-a-half bathroom breaks that were really grass-seeking operations that led to Tony’s Civic. They were the best and the brightest.

This isn’t that surprising.

AP classes can, and will, never be able to fully replace college intro classes. They’re not taught by professors. They have fundamentally different curriculums. And, most importantly, they’re too damn inconsistent. At some high schools, AP classes approach the levels of difficulty reached by their college counterparts. But at other schools, they exist mainly as an easy way to bolster the resumes of seniors looking to apply to exclusive schools, and to pump up their rating in Newsweek's utterly bullshit AP-centric “Best High Schools in America” rankings. (Here's hoping those go away as quietly as Newsweek did.)

There is no universal rigor. And as the Dartmouth example shows, it doesn’t matter whether you did well on the AP test or whether your AP class could be considered “more difficult than most.” You’re still fucking up the college final. The AP exam is pointless.

So, why am I blabbering on about this? Because you should know that schools like Dartmouth are going to phase the exams out in the future. Because many (usually private) universities already don’t accept the credits. Because it’s crappy that you’re expected to stress about a test that might not ultimately matter at all.

But mainly because we need to think of a new phrase to write in the exam books. I want to start this Bryant and Xu movement back and “THIS IS SPARTA!” just brings back PTSD gained after seeing “Meet the Spartans” in theaters.


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