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Abolish Advanced Placement?

The Way Things Were

I went to a small Catholic high school in the mid-1980’s. I was in the first class of eleventh-graders in that school’s history to take an A.P. class, Advanced Placement United States History. The bright, college-bound kids in the bigger public high schools nearby had had this option available to them pretty much only since I had been a freshman; my school was a couple years behind them, because money.

ancientschoolWay back in those primitive times, when people listed to music on cassette tapes and California still voted for Republicans, the conventional wisdom was that a high school student could not even theoretically get more than a 4.0 grade point average; a 4.0 represented straight “A” grades all through high school. Us Lisa Simpsons of that place and time all thought that a 4.0 was the summit.

Along came Advanced Placement, and you got an extra point for the class! An “A” grade would count for five, count-em, five points, so you could have a 4.1 or a 4.2 GPA on graduation and damn, that was going to look really slick on the college application! We were all so proud of ourselves for having been selected to get this honor, and the material really didn’t seem all that difficult, either — a good boost for our confidence on top of the boost to the GPA and the college credit. Seemingly, an unambiguously good thing.


Advanced Placement Contributes To Grade Inflation

Now, Advanced Placement classes have been a part of the United States’ high school curriculum, conceptually, since the 1950’s and spread from schools in and around New York to the rest of the country in a big way in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The basic idea is now what it always has been: for the brighter students bound for college, make classes available that count for both high school and college credit, to let the students ready to advance prepare for college and thus move through college quickly, as well as to distinguish themselves from their colleagues. As I experienced, that seems like an unambiguous good thing.

The grade bonus was intended to signify, as part of the numerical grade point average that purports to give an at-a-glance quantification of the student’s academic achievements, that the student had engaged in coursework mimicking the rigor and discipline of a college class. But what it seems to have signified now, in comparison to a regular high school class of the same subject, is more, rather than deeper, knowledge, as described by a veteran of the trenches:

The AP system forces much content to be “taught” quickly, which leads to low retention and even less analysis. Students are generally on their own to read, process, understand and remember an outrageous amount of information.

I’ve seen gifted AP teachers who were compelled to reduce the complexity of World War II to two 55-minute classroom lectures, and to cover the New Deal and the civil rights movement in one class. To explain the compression, teachers cite the press of time, the wealth of material and the impending weight and doom of the final AP test, given a full month before the school year ends.

High school kids, and thus the high schools that educate them, are locked in a massive arms race for credentials. A four-point-zero grade point average, once the summit of academic achievement, is now the baseline, perhaps even the bare minimum threshold. There are now Honors classes, A.P. classes, Honors A.P. classes, and who knows what other upper strata of labels attached to purportedly college-level or other better-than-high-school level work is out there. Classes offering a 5.0 chit into the student’s GPA are passe; the aspiration now seems to be a six-point-zero GPA on that application. This is hardly surprising; there are enough curricula approved by the College Board, the entity that originated and oversees Advanced Placement, that it seems nearly an entire high school program, complete with a senior-year capstone course, can be done with A.P. (Could the all-A.P. student skip college altogether and go straight to grad school? I’m only about three-quarters facetious.)


The Crushing Burden of Memorization

crushedbybooksThe high school students I meet mostly sign up for the mock trial club I coach so that they can check off another box on their college applications for “extracurricular activities.” They show up as part of an agenda intended to build a resume that shows that they are outstanding and excellent, just like everyone else. And they don’t see the irony in the last four words of that sentence, because a) they’ve been taught a definition of the term “irony” but not its application, b) they’re too immersed in the academic credentials arms race to see it for what it is, c) they can’t bear the notion that all their hard work and stress is in pursuit of the absurd, or d) all of the above.

After all, these kids certainly do more homework than I think is a particularly good idea. The kids I coach on the Mock Trial team report doing four to six hours of homework nightly. I asked the students one time, “Why do you have so much homework?” and the answer was “So that we can learn all the things the teachers need to teach us for the tests.” My next question was, “So what are you doing in class all day long?” Both the teacher I work work and the students thought that was a pretty good question to which there was no ready answer, because apparently what happens in class isn’t within that category of things we’d call “learning,” at least not at a particularly high level.

Sometimes I ask them about stuff I know a thing or two about; history, government, civics, or literature if they’ve read something I did. “Oh, you read 1984? Fantastic! That’s the first book I ever read that made me cry. Do you think that Newspeak is real? Don’t you think Winston’s job would have been really easy with modern technology?” and their eyes glaze over in fear. The response I get is “I took the test already, Mr. Likko, so I don’t really remember the book.” Inquiry into other subject matter areas has reveals a similar evanescence concerning their knowledge of concepts like “manifest destiny,” “natural rights,” and “due process.”


A popular representation of Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive skills. My admittedly limited experience suggests that even gifted high school students rarely demonstrate, or are asked to demonstrate, skills above the bottom two tiers.

Which is exactly what I’d expect if all they’re doing is memorizing words and phrases that are essentially nonsense to them. Which isn’t “learning,” even at the high school level. And that’s what you get: cram-memorization followed by purge-regurgitation. Or as one bright but thoroughly fatigued 13-year-old put it to her father, “Memorization, not rationalization.


An Industry Arises

To help push your smart high school student through this gauntlet of reducing the fundamental concepts of western civilization to little more than answers to Trivial Pursuit questions, you can retain any of a number of private companies that have sprung up to take advantage of the fact that high school kids are a bit overwhelmed by data and perhaps not all of them have been trained to connect the damn dots to turn the data into comprehension.

Of course, if it gets to the point that you need to hire tutors to get your kid to pass a test in school, the first question you should be asking is “Why the hell isn’t the school teaching this to my kid?” and the second question you should be asking is “If my kid needs a tutor to pass this test, does my kid really belong in this class in the first place?” That’s before you step back and wonder about the kid whose family can’t afford a private tutor.

I also note that the college credits that come along with a high enough score on an A.P. test don’t seem to help the kids that much in college anyway — average length of time from enrollment to graduation is increasing, so something else must be happening along the way, in the colleges, that makes it take longer to get that bacchalaurelate degree notwithstanding the promulgation of A.P. credit to incoming students; nearly half of all full-time college students now need five years to get a four-year degree. That this means more money flowing through colleges’ coffers is, let’s say, “fortuitous,” at least from an administrative point of view. It’s far from clear to me, though, that a student with a bachelor’s degree earned in five years is any smarter or more capable than a student with a bachelor’s degree earned in the traditional four, but it is clear to me that such a student is more likely to have spent more money or be deeper in debt to get that same degree.


