What We’ve Observed: Trends in AP Materials

The College Board is engaged in several related initiatives to help teachers prepare a broader, more diverse group of students to succeed in AP courses.   AP courses in several disciplines are being redesigned and new courses are being introduced to create AP courses that strike a balance between depth of understanding and breadth of content coverage.

A critical next step in supporting AP teachers is ensuring that the instructional materials for AP courses address the knowledge and skills articulated in the new course frameworks.  To that end, the College Board partnered with Learning List™ to provide educators with independent, professional reviews of AP materials[1]. [Read more…]

For each AP material, Learning List provides 3 types of reviews:

(1) Spec sheet: an overview of the material’s key academic and technology attributes, including which devices, operating systems and browsers the material is compatible with;

(2) Editorial Review: an in-depth review of the material’s instructional content and design, including student adaptions, teacher resources,  types and timing of assessments, ease of use, and reference districts and universities; and

(3) Two alignment reports: A review of the material’s alignment (a) to the Learning Objectives and Essential Knowledge statements, and (b) to the Skills/Practices articulated in the relevant course framework.

Tools on Learninglist.com make it easy to compare key attributes, as well as the standard-by-standard alignment of multiple materials for the same AP course.

The College Board used Learning List’s reviews to decide which materials to include on the 2016 and 2017 Example Textbook Lists for each of these courses.

However, as explained in our observations below, inclusion on an Example Textbook List does not indicate that the material is aligned to 100% of the standards in the course framework.

Learning List has reviewed almost 100 AP instructional materials, including publisher-produced and free Open Educational Resources. The following observations gleaned from those reviews are offered to help inform educators’ selection and use of AP materials.

Alignment of AP Materials:

AP materials vary significantly in their alignment to the AP course frameworks. As this table shows, there is even a wide range in the alignment percentages among materials on the AP Example Textbook Lists.  In other words, teachers should not assume that because a material is on the Example Textbook list, it is closely aligned to the course framework.

Alignment of the AP Skills/Practices:

  • While many AP materials allow students to practice the requisite skills, few actually teach students how to develop the skills.
  • Many AP history products still have a lot of progress to make in terms of historical thinking skills, particularly in terms of integrating the skills of historical argumentation (analyzing diverse interpretations) and chronological reasoning.

Study Guides/Assessment Questions:

  • Most of the study guides provided by publishers have simple, short questions that do not help students prepare for the new style of test questions on the AP exams. Additionally, students need to know why the answers are correct, not just what the correct answer is. Multiple choice questions need detailed answer explanations.
  • Assessment questions provided by publishers seem more specific than AP released questions and test knowledge more than skills using the prompt; materials need to test more of the skills than the knowledge.

Instructional Supports: Across subjects and publishers, AP instructional materials differ in the number and type of instructional supports provided for students and teachers. Because many AP materials are true college texts, they often do not include the instructional resources some high school students may need. For example, many college texts do not include glossaries, study guides, and AP-formatted example questions and practice tests to help students prepare for exams.

Some college texts also do not provide instructional resources for teachers.  The lack of teacher resources combined with the new focus on skills in the AP Frameworks raised concerns among some Learning List reviewers. Noting the absence of support for the Mathematical Practices in AP Calculus resources, one reviewer cautioned, “Teachers using any of the standard textbooks […] will need to be quite familiar with the Mathematical Practices and be sure their students are doing them across all the topics in the Framework.”

Furthermore, some college resources contain learning tools that may not be appropriate for high school students, such as an app that when activated by teachers allows students to share, and even sell, their course notes.

Learning List’s Spec Sheets list and Editorial Reviews explain the types of instructional supports for teachers and students available in each AP material.


While a material may be aligned to the AP standards, it may not be rigorous enough to prepare students for the AP exam.  A handful of the Advanced Placement (AP) materials we recently reviewed had relatively high alignment percentages but our reviewers questioned whether the material would adequately prepare students to pass the AP exam. They explained that while the text was aligned to the College Board’s course framework, the depth of coverage needed to adequately prepare students for the AP exam was missing:  “While the text mentions an idea / concept /topic, it typically does not provide detailed visualizations, videos, definitions and other essential vocabulary needed for a student to get a well-rounded detailed knowledge about the topic.”

The College Board-Learning List partnership provides the opportunity for teachers to make better informed, evidence-based choices when selecting and then using AP instructional resources.  Ultimately, this partnership strives to encourage publishers to develop resources aligned to AP standards and to empower teachers with information that supports their effective use of materials to prepare a diverse student population for success in AP courses.

This 4-minute video provides more information about Learning List’s reviews of AP materials. Learning List is a subscription service. For more information, contact Info@LearningList.com.

Stay tuned for our upcoming blog, “Advice to AP Publishers.”

[1] Learning List is a subscription-based instructional materials review service for schools and districts that publishes independent reviews of thousands of the most widely used PreK-12 materials, including AP materials.

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