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Schools' unrest over the AP test

Elite schools are dropping it, striking a blow to public education.

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The latest edition of Newsweek's "100 Best High Schools in America" recently hit newsstands. It ranks public high schools according to how they fare on the magazine's Challenge Index, which relies primarily on the number of Advanced Placement (AP) tests students in a school take.

Available online is another list: "Excellence without AP," which catalogs 58 public and private high schools that are rethinking their relationship with the AP program.

Schools on the first list push students to take AP courses. Schools on the second have dumped the program entirely. Guess which list sends a higher percentage of graduates to Harvard.

Once upon a time, AP courses on a transcript sent a powerful message about both students and their schools. They were marks of prestige that gave students an edge in college admissions. No longer. The Newsweek list has become a "best of the rest" list, while elite high schools with pipelines to the Ivy League are dropping AP and distinguishing themselves once more from their less-privileged counterparts.

But this trend comes at a cost: It's widening the achievement gap between inner-city and elite schools. The widespread adoption of AP courses in the past 20 years helped level the playing field. By abandoning them, top schools threaten to tilt it again, and in so doing, strike a blow to public education.

The AP program was originally developed 50 years ago by elite schools as a way of connecting high schools with colleges and challenging top students. During the cold war, AP was perfectly aligned with professional opinion about rigorous teaching and the concern with challenging the best and brightest. Not surprisingly, the program quickly gave top students an advantage in an increasingly competitive college admissions process.


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