Underwhelming Results

And then I see students’ writing. These are the smart kids. They spell correctly, and generally use punctuation at about an average level. For what I do, I don’t need to worry so much about their writing skills, except insofar as their writing reflects their ability to construct chains of logical thought and to manipulate complex concepts. Which are things they need to do when they “play lawyer” in their competitions. Some are better at those sorts of things than others, and I can’t discern any relationship between that and their reported placement in honors or A.P. classes.*

The best I can say is that somewhere along the way, a relatively small number of them start to ‘get it’ and they can put concepts together intellectually. They’ve awoken. They’ll remember not only that grummishes are associated with Sedonia, but also that Sedonia was a Catholic country, so it seems like that most natters were also Protestants and sure enough it turns out that most of the famous natters were created by Protestants from places like Margravia. Most never make that connection, at least not that I see.

But making those kinds of connections is precisely the sort of thing that college-level classes are supposed to be for. And that’s why I think that Brian Gibbs, a former LAUSD teacher up for a Ph.D. in education at UW Madison, is on to something when he calls A.P. classes an overrated “racket.” They don’t perform as advertised. They inflate grades and look pretty on a high school student’s college application, but all they’re really doing is forcing more rapid memorization-and-purging than the students in the regular classes.

I am left seriously wondering if the game of gather-and-collect-resume-buffs has crossed the point that the score of the game has ceased to meaningfully reflect the educational achievements that they are supposed to represent. Yes, it’s still a way of a high school kid being able to distinguish herself as “one of the smart ones.” But beyond that, grades, honors, A.P. credit, and all of those other things appear to be so watered-down as to not really reflect much of anything in terms of intellectual achievement, subject matter mastery, or cognitive ability.


No Way Out?

And there’s no way for any one school, any one student or set of students, to stand down and refocus back on substantive education while all the others continue to accumulate ever-escalating honorifics. If the problem of teaching kids something, of kids learning things, is to be tackled, then maybe a radical proposal is in order:

Abolish all of this escalated academic credit. ALL OF IT. Do away with all of the honors classes, all the advanced placement. Impose grading on a hard curve. Not everyone gets to be above average, and only a very small number get to be extraordinary.

Now, the truth is, I’m not actually a fan of getting rid of honors-tracking for the bright kids and regular-tracking for the not-bright but not-dim kids. I realize that high schools need to put students on “tracks” that will serve them best for their later lives, arming them with education appropriate for the sorts of things that their existing talent indicates they’re going to be good for. I like the spirit of honors classes, advanced placement classes, and the flexibility that a high school can offer to keep bright students intellectually challenged and build momentum for their college careers.

middlepathFloating a radical proposal is, however, one way to focus thought on what can be done to make things better, a way to reform. If the status quo is not acceptable — and I think that it’s at least questionable, given that it imposes crushing burdens on bright kids who don’t seem to actually get anything out of their labor in return but who must dive further into this system because everyone else does too — and the only proposed alternative seems too extreme, then aren’t we naturally gravitated towards finding some middle course?

So consider what the world would look like if, starting with the academic year just starting right ow in most school districts, there was no sort of advanced or honors tracks. If society, as a whole, hit some sort of “reset” button on honors education, maybe the resulting honored students would really be the extraordinary ones, not just the ones who were kind of bright and showed up every day.

Would a world in which a “C” grade represented satisfactory performance and only a few kids ever got “A” grades really be so bad? Wouldn’t the bright students still distinguish themselves?

When national economies suffer out-of-control inflation, one of the things that they generally do is recall all the old currency and re-issue new, more stable money. Grades and honors have inflated out of control, students are being mentally crushed by the pressure to compete for educational honors to the point that learning itself has been degraded, and the costs of keeping up with that pressure have created a private industry that stratifies the benefits of good education along lines of affluence. It’s unclear to me that students who would not already have excelled anyway are attaining excellence because of this state of affairs, and unclear that even if they are, the costs are outweighed by the benefits.


* I also see graduate students’ writing in the MBA classes I teach as an adjunct, and most of that isn’t appreciably better than what the high school kids turn out. If clear, effective writing is an indicator of clear, effective thought, the points at which I come into contact with the educational system (its midpoint in secondary school and its endgame in graduate school) suggest that education at higher levels is also doing a terrible job of teaching people how to think.


Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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89 thoughts on “Abolish Advanced Placement?

  1. One reason you haven’t thought of why you won’t be able to eliminate Advanced Placement is pretty simple. It’s a way that smart kids of lower to upper middle class kids can drastically cut the cost of college. Take a couple of AP classes per quarter starting in Junior year and you might knock a whole year off of tuition.


    • I’d be interested in the amount of kids who do this. My hunch is that it is remarkably low.

      I went to high school where more than a small handful of students took AP classes (I think it is even a higher percentage now). I also went to a selective college where a lot of my classmates came in with AP credits galore. I can think of one, maybe two people who took a year off of college and graduated in three years instead of four.

      So an alleged benefit of the AP classes turns out not to exist in reality for the most part.


      • Speaking only for myself, as an anecdatum of one, I can say it worked for me. I entered with Sophomore status and by my second semester, had junior status. I still spent four years to get the degree. If I had wanted, I probably could have made it work in three, but my scholarship lasted four years so I thought I might as well get the subsidized (but not entirely free, because fees and living expenses) education.

        That’s not to say you’re wrong, however. While technically not a middle class kid, I had a lot of the advantages of one. And it’s questionable whether an education policy ought to be geared toward giving people like me even more advantages while others get fewer.


      • If, as Burt suggests, AP classes are not actually teaching kids anything, then those who take them will likely have to re-take those classes in college, just to avoid falling behind.

        So the savings on tuition is probably minimal.


      • That’s probably true. However, I’m not convinced that, say, a high school class in AP US History is much better than the typical US history survey in a large school, with class sizes of 100+ students. (If we’re not talking history and instead talking about, say, chemistry, physics, or calculus, that might be a different story.)


