In recent years, a growing number of parents have watched in dismay as their children have been left behind and neglected in schools.

But these children are not being left behind because the curriculum is too difficult. On the contrary, they are stuck in a corner because the material is not challenging enough.

Such instances normally occur in elementary and middle school. But is it possible that students at the high school level are longing for and capable of doing more challenging work than they are currently expected to do?

The College Board’s annual report on Advanced Placement (AP) classes suggests such is the case. Until recently, AP courses were limited to a minimal number of top students. But in the last decade, a number of schools and districts have been opening up AP courses to a broader spectrum (chart 1). Surprisingly, this expanded pool of students has brought increased achievement rather than the normal decline (chart 2).AP Course ParticipationAP Course Performance

According to the report:

“‘There is a widespread belief in education that it is impossible to expand access while maintaining high performance. The AP Program tells a different story,’ said David Coleman, president and CEO of the College Board. ‘Across the country AP participation rates are rising, as are passing rates for AP Exams. State and district leaders who have acted decisively to increase AP access are seeing those efforts pay off for students.’”

The report goes on to explain:

“An independent researcher from the American Enterprise Institute, Nat Malkus, has called the rise in AP participation and performance ‘the rarest kind of success in public education.’”

One of the easiest explanations for this phenomenon is that AP courses have been “dumbed down” so that more students can handle them. Such an explanation might be endorsed by those who disavow AP courses, arguing that they come nowhere near the difficulty of the same class taken in a university setting.

But even if that is true, the fact of the matter is that these AP courses are more difficult than those offered in the normal high school curriculum. If a growing number of students are taking them with such success, does that not suggest that we are making the traditional high school curriculum too easy?

Instead of expanding AP courses to more students, perhaps we should simply upgrade the rigor of the high school curriculum across the board.