The College Board designed the Advanced Placement (AP) Capstone program, encompassing two recently created AP courses: AP Seminar and AP Research, with the goal of fostering the “research, argumentation, and communication skills that are at the core of college readiness.” But the introduction of AP Capstone poses an interesting question: why is a program that seeks to promote college readiness among high school students praised for being innovative? Isn’t promoting college readiness something the high school education system should already be doing? This is the ironic reality of our current high school education system—a reality in which launching an initiative to prepare students for college is seen as a ground-breaking move.
At first glance, the AP Capstone program seems like a step in the right direction. The program is predicated on the simple notion that students can learn the skills necessary for college by analyzing source documents and writing academic papers. The AP Seminar course is intended to enable students to explore real world issues from multiple points of view, while the AP Research course is supposed to allow each student to explore a specific issue in-depth by writing a 5,000-word academic thesis paper on the issue.
But the problems with the AP Capstone program lie in its simplicity—and, particularly, in the simplistic assumption that “thinking-skills” courses such as AP Seminar and AP Research can be structured, taught, and evaluated the same way “traditional” AP courses are.
Presumably, schools will structure AP Seminar and AP Research courses the same way they structure other AP courses: students report at a specific time to a classroom, where they receive instruction and guidance from a teacher. Indeed, trial runs at Carl Wunsche Sr. High School that were covered by the Houston Chronicle confirm this notion: the school opted to structure its AP Seminar and AP Research courses the same way it structured other AP courses, because it was convenient.
The problem with using this same structure for the AP Seminar and AP Research courses is that while most teachers are only a specialist in one subject area, most students will want to explore a different subject area than the one their teacher is an expert in—and the AP Capstone program’s emphasis on granting students intellectual and creative freedom makes this a very likely outcome.
This means that most of the students in an AP Seminar or AP Research course won’t receive the help of a knowledgeable mentor. By definition, only mentors who are well-versed in a subject know about the various perspectives on relevant issues in that subject and are subsequently able to constructively challenge the assumptions and ideas of students—without such a knowledgeable mentor in most classrooms, the ideas of students will go unexamined.
Students in these “thinking-skills” AP courses are also evaluated the same way those in “traditional” AP courses are: students will be given a numeric grade, which is supposed to indicate their mastery of the skills they learned, from one to five. Seventy percent of the AP grade for AP Research will be based on the 5,000-word paper each student has to write, while the remaining 30 percent will be split between a research process document and a public presentation. Students taking AP Seminar will have to sit for a three-hour exam that will determine 40 percent of their AP grade; the other 60 percent will be based on two different tasks: a team project and an individual 2,000-word paper.
The major problem with this evaluation system is that it creates a skewed system of incentives for students. As education expert and author Alfie Kohn notes, grading creative tasks—such as the writing involved in the AP Capstone program—encourages students to take fewer intellectual and creative risks. The reasoning behind this argument is simple: it’s easier for a student to excel in doing an assignment he or she perceives as easy, so a student will always opt for the least intellectually and creatively taxing option—doing so will allow him or her to get a high grade without taking on much risk.
But the ultimate irony of the AP Capstone program is that it creates the very problems it tries to solve, because it saps resources away from other important courses—including the classes that should foster the very skills that AP Capstone seeks to teach. Kristin Klopfenstein, an assistant professor of economics at Texas Christian University, and Kathleen Thomas, an assistant professor of economics at Mississippi State University, argue that offering AP classes comes at the expense of non-AP students. Non-AP students get worse instruction because better teachers are assigned to AP courses, end up in larger classes because AP classes have lower class sizes, and receive less funding than students in AP classes. Thus, offering AP Capstone comes at the expense of using those resources to ensure that regular classes teach the skills that AP Capstone is designed to teach.
Instead of using significant resources to offer these “thinking-skills” AP courses, schools should just ensure that these important skills are incorporated in the curriculum for each subject. Students should be discussing relevant issues, thinking critically, and writing academic essays in each class they take—they shouldn’t have to take a separate course to learn essential critical-thinking and analytical skills.
The College Board should take a similar approach: instead of investing money in the AP Capstone program, it should invest money in making sure all AP courses help teach the skills AP Capstone is designed to teach. If it had already done so, there would be no need for a program like AP Capstone today.