      • My experience was almost exacty the same as Conroy’s: got a ton of credits which I could have used to graduate in three years, but only used to sign up for my classes earlier than my peers. Also had a four-year scholarship. At my mom’s advice, I used the extra credits to take a lighter course load and also some not-applicable-towards-graduation classes (extra foreign language classes and, I kid you not, a class called “Recreational Math” the title of which was only 50% accurate. Still regret not taking the Bridge [card game] class also offered by the Math department.)

        I was also a cold, calculating high school senior- once I decided where I was going, I called to find out what each AP score “payed out”. When I found that my ACT score had already gotten me as much credit as a 5 on the English AP test would have, I opted to save the $70 and time that test required. One of the things my engineering school should not be proud of is that a freshman who could string 4 coherent sentences in a row could take “Advanced English” for 10 weeks and, upon recieving a B or better, that would be the *entirety* of his/her English language instruction.


    • In the 4th section, 3rd paragraph of the essay, Burt addressed this exact point:

      I also note that the college credits that come along with a high enough score on an A.P. test don’t seem to help the kids that much in college anyway — average length of time from enrollment to graduation is increasing, so something else must be happening along the way, in the colleges, that makes it take longer to get that bacchalaurelate degree notwithstanding the promulgation of A.P. credit to incoming students; nearly half of all full-time college students now need five years to get a four-year degree.


      • To add on to my comment to Saul, that was my experience, too. Not only did it permit me to double major, but it put first-ish in line for the classes, so that I almost always got in a class I wanted. (Of course, it’s not as if the line to get into “History of the French Language” was all that long to begin with.)


    • It’s a way that smart kids of lower to upper middle class kids can drastically cut the cost of college.

      Some years back, when the Colorado legislature was looking at ways to reduce the cost of college, they opted to require the state’s four-year schools to accept transfer credits from a variety of classes taught at the two-year community colleges. While CC tuition is cheaper than that of the four-year schools, the big savings is that so many students live within commuting distance of a CC, can live with their parents, and save the cost of room-and-board. The flip side of the deal was that the two-year schools had to teach those classes to the same requirements as the four-year schools did.

      My only exposure has been teaching a calculus class at one of the local CCs (Colorado CCs are notorious for having “volunteers” — retired engineering types, mostly — teach math and science for the pittance that adjunct faculty are paid). The CCs offer the standard first two years of college math, three semesters of calculus and one of differential equations, and an odd statistics and probability class. The biggest draw, though, is the “remedial” math classes, algebra and pre-calc. I don’t know how the four-year schools feel about that — back in the day, math departments complained bitterly about having to teach remedial classes, but they were enormous money makers, with lots of largish sections being taught by graduate students.


      • Because I was a Veteran & had a few CLEP tests under my belt, UW-Madison would not take me as a freshman. I had to come in as a transfer student, which meant take 3 semesters of classes at MATC (Madison Area Tech College). MATC had a college transfer program, so any class I took that was listed under college transfer would be accepted by the UW.

        Took care of my remedial Algebra & Trig & Calc 1, Chem 1 & 2, and a bunch of my non-engineering requirement classes. I will admit that for these basic classes, I found the quality of instruction at MATC to be superior than what many of my future classmates had at the UW. Especially Calc 1, since it was a weeder class (along with Calc 2) at the UW. Sometimes I think I should have taken more of my math classes at MATC, just because, IMHO, the UW Math Department had crap for instructors (unless you were a math major, then they cared about you).


      • I found the quality of instruction at MATC to be superior than what many of my future classmates had at the UW.

        The CC math departments “advertise” when students inquire by pointing out that not only is calculus cheaper at the CC, but class size is limited and the instructor will know your name. Adjuncts almost never get to teach calculus at the CCs here because the full-time math faculty fight over who gets to teach the “real” math courses.

        As a side note, one of the reasons that the CCs can find so many people to be adjuncts is because to teach math at a high school you have to have a rather large stack of credentials, but you can teach at the CC with none of that. Granted that math education is a somewhat different beast, but I did listen to a couple of long-time adjuncts complaining bitterly that “15 years as a successful math instructor at CCs” didn’t count for much if you applied for high school positions.


      • Oddly enough, ALL of my High School math teachers sucked. As a matter of fact, only my 7th grade math teacher was worth a damn. The only math I was good at was geometry.

        At MATC, my College Algebra teacher was an economist with a Masters & he was the first who opened my eyes to how Algebra works by bringing it back around to geometry & making that connection. I’ve said this before, but it is a profound thing when a subject you’ve been struggling with all your life suddenly ‘clicks’, and the whole of it opens up before you.

        My Trig & Calc 1 instructors were also people with non-math Master’s who just enjoyed teaching math. They were both also exceptional.

        At the university, Calc 2 & 3 were big lecture hall classes taught by mathematicians who couldn’t give less of a sh*t whether you passed or failed. My Linear Algebra & ODE/PDE classes were much smaller, & the instructors recognized that the bulk of the classes were engineers & hard science majors, so they tweaked the lectures for us to make them more relevant. Plus they cared if you asked for help.

        I hated Calc 2 & 3. There are still parts of both of those classes that never quite gelled in my head because the math department seemed intent on making them both miserable classes (a trend that others have told me they experienced at other campuses).


      • Oddly enough, ALL of my High School math teachers sucked.

        My high school math experience was… peculiar. When I was in ninth grade, the head of the math program for the small-town school system decided to conduct an experiment and see how fast the more gifted students (this was the 60s, there was no formal G&T) could go through the curriculum. I was eventually told that he had a PhD in math education, and was always looking for ways to conduct research with the captive population of students. One other kid and I took the algebra text and goaded each other through both 9th- and 11th-grade algebra in two semesters.

        Then my family moved. 10th-grade geometry was okay, if slow, but then I hit 11th-grade algebra. After eventually getting in enough trouble to be sent to the principal’s office with instructions not to come back for a week, the principal had me explain the situation. He had the teacher and I in together. I said that I already knew all this; the teacher refused to believe that a student could remember it after more than a year away from it; I demanded to be given the final for the full year and aced it. The high school had recently been given a time-share terminal attached to the computer at a relatively nearby university, so they gave me the bare-bones documentation and said, “Here, teach yourself FORTRAN.” Which I did, including enough bad programming habits that it took me two years in a university CS program to break them all. As a senior, the pre-calc teacher and I more-or-less tag-team taught the class.

