Money  /  Book Review

Bankrupt Authority

Advanced Placement testing is "a money-making racket that lets states off the hook for underfunding education."

In Shortchanged, Abrams investigates the decline of the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) program, from its initial Cold War aim promoting American ideals to a money-making racket that lets states off the hook for underfunding education. AP testing allows high school students the ability to earn college credit early based upon their performance on year-end exams. But, as Abrams demonstrates, the College Board’s unabashed embrace of profits has had a deleterious effect on how AP classes are even taught. Abrams muses that her book stemmed from “an effort to understand [her] new job and [her] own resistance to doing it ‘well.’” As a scholar of American literature, her pedagogical approach to helping students hone their thoughts and craft essays remains at odds with how AP testing actually rewards students. Abrams argues that the College Board “is running on bankrupt authority” as it further entwines its AP products into state and federal policy.

The first half of Shortchanged amounts to an intellectual history of the AP program. Oxymoronic as that seems–what is a standardized test if not the death of insight and nuance?–Abrams ably shows the philosophical traditions and geopolitical conditions that shaped the earliest versions of these tests. Given the spate of nongovernmental organizations, working committees, and elite institution leaders behind the eventual creation of the AP program in the 1950s, all three chapters are needed to show the interplay of elitism and anti-communism. Abrams shines a spotlight on James Conant, president of Harvard during the Cold War and an instrumental figure in bringing the AP program into being. “Calm, meticulous, and self-possessed,” Conant believed that American education had to balance enabling class fluidity while preserving social order. Too much control over the life paths of students and the differences between American and Soviet education would seem trivial; too much leeway and anarchy would reign. Conant cut through this logical knot by embracing meritocracy, the idea that a naturally emerging elite of superior intellects were most deserving of being social leaders. Standardized testing allowed the cultivation of talent to seem rational and scientific rather than a way to reinforce existing biases.