Ethics & Public Policy Center

Time to Break the College Board’s AP Testing Monopoly

Published in National Review Online on October 2, 2014


The College Board’s decision to create a new, unprecedentedly detailed, and ideologically-slanted framework for its AP U.S. History (APUSH) Exam has touched off a political and cultural firestorm. I and other critics have charged the College Board with building a strong leftward bias into its revised version of American history. (For details, see here, here, here, here, and here.) Controversies have erupted between the College Board and school boards in Texas and now in Jefferson County, Colorado. The issue is spreading nationally.

While resolving the AP U.S. History controversy will be difficult, the solution is straightforward. We need to break the College Board’s monopoly on Advanced Placement testing.

The College Board’s monopoly hasn’t been a problem up to now because instructions for the various AP courses have traditionally remained brief.  Until this year, for example, coverage for the AP U.S. History Exam was detailed in a five-page topical outline. This outline merely listed subjects to be included on the exam, leaving teachers free to present U.S. history from a variety of perspectives.

The new framework is not only more than ten-times longer than the old topical outline, its conceptual structure effectively forces teachers to adopt the College Board’s revisionist tenets. The College Board is also planning to produce detailed frameworks for its other AP tests, including U.S. Government and Politics, European History, and World History. In practice, this will turn the College Board into a national school board. Unless state and local governments knuckle under to the College Board’s curriculum guidelines, their students will be at a substantial disadvantage when applying to college.

The College Board’s AP testing monopoly has survived because of public trust. Implicitly, the College Board has promised to remain non-partisan and non-directive, thereby permitting states, school districts, and teachers with a wide range of educational perspectives to work comfortably within its system. On this presumption, state and federal governments have channeled tens of millions of dollars to the College Board in direct payments and testing fees. In effect, the College Board has become a government-subsidized educational monopoly. Now, however, with the College Board violating public trust by turning itself into a biased and controlling de facto national school board, this government-subsidized educational monopoly must end.

The escalating battle between the College Board and the Jefferson County school board illustrates the impossibility of solving this problem so long as AP testing remains in the hands of a single company. The Jefferson County school board has rightly refused to accept the flawed and overly directive APUSH framework imposed on it by an out-of-state company. The school board has both the right and an obligation to decide on its own curriculum.

On the other hand, attempts to force revisions onto the new APUSH framework are unlikely to succeed. Teachers know they will be judged by how well their students do on the College Board’s exams. They will thus likely ignore any revisions and continue to “teach to the test,” whatever changes the school board makes. Except for the fact that APUSH’s critics will mistakenly believe the problem has been solved, locally-imposed AP curriculum revisions will almost certainly change little.  On top of that, jury-rigging someone else’s curriculum is unlikely to produce an effective course.

What states really need is the ability to choose between alternative tests. This is hardly a novel idea.  On the contrary, even Common Core–already far too nationalized—hasn’t dared to establish a testing monopoly. States participating in Common Core are permitted to join one of two testing consortia.

Now that the College Board has revealed its ideological bias, states need to spur the creation of alternative AP testing services as well.

Let me offer some preliminary suggestions along these lines.

Imagine that the Texas legislature were to withdraw the state from the College Board’s APUSH program as of next fall, while simultaneously authorizing the Texas State Board of Education to contract with a private company to produce an AP U.S. History Exam consistent with Texas state standards.

Would this disadvantage Texas students? I don’t believe it would. Most high school graduates in Texas attend college in-state. Public colleges in Texas would surely accept a state-approved AP test, and in-state private colleges would likely follow suit. Colleges and universities in Texas would also remain free to accept the College Board’s APUSH test from out-of-state applicants.

If any private colleges outside of Texas declined to accept Texas AP Exam results, market pressure would work to change that rapidly. Any school rejecting AP scores from a state that accounts for about a tenth of the nation’s students would be placing itself at a significant competitive disadvantage.

That disadvantage would almost certainly grow over time. Once a large state like Texas developed an alternative exam, other states would likely follow suit, withdrawing from the College Board’s APUSH course and contracting with the new company, or other new companies, instead.  An AP testing system with at least two and possibly more companies would quickly emerge.

One alternative to the College Board’s revisionist APUSH course is a more traditionalist framework, structured in a fairly directive manner, like the one currently creating all the controversy. Personally, however, I favor a return to a brief topical outline. Certainly, that outline should make a point of ensuring solid coverage of the core areas of American political history given short-shrift by the new College Board framework. Yet an outline that remains brief, simply listing topics rather than dictating themes and concepts, would free teachers to approach the course from a wide variety of perspectives.

There is no consensus today on how best to approach American history. A variety of legitimate perspectives are on offer, so the most effective solution would allow considerable leeway to states, districts, teachers, and parents. That points to the need for a return to some version of the brief topical outline.

Once a genuine market in Advanced Placement testing opens up, the current system of government subsidies, to the extent that we want to continue it at all, would no longer have the effect of supporting a monopoly. Let’s consider some steps that may hasten that day.

Perhaps we need to rethink federal Advanced Placement subsidies altogether. Up to now, the sheer amount of federal money pouring into the College Board’s coffers has tended to insulate the company from state and local input. Perhaps AP testing subsidies should be cut at the federal level, leaving the decision on this expenditure up to the states. Failing that, there may be ways to cap the proportion of federal AP testing subsidies that can flow to any one company. For as long as the College Board’s monopoly continues, perhaps subsidies over a third or half of the appropriated amount could be used by states to contract with companies to develop alternative tests.

I want to emphasize that all of these proposals are provisional. They represent merely a first attempt to sketch out a potential solution to the dilemma created by the APUSH controversy and the College Board’s government-subsidized monopoly on Advanced Placement testing. I am looking into this issue, and may offer more concrete proposals in time.

I float these tentative ideas now to invite suggestions, and to encourage states to explore ways of busting the College Board’s pernicious AP testing monopoly today.  If we wait any longer to consider alternatives, it may be too late.

— Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at comments.kurtz@nationalreview.com

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