        The only good thing that came out of the mess was that when an Air Force brat came in a year later, claiming to already know 11th-grade algebra, they put her in the pre-calc class, then let her commute up to the university that had given us the time-share terminal to take calculus when she was a senior.


      • MRS,
        my high school math teacher taught at the local CC. He let one guy program his way out of Calc 1 (essentially reinventing numeric methods from Calc 3 to solve everything). He understood that the bloke was doing more work than the memorization everyone else was doing.


      • While I am not a fan of educators running experiments with students (I hope he talked to you & your parents about this before doing it?), I do wish more public schools took a relaxed approach to kids who are eager to shoot ahead. Neither of the school systems I went to were equipped to deal with gifted kids, with predictable results.

        Also, I wonder how much educators appreciate the effectiveness of peers goading each other to succeed. My Navy Gas Turbine School class did that (we all goaded & supported each other, with those of us who were at the top making time to help those near the bottom). When we graduated, we had some of the highest personal averages of the school (I missed the number one spot by 0.22%) & one of the highest class averages in the schools history. We got official commendations for how effective we were as a team.

        This all given that all of us were 18-19 years old, except for one guy* who was in his late 20’s who took us all aside & suggested we work together, instead of trying to compete individually. It wasn’t a hard sell.

        *Oh the stories I could tell of Adams. Of that whole class, really.


  2. Great post Burt!

    I don’t think we will see any substantial reform in American education until we come to a consensus about what is the point and purpose of education. Is it to make people into good workers that can fuel the American economic engine and make a foothold in the middle class or above? Or is it to actually educate people and create critical thinkers, readers, and writers with a deep and sincere curiosity of the world.

    I’ve mentioned this before but I was a chaotic student for most of my academic career. My grades were generally all over the map until grad school and law school. They ranged from a bit below average to extraordinary depending on the class and my level of interest in the class. It took until I was 25 to develop a work ethic for stuff I wasn’t interested in. I grew up in a above-average public school system. We sent an extraordinary number of students to Ivy League and equivalently elite schools. I think about 12 people from my high school class went to Cornell and more than 2-3 went to Harvard and Yale. The other Ivies were also well represented in college acceptance rates. This is out of a high school class of approximately 200 people. Many of these students took a lot of AP classes. I did not and still managed to get into Vassar (though off the waiting list). Ivy League equivalent are schools like Tufts and MIT and Duke.

    My mom (a teacher and administrator) told me recently that during her time on the high school PTA, people talked about mandatory summer reading and she advocated against it. She said making kids read is a sure way to turn them into non-readers. She also told me that someone pulled her aside and mentioned that her kids were readers.

    So there you have it. You had a lot of kids who understood that they were supposed to study very hard and get very good grades and go to good schools to win the upper-middle class prize but they were not really interested in the material. And then you had someone like me who was indifferent to grades and tests largely (unless I liked the class and/or the teacher) but read constantly. Now I am sure that there were plenty of kids who did much better at me in school who were really interested in the subjects but there was an obvious dynamic of kids who worked hard and did well without caring about the material at all.

    The idea of abolishing AP classes is not super-knew. I’ve heard people argue that gifted and honors classes should be abolished because the general outcome would improve students across the board. Slate published an article a few weeks ago arguing that NYC and other cities should abolish their magnet schools for bright kids like Bronx Science, Stuy, or Lowell in San Francisco.


    • I don’t think we will see any substantial reform in American education until we come to a consensus about what is the point and purpose of education.

      I strongly agree with this – it is functionally impossible to succeed at any policy intervention until you have concretely defined your success criteria.


    • I think most of the AP kids in our high school were probably more academically inclined and interested in the material rather than just people studying hard so they could get a lucrative career. Lots of them want on to study really academic and scholarly subjects in university like musicology or medieval history even if they copped and ended up doing white collar or professional work for a living. That being said, I had a conversation on Face Book with two of them about how little we remember from high school.


  3. They show up as part of an agenda intended to build a resume that shows that they are outstanding and excellent, just like everyone else.



  4. I attended a large suburban public high school, about 2,800 students (I graduated about five years ago). Since there was a wide gap in learning abilities, my high school offered 90% of classes on both non-honors and honors/AP tracks. How could they not? As someone who took classes at both levels, there was a *noticeable* difference in exam rigor, student ability, and lesson pacing. If I had tried taking AP Physics or AP Calculus BC I would have been in a world of hurt. At the same time, had I taken regular-track history or english courses, I would have been bored senseless. Of course, people find ways to boost their GPA–I, for example, took the easier AP Environmental Science instead of regular-level Physics–but the majority of kids at big public schools (where two-tracking prevails) aren’t afraid to take regular level classes. Social life still reigns supreme in high school.

    APs: Yes, AP tests involve a great deal of memorization (as do, it should be said, the MCAT, Bar exam, and other professional endeavors.) Yes, AP is as business-orientated as it is education-orientated. Yes, the credits aren’t often applied at college. And, yet, I don’t think the system fails to the extent that Mr. Likko argues it does. For one, from what I remember of the AP tests I took, they did involve analysis. Writing the essays on the European and US History exams required articulating and defending a thesis that often tied together themes across time periods; “data dump” essays lost points. The Music Theory one utilized sight-reading music as well as several listening exercises. In addition, good teachers matter. They inspire learning and know how to make AP classes, or any class for that matter, about more than just “the test” (a test that doesn’t even factor into a student’s grade.) That being said, many teachers aren’t great and I can not speak to the content of all AP tests.

    Grade inflation is a tricky matter. It goes without saying that if everyone is special and brilliant than no-one is special and brilliant. Average GPAs have spiked in recent decades. “A gentleman’s C has somehow become a gentleman’s B+,” one of my favorite college professors would rant. Still, though, applying a strict curve leads to arbitrary outcomes. If a teacher sets clear goals about what students need to do to receive an A and 50% of the class achieves those goals, then why shouldn’t they all get As? Applying strict curves is one of those ideas that seems wonderful in all of its puritanical theory, but, in reality, what are the tangible problems of a higher median GPA at colleges? I don’t like it, but who is it hurting?

    Big picture: “dropout factory” high schools, shitty colleges dishing out federally-backed loans, exploding teacher pensions…those strike me as far graver problems in secondary/higher education than grade inflation, GPA chasing, or AP tests.


