Beneficial If Imperfect
As both an AP U.S. History student (1998–1999) and teacher (2005–2006, 2010–2011), I believe that the course benefits student learning more than it detracts from it.
There is no question that in many cases, AP U.S. History distracts from authentic learning. These distractions come in a variety of forms: focusing on a "more-is-better" mentality that leads to heavier course loads than students can manage; self-esteem that comes from test scores; an emphasis on scores and grades rather than understanding and mastery; and an exclusive focus on the subjects that AP exams test.
These problems may present more of a problem in some places than others, but all parties involved can and should mitigate these drawbacks. Some restriction on the maximum number of AP exams can limit the distractions. We must remind students that their value as human beings come from sources outside of standardized test scores. We can link authentic learning to academic metrics so that college admission is based on student learning instead of abstract numbers. And we can encourage or require students to take a healthy array of classes that encourage growth in a full range of areas.
The impact of each of those concerns, however, varies wildly depending on the student, family, school, and teacher. As one of my students pointed out, "If one takes APUSH out of peer pressure, or for the sake of just having an AP class, then it will most likely distract them. However, if a student has a genuine interest in history, or knows what to expect through the class, and knows what they are getting into, then the APUSH program probably won't affect a student's learning."
The benefits of AP U.S. History classes on learning are well documented and undeniable. Students have the opportunity to earn college credit without expensive programs that can cost thousands of dollars. The increased focus on specific historical thinking skills, combined with a deep understanding of content, prepares students to be lifelong lovers of history. While AP U.S. History teachers invariably have to teach to the test, the AP exam authentically measures analysis of primary sources, synthesis of complex ideas, and critical evaluation of historical fact.
AP classes tend to be homogeneous in academic seriousness, and sadly also in racial, economic, and linguistic make-up. This first homogeneity allows for a more concentrated, robust engagement with historical content and skills. Although any form of tracking promotes creaming, it does allow for a broader, deeper understanding of U.S. History (for some students). The latter form of homogeneity comes from a multitude of reasons that vary from site to site. School districts and sites must do everything in their power to recruit students to AP from under-represented groups. In this way all students will have the opportunity to benefit from the enhanced learning.
Students also benefit in a less numeric way as well. By engaging with difficult material in high school, students are better prepared to survive and excel in higher education. Yes, many will struggle, but it is better that they meet immense challenges in a safer environment. I have noticed that AP students often develop a sense of academic camaraderie and community that they might not have in a non-AP class.
It is undeniable that AP U.S. History both enhances and distracts. My belief is that its benefits are guaranteed and universal, and its distractions are limited and variable. For some individual students, it may distract more than enhance, but most of the time for most students, it augments more than it weakens.