Advanced Placement: A Race to Nowhere?

“Honestly, the best thing to do would be to get rid of the AP Program, and just design a course that prepares students for the college-level experience.”

A few nights ago, we hosted a screening of the film Race to Nowhere (find screening locations on the film’s website.) The quote above is from Jay Chugh, an AP Biology teacher featured in the film, and it’s one that stuck with me when I first saw the film during its short theatrical run in Los Angeles last September. The film is the product of Vicki Abeles who had seen the strain in her children as they navigated school, homework, tutoring and extracurricular activities, and eventually a major crisis when her 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a stress induced illness. In trying to understand what was driving student pressure, Abeles began talking to experts and learned of the soaring rates of youth depression, suicide, cheating, and determined to do something. Hence, the film. Race to Nowhere makes many arguments around the central thesis that the competition our schooling culture pushes has dangerous consequences: “childhood has become indentured to test scores, performance and competition. We face an epidemic of unhealthy, disengaged, unprepared kids trying to manage as best they can.” The film takes aim in particular at the College Board’s Advanced Placement program, arguing that too many kids enter AP classes in search of weighted GPAs instead of deeper learning in subject areas about which they are passionate. The result, the film asserts, are stressed kids who have more to do than time available, and who don’t actually learn much. Abeles posted this selection of clips from the film as an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times:

Is Advanced Placement a problem? Perhaps. AP’s influence in education is complicated. Though it would certainly go a step too far to blame AP for all the problems of school pressure (Abeles doesn’t do this, the film finds many faults with schooling) there’s no doubt that courses like AP Biology and AP United States History are, as Chugh says, “a runaway train”. These two courses have evolved over the years to include so much content that it’s frankly impossible for students to learn all they must to feel well prepared for the AP Exam. Because teachers know there’s so much content to learn, and understandably perceive ‘coverage’ (lecturing) as the only way to get through it all, these courses frequently devolve into “stand and deliver” teacher-centered classes where students “sit and git”. This is Advanced Placement at its worst – anti-student, anti-21st-century-skills, “content is king” stuff. The New York Times recently ran a great feature story on “Rethinking AP“, laying out the arguments for why the College Board is trying to change Bio and U.S History, and why many schools are considering dropping the AP program altogether. The move to reform these courses is a good one, but it’s going to take some time as we learned this weekend – APUSH won’t get a change until 2013-14.


Video Op-Ed, at the NY Times: (

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