    • I see a lot of good points here, and I’m pleased that you report high levels of intellectual challenge on the tests you experienced, . I certainly agree that the issue I’ve tackled here is only one of many, although I picked it because it seemed to me to at least touch many of those issues at once.

      A thoroughly excellent comment.


    • If a teacher sets clear goals about what students need to do to receive an A and 50% of the class achieves those goals, then why shouldn’t they all get As?

      Theory of grading is always a tough one. Is the purpose to demonstrate mastery of the material, or to sort students? I think you can argue that much of the material — and I have to restrict myself to STEM fields — in the first two years is the former. If I’m interviewing an engineering graduate, I don’t really care what grade they pulled in calculus, I care about how they did in fluid dynamics or strength of materials. Even for a math major I don’t really care about calculus, but I care a lot about real analysis (calculus done with rigor).


      • On the main point about hard curves, I’ll speak a little to it coming from my years in history. I hated TA’ing for instructors who insisted on a strict curve, usually 10% A’s, greater % of B’s, and even greater % of C’s. (Usually those particular professors stopped there and didn’t think it was a good idea to fore-ordain that some students would get D’s or F’s.) What I hated about those is that when I taught a discussion section, I could never sincerely wish them all “good luck” on their exam or their paper, because if they all did well, I’d still have to mark some of them down.

        When I graded–mostly essays or essay tests, but some tests also had paragraph-long I.D. components–my range of scores tended to match what one might expect from a classic bell curve. So one might think, what’s the big deal with a strict curve if things shake out that way generally? For me, it seems to come off as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Grading essays is pretty subjective. If one reads a stack of essays, one can’t help but place them in a range, and the range becomes something like a curve even if all students meet what can be considered minimal requirements.

        tl;dr: strict curves in humanities courses suck; non-strict curves seem more natural, but they can be overdetermined. In the meantime, it’s important that learning gets done and instructors are fair.


      • Not that I haven’t said enough already, but I’ll add two more points.

        1. Some professors I TA’d for adopted the following standards: B’s should be relatively easy to get, while A’s should be relatively hard to get. That’s a good standard, in my opinion, for an intro-level humanities or social sciences class.

        2. If I teach again and if the institution I teach at allows it, I might reintroduce and make more available the “gentlemen’s C.” That would be a minimum standard the student would have to meet (say, do a certain number, or all, of the assignments, and participate x number of times, or whatever), along with a requirement that the assignments done be done in good faith (no one-sentence essays) and with academic honesty (no cheating or plagiarism.) If the student does all that, then they’re guaranteed at least a C. That way, the student who’s just taking the class for a credential can get that, while better students can do better and actually learn. My plan has its drawbacks, to be sure, but if clearly enough stated and fairly enough applied, it might actually aid in learning by taking the pressure of failing off and it might even check grade inflation.

        (Disclosure: my experience is at large state schools and in moslty introductory-level history, a humanities/social science, classes. Mileage varies accordingly.)


      • That is rather unclear, isn’t it? Simpler: much of the STEM material in the first two years can/should be graded on a “mastery of material” basis. I wouldn’t be unhappy if, for example, they made calculus pass/fail for engineering majors. I don’t want engineers sorted on the basis of calculus; I want them sorted on the basis of how well they can apply calculus to their particular engineering discipline.

        Everyone should be thinking hard about what calculus class ought to be, as well. Calculus concepts are critical to lots of things. Much of the time in calculus class is still spent on the mechanics of doing things by hand, though — derivatives and integrals, both limited by your skills at algebraic manipulation. But you can ask Mathematica to do symbolic differentiation and integration, and the software is enormously better at it than either you or I will ever be. If I hire you, I’m no longer hiring you for integration skills per se. I’m hiring you to set up the problem, and to verify the implications of the solution, but I increasingly expect you to use a tool like Mathematica for the grunt work.


      • Thanks for the clarification.

        First, you probably wouldn’t hire me unless you want someone wholly incompetent at engineering :)

        Second, is that how weed-out classes work? I would have thought it was the lower-division classes that weed out and not the upper division ones. (I really don’t know the answer by the way, just asking. I’ve never been in a class like that.)

        Third, even though I suck at math and even though you should heed my “first” point, I do value the three semesters I took in HS calculus. I studied hard and got a passing grade and a 3 on the AP exam. None of that really ought to qualify me for anything, but I do feel I learned *something* and my mind was made somehow sharper in a way that it wouldn’t have been otherwise. I say that even though I’ve forgotten probably 70% of what I’ve learned. There was something about the process of learning it that worked really well for me.


      • Second, is that how weed-out classes work?

        The only weed-out class I ever had to take was in graduate school, and it was different from the way calculus weeds out some of the people who think they want to be engineers. In my case, and it was a peculiar one, the ROE for the professor were “Make this first-year graduate class as hard as possible without leaving yourself open to intervention by the dean.” In the calculus/engineering situation, the faculty is making a serious effort to teach everyone the material; the “weeding out” is largely of people who discover that they don’t want to spend a good chunk of their lives thinking about the world as equations and formulas.

        Math is a way (well, more accurately ways) of asking and answering questions about the world. So is literature. So is history, at least when taught as more than a compendium of unrelated facts. Learning more ways to ask and answer questions is always useful, but there’s just too little time to get to be good at them all.


      • Michael Cain,
        Mentioned this upthread, but my high school math teacher (over at the local CC where he also taught) had a kid who basically reinvented Calc3 during his Calc 1 class (programming his calculator to solve the problems). Teacher allowed it because he recognized that the kid was doing more work than the memorization the other kids were doing.


  5. Your 1984 discussion is quite ironic, because memorizing facts for for the test is exactly what Orwell did as a scholarship boy at a fancy prep school, the goal being to win a scholarship to a top public (that is, private) school. He wrote a wonderful essay about that nonsense mot long before his death.


  6. Burt,

    It seems to me that even if they knew the arms race for what it was, they could not afford not to participate. Suppose everyone has two extra curriculars and a perfect GPA, the guy who has less than that is not even in the running.


    • Precisely. That’s why I make the radical proposal of abolishing it all, at a stroke. That, at least, is treating all of our young overachievers equally and denies anyone the opportunity to push for an edge over the rest of the crowd.


