Advanced Placement's growth puts it under scrutiny
Today's New York Times has an interesting article about whether the Advanced Placement program is actually worthy of its reputation.
The Advanced Placement program, administered by the College Board, began 50 years ago as a way to give a select few high school students a jump-start on college work. But in recent decades, it has morphed into something quite different - a mass program that reaches more than a million students each year and is used almost as much to impress college admissions officers and raise a school's reputation as to get college credit. As the admissions race has hit warp speed, Advanced Placement has taken on new importance, and government officials, educators and the College Board itself have united behind a push to broaden access to A.P. courses as a matter of equity in education.
But at the very time that schools like those in Guilford County, Dallas and Hackensack are jumping on the A.P. bandwagon, many of the elite schools that pioneered A.P. are losing enthusiasm, looking for ways to cut their students loose from curriculums that can cram in too much material at the expense of conceptual understanding and from the pressure to amass as many A.P. grades on their transcripts as possible. A few have abolished A.P. programs altogether, and many have limited students to taking three a year, fearing burnout and bad scores.
It's not that a large number of private schools shun A.P. courses - to the contrary, the number offering them rose 15 percent last year - but teachers and college counselors at many top-notch schools, public and private, confess to discomfort with the way the program seems to hijack the curriculum.
"We've been put off for quite a while about the idea of teaching to the test, which is what a lot of A.P.'s are," says Lynn Krahling, guidance director of the Queen Anne's School in Upper Marlboro, Md. "We're convinced, as an educational institution, that they're not as valuable as what we could be offering on our own.
"But," she says, "I think we're going to stick with A.P.'s - purely out of fear. Parents are so terrified that if we drop our A.P.'s it would really affect college admissions that I think some of them would jump ship."
Sixty percent of American high schools now participate in the program, which offers courses in 35 subjects, from macroeconomics to music theory. Last year, 1.2 million students took 2.1 million A.P. exams, and the number of students taking A.P. courses has increased tenfold since 1980.
Read plenty more in the entire article.
There are many things I like about AP United States history, which I have taught for several years. I like the fact that it gives my students an opportunity to earn college credit by actually proving they know something. I like the fact that it is a national curriculum and a national test. My kids have done just as well on the exam as students at chichi private schools. I like the fact that we offer open enrollment, so that any student can have a chance at a rigorous curriculum. I like the fact that I have never felt pressured to encourage only the best students to take the exam to keep the passing rate high. I like the fact that some of my students who have scored 1s or 2s have come back from college and told me how much AP prepared them for the rigor of college-level work. Some have even told me that college classes were easy after AP. My students in my regular US history classes have said-- without whining but with pride-- that they sometimes get a taste of AP in my class, because I think that AP's bag of tricks on document analysis and exposure to primary sources is good for everyone.
There are many things I don't like about AP United States history. I don't like the frantic pace to which I and my students are enslaved. I don't like the fact that some teachers call their classes AP classes simply to attract small classes with dedicated students but then really don't do the job of preparing the students for the exam. I don't like the fact that I have occasionally felt the pressure to water down the curriculum to keep the enrollment numbers artificially high. (This was when we were transitioning from a college credit program with practically no curriculum to an AP program with LOTS of curriculum, and once this was explained, I was supported by the administration.) I don't like the fact that the amount of material I have to cover every year gets longer while the class time I have gets ever shorter.
Then-- I'm going to go there-- there's the elitism question. I don't like the fact that some students and/or some parents like AP because they see it as an escape route from sitting next to kids with behavior issues, IEPs or-- sometimes-- minority students. I don't like the fact that some parents and educational professionals have counselled minority students that they are incapable of taking AP classes, including educational professionals who are themselves minorities.
I have decided over the years to try to adjust the whole breadth versus depth problem. I have stopped trying to talk about every detail. Instead, I have a list of details for every chapter. Before class discussion begins, I give a quiz over these details. This forces the kids to read the book, thereby freeing me to discuss the deeper ideas that are also a part of a quality education. I now can use a more responsive instructional method, and if students really don't understand something, we have time to discuss it. I have found that this works well for our average high school-- and if you don't do your part as a student, you probably won't get a good grade in the class. I have found that my scores have improved dramatically since adopting this method.
But, even with this method, I still must cover 40 chapters in 31 weeks. That's a tall order for anyone. Consider that some AP classes are taught to high school sophomores, and you can see a problem. I believe that the AP US history course is far MORE rigorous than a freshman-level survey course, and that's another problem.
The College Board, which runs the AP program, has also had to institute an audit program to ensure that the proliferation of AP courses sprouting all across the world are not just AP courses in name only. I welcome this audit, but dread the extra paperwork I am going to have to complete.
Let's face it, AP is a victim of its own success. Thanks to the ranking system used by Newsweek magazine, that success may have come at the price of real rigor in the classes. Because schools are judged by the number of AP courses taken per student, some classes are labelled as being something they're not to inflate those numbers. We've seen the same watering down of standards as we have tried to move to decreasing the dropout rate in this country. And that's a real shame.