A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

AP expands its reach

As an AP teacher, I am always bemused by discussions of the increasing numbers of students taking AP courses. I wish I had had a chance to take AP courses in high school. At the same time, however, I have seen pressure to make an AP class "easier" in order to fill more seats.

It is this kind of "blessing or a curse" situation which is causing the College Board to begin "auditing" courses that label themselves as following the AP curriculum. I personally resisted pushes to "make the AP class easier"--I was told that kids needed time to play sports and work jobs. This may be true, but I believe there is such a thing as "opportunity cost"-- if you choose to work 20 hours a week and play five sports, perhaps you aren't committed to getting the most out of AP. I feel if you want to be able to put the AP label on your transcript, and that's all you want, this is probably not the class for you. The willingness of some teachers to dumb down the class to boost enrollment is what has caused some universities to question the value of these courses. At the time I began teaching AP, we only had about 40% of students in AP classes taking the exam, and of those only about 20% earned a "passing" score of 3 or better, and practically none of those earned a 4 or a 5. At that time, we were transitioning from offering the course as a college credit course, in which the previous teacher had been teaching about Andrew Jackson in February, to an AP course with the goal of preparing students to pass the AP exam.

I tell the students that I wear three hats in class: the high school teacher hat, the AP teacher hat, and the college preparatory hat. I teach them how to take notes; I teach them how to read and analyze primary sources and a college-level textbook; I teach them how to write analytical essays; I teach them how to budget time; sometimes, I teach them that they have to make choices and cannot have everything they want.

I have seen teachers call a class an AP course and actively discourage every one of their students from taking the exam. I believe this is committing fraud. I am also a bit concerned about rankings of high schools, like those in US News and World Report, which use the number of AP courses taken by students as the primary indicator of a high school's quality-- this often leads to just the kind of dilution of the course that is fraudulent.

I welcome anyone into my class who is willing to accept the standard I set. I have had students who struggled mightily all year long, earning Ds, scoring a 1 on the test, but who obviously got so much out of class discussion and who did not try to drag the class down that as long as they were okay with the low grade, that was fine. They have come back to me from college and told me how much the study skills and analytical skills helped them, or that it taught them that they needed to really work harder as a student. I have had some perfectly capable students bail because they didn't want to do the work. This is also an acceptable choice, and they go with my blessing. But this is an AP course, and I feel it would be dishonest in the extreme to try to water it down. I think I have finally cut out anything extraneous while maintaining rigor. So far, the results seem promising. We average about 65-70% passing now with an open enrollment program in a school which has all sorts of socioeconomic groups and ethnicities. About 15% of my students are African-American, which is up from zero.

This class is not easy. When my students succeed, it is because THEY have put in the time and effort to actually prepare themselves, because there is no way I can do it all for them.

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At 2/8/06, 11:16 PM, Blogger educat said...

And that's why I like you, Ms. C.

I see far too much of AP being the place we keep our smiling white children. This means we not only have to encourage any kid who will work, but that we have to weed out those kids who simply "have always taken honors". We're working on it at my school and I am pleased to see you're on the same road.

At 2/9/06, 12:52 AM, Blogger Batya said...

In my day, decades ago, AP was for the super elite and was probably more demanding than university. I'm glad that you challenge the kids. That's the best you can give them.

At 2/9/06, 12:20 PM, Anonymous Marcia said...

Hooray! a teacher who is not afraid to make a class challenging! This makes my heart sing for joy. In high school I had so much respect for teachers that thought enough of me to make things difficult.

It's nice to have you writing again.
I was sorry to hear about your dad.

At 2/13/06, 11:51 AM, Blogger Nicole said...

In high school I took three AP courses. Two years of English (One Composition one Literature) and one year of Biology. These classes, when taught well, not only provide college credit, but teach students the study skills necessary to do well. Dumming them down does a disservice to any student who would take the course! Glad to see you feel the same way as an educator. Makes me want to send my kids to your school one day (when I have 'em).

Developmentally, I never had a course challenge me as much as my AP Literature and Biology courses did during high school. I'm including purusuing my doctorate in that. Those courses provided a firm foundation for the student that I am today.

Out of each of my courses, I was one of only a handful of students to actually take the exams. I find this notion bizarre because our teachers obviously prepared us exceptionally well. I made a 4 on Composition, a 5 on Literature, and a 3 on Biology with no outside class preparation. Other classmates of mine all scored in the 3-5 range.

This means that the courses were rigorous but not ridiculous. We still managed to have enrollment of 20 at least in all the classes in my high school of 1700. And this is a rural county high school!

The courses required summer work (reading Paradise Lost over the summer at 16 years old! ack!), but were by no means prohibitive to participating in extra curriculars. I still played varsity softball and tons of other activities.

One thing that they did exceptionally well at in my high school was placing the right students in AP courses. Some of my co valedictorians didn't take the AP courses, yet other students who were willing to work or who were outside the box thinkers took the courses and did well even if they didn't have 4.0 GPA's I think the AP courses were more ethnically diverse than the high school itself.

keep fighting the good fight!


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