  7. My son aced the AP Calculus exam (BC, the higher level), which gave him credit for two quarters of college calculus, and, frankly, it’s ridiculous. There’s no way that what he learned in high school is equivalent to what’s taught in even a somewhat rigorous college-level course, and if he were going to be a math or physics major, I would have insisted he start over again with Calculus 1A.


      • Teaching someone how to edit their thoughts, or how to think clearly and coherently is difficult, in the first place.

        Editing your thoughts, thinking clearly and coherently is difficult for the vast majority of persons. Most people who think they’re doing it aren’t


    • I agree. I tested out of one semester of calculus (the AB, or less rigorous, exam). Because I was a history and french major, it wasn’t as important for me to know the math.* But I probably would have needed to retake it if I had a math-heavy major. (In our high school, calculus was a three semester program, so it’s possible we had at least a smattering of the basics. But not being mathematically inclined, I can’t tell you how it fares compared with college level.)

      *Except in the sense that college is supposed to make us a part of an educated, mathematically literate citizenry. I don’t want to discount the importance of that.


  8. I’ll first point out that my experience in Honors and AP classes (a bit more than a decade ago, now) is very different than what you outlined above. That said, I went to a poor rural school where few of the students were expected to go to four-year college, and there wasn’t a huge expectation that the students would get high scores on the AP tests.

    I think we’re going to see lots of changes to what it means to be an AP class in the next few years. There’s a huge move away from the sort of fact-memorizing education you describe above, something that’s reflected in changes that are being made to the AP science tests (and accompanying curriculums), along with standards and testing changes connected to the Common Core initiative. Important people in positions of authority have finally realized that making people memorize lists of dates doesn’t result in smart and capable college students.

    My big worry related to AP tests, though, is that the classes that they allow students to skip form the fundamental backbone of a college education. English 101 is a class where you learn how to write a college paper. If your high school AP class is any good, it will teach you how to analyze a topic and compose an essay about it, but it won’t teach you whether you’re supposed to be using APA or MLA format, or how to use the resources of your college library.

    One of my friends has a part-time job of cataloging Senior Projects. According to him, half of them are missing the required Abstract. Hell, my senior project didn’t have an abstract–and I’m not sure whether or not is was supposed to, given that it was a screenplay. But I certainly didn’t learn how to write abstracts at any point during my undergraduate career–Because I tested out of most of the non-major paper-writing classes, and few of my major specific classes didn’t really have the sort of assignments where an abstract was expected.


    • English 101 is a class where you learn how to write a college paper. If your high school AP class is any good, it will teach you how to analyze a topic and compose an essay about it, but it won’t teach you whether you’re supposed to be using APA or MLA format, or how to use the resources of your college library.

      My high school AP English class was over three years, and in it we learned how to write a college paper. We only used MLA and we were told that ALL college papers would use this format. This was true for my undergraduate career. However, I had to take a class recently that required us to use APA, so that was a learning experience. Thankfully the college library had style guides available.


  9. I look at the AP Education system, and I see Moloch.

    It is wonderful to talk about schools opting out the AP system. It is also great to talk about countries dropping out of arm races or the saintly politician who decides not to smear any of his opponents.

    All are noble things to do.

    And all bring about your destruction if everyone else does not do them as well.

    The agents in the system all know there is a better way, but if they change to this better way unilaterally they will be out competed by everyone else in this system.

    The system is the problem.

    The only solution is to leave the system entirely.

    In this case, +1 points for home schooling.


  10. Apparently I went to the wrong small catholic high school. Mine, the Jesuit variety would Never give more than a four point grade. Not in the 70’s when I went nor in the 2000’s when my sons did. In fact one of my son’s friends missed valedictorian by one tenth of a point because (like me) his entire senior year was AP classes (6 of them). His “competitor” for the big V took easier, normal classes and got straight A’s instead of the single A- my son’s friend did in a difficult AP physics course. By your scoring system he would have won hands down.

    From my freshman year on, I was either in advanced, honors or AP classes. Every subject, Starting in my Junior year I was taking AP classes, and my senior year I was in 6 AP courses. I aced every test, IIRC I took 9 tests, and I think the best score you could get was a 5. Three to five was a passing grade but I heard some colleges took twos also. There was one other thing at that time. You could name 3 colleges to have your scores sent. Unfortunately I went to a 4th, even though I had been accepted to my three original schools. Yale, Stanford and MIT. However (this was late 70’s mind you), when I found out that they all still used punched cards for their computer science courses, I opted for a much smaller but interestingly more advanced computer science school. Of course back then you couldn’t major in comp sci, you could only opt for Math and Computer Science was a kind of minor degree under that.

    When I went to the school that had actual interactive terminals and instant gratification programming classes (no waiting for keypunch operators and spoiled decks), I proudly handed them my AP scores and admissions said, “Wow, we’ve never seen scores like this, too bad you didn’t send them to us”. I was astounded, “Just because AP didn’t mail them to you?”, I said. “Yep, those are the rules, sorry, you could easily have skipped freshman year, maybe half of sophomore too.”

    Reading the rest of your OP Burt, I’d say you think I got the better deal. In reality, I negotiated with all my teachers individually and most of them let me challenge out. So I pretty much skipped 2 years anyway. Still took me 4 years to finish, but you only needed 120 credits to graduate and I had 230. That helped graduate school go quickly :)


    • My school graded on percentages. You could actually get 100% in a class. (I think technically a 92-100 were all A’s, but they were differentiated for stuff like valedictorian, because we had the numbers). Of course, harder classes did get “bonuses” when it came to calculating for valedictorian…


  11. I apparently don’t have such a rosy view of college courses, especially first year college courses, as some people. Now, I didn’t take AP history (either of them? I seem to recall one each for American and European history), and maybe AP history is particularly bad about this. But I did at least as much memorization learning in college as I did in high school math/science AP classes.

    My college didn’t let me test out of the Freshman writing course, but I really didn’t learn a whole lot about writing, there (and not because I had nothing to learn, obviously). The OP points out that in the footnote that his graduate students aren’t substantially better writers than his high school students.


    • Very good points all. I do wonder about “the composition course” as the solution to the problem of learning how to write. The go-to for a lot of instructors at the college level is to advise their students to “take composition classes.” Maybe it really does help, but from what I remember from college, “composition” was more a hurdle than anything else, where you had to write a bunch of essays because you had to and because everyone else had to. And at the end of the course, you get a grade. (I should say my AP English score meant I didn’t have to to take an intro to composition, but my major required an unpper-division composition class, but I suspect the dynamics were similar to the intro class, and perhaps moreso.)

