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That AP Class You Took Might Have Been a Fraud

Schools are slapping AP labels on dumbed-down classes that don't deserve it, and cheating kids into thinking they're learning AP when they're not.


Are AP classes a fraud? According to "High School Classes May Be Advanced in Name Only" in Monday's New York Times, it's a real possibility. It turns out that just as colleges engage in grade inflation to boost their reputations, our nation's high schools might be caving to pressure to enroll more kids in AP courses. Schools dumbing down the curriculum and slapping an AP label on a class just to look good is problem enough. But the real losers in this scenario are the students who think they're learning AP material when they're actually not.

Back in 1990 (when being an honors student was still prestigious enough), only 5 percent of students enrolled in AP classes. By 2010 the number of students taking supposedly more challenging AP classes rose to 13 percent. The percentage of kids taking AP exams has also almost tripled over the past decade, from 1.2 million in 2000 to 3.1 million in 2010.

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Grading on Campus: Is the Easy A Here to Stay?

Leaked data at Columbia University shows plenty of students are getting A's. Is it grade inflation, or is everyone really just that smart?


Remember the days when college students fantasized about being tech savvy enough to hack the campus computer system and change their GPA to a 4.0? For students at Columbia University, A's come easily—no hacking necessary. According to leaked stats obtained by the school's student paper, the Spectator, professors gave A's and A-pluses to 8 percent of undergrads. Is it grade inflation, or are Columbia's students really just that smart?

The Spectator obtained a spreadsheet with data on 482 students, including their class years, majors, and academic advisers, when a dean mistakenly emailed it to students. According to the data, economics, English, and history majors are more likely to rack up A's, as are seniors.

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The New York Times' Economix blog featured a study out of Furman University, which shows that beginning in the 1960s, GPAs at national colleges and universities rose at a pace of one-tenth of a point per year, from an average of 2.52 in the mid-'50s to 3.11 in the mid-'00s. Interestingly, during the past 50 years, GPAs at private schools have wandered upwards at a faster rate than at public schools.

Today, the average public college student sports a 3.0 GPA; whereas the average private school student tallies a 3.3. The authors say that the grade inflation discrepancy is likely responsible for the overrepresentation of private college graduates at top pre-professional graduate programs.

There are, of course, some exceptions to the trends, the author's note (PDF):
Not all schools follow the patterns above. There are many that grade significantly higher and lower than their peer schools. Applying the formulae above to observed grades, we can look at how well schools deviate from predicted grading. Private liberal arts colleges have considerable variability from that predicted by the two equations above, particularly on the low end. Public flagship schools are significantly positively skewed in their grading relative to other public schools. What is perhaps most striking is that science and engineering schools – the MITs and Georgia Techs of academe – grade on average about 0.15 lower than their non-science and engineering peers. This may be why these schools tend to have lower retention levels; it also means that their graduates are disadvantaged in terms of their post-graduate prospects.

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