      Also about memorization. The person Burt cites about AP history classes could have said the same thing about the college-level surveys I’ve taught as an adjunct and TA’d for:

      I’ve seen gifted AP teachers who were compelled to reduce the complexity of World War II to two 55-minute classroom lectures, and to cover the New Deal and the civil rights movement in one class. To explain the compression, teachers cite the press of time, the wealth of material and the impending weight and doom of the final AP test, given a full month before the school year ends.

      It’s hard to teach at large institutions without feeling like a charlatan. Whether or how that translates into AP high school courses, I can’t say with much accuracy. I won’t say that I’ll never adjunct again–if my current job contract doesn’t renew, that might be one option–but one of the challenges I face personally is the sense that I’m part of a system that essentially exploits a large number of people.


  12. Even if AP classes are useless, a lot of the very smart and quick kids do resent being in class with the less quick learners. In my high school, practically everybody went to college even if they were in a non-AP track and the really smart kids did want to be with non-Honors kids. In less academically inclined high schools, AP and Honors classes act as a sort of sanctuary for the nerds from what I heard. So even if useless from an educational standpoint, a lot of quick and diligent students are going to want them from a social standpoint. Parents are probably going to want them because of the prestige.


  13. Actually except for the funding issues, why not allow high school credit for community college courses taught to standard as suggested in an earlier post. Have the community college instructor come to the high school, and teach the class etc. Eliminate the AP system entirely. The students still get the double credit just like AP. As standardized community college syllabuses for courses arrive meaning the credits transfer, this accomplishes the same purpose, but gives regular exams instead.


  14. and their eyes glaze over in fear. The response I get is “I took the test already, Mr. Likko, so I don’t really remember the book.”

    That and the broader point about memorization need to be looked at from several angles.

    First, I consider myself a fairly introspective guy who likes to learn and who likes to connect the dots across disciplines, and across assignments. One reason I like history is because studying it has the potential to empower one to take on politics, literature, psychology, philosophy, etc.. Yet with some classes and some assignments, I as an undergrad and HS student approached them with a goal just to pass. I shouldn’t have, but I did. Maybe that’s what these students, or some of them, were doing with 1984.

    Second, I’m not sure that the “rote memorization” phenomenon is all that new. People have been cramming for tests and then forgetting the content for a very long time, I suspect. Maybe AP exams and the proliferation of “honors” courses (and perhaps No Child Left Behind) exacerbates the matter, but that’s not necessarily a new thing.

    Third, and in partial contradiction to my second point, I think it ebbs and flows. When I was a college freshman, and even when I was in high school (I graduated HS in 1992), there was a large number of teachers who spoke out against “regurgitation.” Instead, we were supposed to “think critically.” Which in practice sometimes meant, “don’t learn the facts because you can always look them up.” It also meant a lot of take-home exams and essay exams in which there wasn’t a right answer but in which there really was because certain answers were off-limits and certain answers were the ones the instructors were looking for. I don’t say all that to claim critical thinking is a bad thing, just that as a slogan, “critical thinking” sometimes encourages thoughtless opinion-giving. I submit that the pendulum swings sometimes toward rote memorization and sometimes toward freestyle non-responsible thinking. Neither extreme is good or desirable, but somewhere in the middle, where one learns a basic set of facts or (in history, at least) a certain standard narrative*

    *By “standard,” I don’t mean fixed for all time. The narratives change as we learn more or as people formulate different arguments or look at different historical actors. But I do think students need something to hook onto, even if we’re introducing them to ways to challenge the standard narratives. For example, learning about Jackson’s “war” against the second bank of the US might be just another instance of “dead white man history,” but if one knows that, I think they can better understand, say, the racial politics of the Jackson era, even if the bank war gives us only background.


    • I liked the teacher who told the class “you guys got the wrong answer” — and basically failed the kids who had just used the cliff notes (which was a lot of the class). The girl who had chosen the “wrong answer” but had a well defended essay demonstrating critical thinking? She got an A, regardless (wasn’t me).

      Learning about Jackson’s war is understanding why NYC is one of the world’s financial capitals. Pretty important stuff, if you ask me.


  15. I think Burt’s critiques are spot on, but I do wonder about what AP classes would actually be replaced with. Are students in the regular classes better able to engage with 1984 than those in AP classes? Do regular classes deal more with analysis and application while the AP classes focus mostly on memorization?


  16. I was awarded 8 units for BC Calc (Calc I & II on the semester system). I took Calc II anyway.

    I didn’t learn more the second time around, but there are different reasons for that.

    I walked into college with 23 units (unlike Ward I decided I’d rather take Literature of Horror and Science Fiction as my two English electives as a senior than take Honors English 4). As a member of the Honors program at the University, basically none of them counted; I had to take the Honors American History even though I got a 5 on the AP US History course (I could have dropped Honors and gotten credit for it, though).

    One point that merits attention is that we won’t be successful at reforming the system unless we articulate what we want the system to do, what Saul and James said, but not just at the secondary level.

    A hard curve system is largely not a good idea because it limits the utility of the metric over time. It also largely would more or less encourage administrators to put really terrible students in the same class as really excellent ones, so that the excellent ones could get their A. While the “Nerd Refuge” LWA brings up is not a great reason for AP course, burning a chunk of your kids down so that your A students will also be the students with the 2100+ combined SAT so that they can get into Cornell isn’t a great idea either.

    We can’t fix this in a vacuum, though, because the grades signaling is too embedded in the college system’s entrance mechanism.

    There are 21.8 million kids starting college in 2013. Only 300 of them went to Caltech. Only a small overall percentage of them go to “top tier” universities.


  17. It strikes me as odd to see that no other AP teachers have chimed in, so I’ll be the first to do so.

    I think abolishing AP classes as a panacea to issues always strikes me as quite silly. Sure, there are abuses in the system and some have been adequately noted, but I think you need to think of this as an actual system in the real world, rather than in some sort of utopia.

    I’ve taught AP US History, AP World History and ‘standard’ World History and the rigor difference between them is somewhat staggering. My standards kids are simply not capable of doing some of the things that my AP students are doing and that’s fine – it creates a class that allows for a gradual scaffolding of student content and skill that mirrors their current developmental needs, rather than the needs of other abstracted students.

    I also find a sort of hilarity in the idea that an AP class focuses you to cover content too quickly – of course it does! It’s the equivalent of a college-intro course, which, if anybody has taken them recently, go quite quickly. In my first semester of college, we covered the history of the Middle East from 3000 BCE to 2008 CE in a semester. I assure you, my AP World History class feels a lot slower.

    In general, the main critique that comes to my eye that is the one that is being most dealt with is memorization – the old AP US test was simply a mess of factoids with some writing skills being taught. The new test is far less memorization based and almost wholly focused on skills and the creation/understanding of historical narratives.

    In general, I just don’t think killing AP classes gives you anything that you want. You could put everybody in the same room, but by junior year of HS, that seems rather silly, as the skills gap between a student heading towards an ivy-league institution and a student struggling to read above an 8th grade level in English creates massive disparities. As a point, about 45-50% of my students in my standard world history classes will graduate from college (after an 100% matriculation rate into it). These aren’t bad kids and they are about average for Americans. If you forced them into the same class with some of my AP students, the curves that would be set would be so brutal as to leave half of my students failing every year.

    No one wins. There are ways to deal with AP curriculum: make it more rigorous, make it more authentically driven by college and mandate stricter oversight over courses receiving AP designation. But the idea that making it go away will solve anything sort of seems to be a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist, rather than a solution to a problem that does exist.


    • Yay! Real critique from a real AP teacher!

      What I crave are cognitive skills higher up on the Bloom taxonomy, indicating collegiate-level thought, and durable retention of that knowledge such that it integrates into the student’s mind. You indicate that recent reforms to the tests achieve the first objective, , and this is heartening. Is the second happening also?

      I also just plain feel bad for the students crushed by the workload. This may be a function of the ubiquity of tests, and the importance of tests, in the No Child Left Behind era, although I see that as alloyed with the honors education arms race; these things are a set piece of what schools demand and students are tasked with doing.


      • I think the new APUSH test is trying to do both by focusing on the Historical Thinking Skills and making it explicit what key understandings are going to be tested, rather than just not knowing and assuming you have to know everything.

        In general though, abolishing AP classes won’t end the workload – just make it so that it’s less clear who is signing up for such a workload.


  18. Where (i.e. what city) did you go to high school, Burt? My recollection of reality Way Back Then is somewhat different than yours.

    I graduated in 1976 from an elite public HS in urban California. No extra grade points for AP classes in those days (or I would have been the valedictorian, so it’s probably a good thing the policy was what it was). Our median student was probably about one standard deviation higher SES than the school district’ student population as a whole – probably about the same median SES as the Catholic schools and a standard deviation or two below the elite private schools. I would guess that about 25-30% of our students took at least one AP. My then-girlfriend’s younger brother (graduated 1978) went to the elite Catholic school in our city and my memory is that they did offer a few APs too, but I don’t totally trust that memory.

    I’d say the rigor of my AP classes roughly matched, perhaps exceeded, the rigor of the entry level classes at Berkeley that my APs allowed me to skip, plus much more personalized attention since the [HS] class size was never more than thirtyish. If I hadn’t changed majors (and taken a somewhat reduced class load since I was working 40+ hours per week to pay my way through, which was viable back then: I remember that tuition and fees were exactly $236 per quarter – also, dinosaurs roamed the earth and we had to whittle our own transistors out of wood) I’d have gotten out in three years easily.

    So at least for my cohorts, the system as it existed back then did give a working class kid who was somewhat lucky vis a vis work ethic/future orientation and raw cognitive horsepower a single generation trampoline into the upper middle class. I can tell that it’s not that way any more :)


    • An exurb of Los Angeles, the same place I live today; I remain a touch obscure about it to preserve my tissue of pseudonymity. Suffice to say it’s a community that at the time was about 150,000 people, an hour outside of the big city down the freeway, split amongst two neighboring cities and outlying areas. Today, it’s about 500,000 people in the two cities and surrounding areas, but 30 years ago there was just a lot less here.


      • Oh, OK. Your original experience makes sense, then (you have said enough that I’m 98+% sure that I know which “valley” you are referring to, but we will try not to tear the tissue any further (c.f. Saladin and the silk)): my cohort at Berkeley tended to be from urban or inner ring suburbans schools (a fair number from SoCal, surprisingly), which were a little bit further ahead of the AP curve than you know where.


  19. When everyone is special, no one is. Honors this, AP that. We’re all super heros now.

    I took AP classes in high school. Our school only offered a few. I don’t recall the ability to get more than 4.0 for an A, but I do recall being able to get college credit. The college bound kids took the AP classes. They kids on the farm track or vocational school kids didn’t. They didn’t need to.

    Yes, please bring back real grades. It only is a disservice to kids when they finally do realize that they aren’t special (except to mom and dad) and that, most likely, they are C level kids.


  20. Our three children graduated from high school over the period 1988-1999. Each took several AP classes. The oldest was not allowed to take AP European History as a senior because he had not taken the World History class much earlier in high school because of a schedule conflict. He prepared himself independently and scored a 5 on the test. He has an academic career in history, but not European.
    The youngest did well on her AP Calculus exam, but she was placed too high at her Ivy League school. Her study skills were not up to recovering, and this was the beginning of the end for her STEM aspirations. I often wonder how she would do in today’s constant testing culture. She enjoying going to school and taking tests much more than being organized and doing homework every night.


  21. Here in Brazil we don’t have AP or Honor classes, as our curriculum is structured on a much different way, but we have a very similar problem:

    Everything requires a College Degree.

    You are being interviewed to be a secretary? You better have a degree. Burger flipping at McDonald’s? You better have a degree. Cashier at a gas station? Yeah, you will be out of luck without a degree of some sort.

    The origin of the problem is very close to yours – people used to think that a college degree would place them over the rest, raising their chances. Seeing that, some people with money started creating colleges that were less concerned about making the student learn anything, but only printing him a degree while filing the minimal Education Ministry’s requirements. And that became a snowball – more people with lower quality degrees mean that to get a job anywhere you will be competing with someone that has a degree, so you need one too. Pushing a good parcel of the population that shouldn’t need a degree into the debt that is required to aquire one that will not serve as anything but a piece of paper with a approval stamp.


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