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

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

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.


At 4/12/06, 7:58 AM, Blogger dan said...

Amen. As I finish my first year teaching AP World (to sophomores), I have a lot of the same feelings. The balance of depth vs breadth has been a difficult balance - especially since in the college prep or "regular" version of this class I am all about depth. However, I have never been so satisfied with the intellectual discourse in a class, the work ethic, etc. This year my class is their only AP class, it will be intersting watch my students scurrying about campus when they are taking 2-4 AP classes - mainly because they feel they have to and because we as an institution push them in that direction.

At 4/12/06, 9:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Honors and AP classes at my son's high school are in danger of being dropped because of the pressures of our state's high stakes, pass or die, test in 10th grade. The school needs those teachers to teach catchup and remedial language and math classes. All the Bog children enjoyed their Honors and AP classes. They were the classes that kept their interest and kept boredom at bay.

At 4/12/06, 10:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liz here from I Speak of Dreams. I live near a prestigious university and so I have several friends who are professors there. Professor of European History dislikes the APs because (1) it is not how history is taught at the university level (2) high school students are turned off the study of history if they encounter AP History and assume that is how the discipline "works". Professor of Biology dislikes the science APs because there's too little emphasis on lab works.

Dean of Students at "chichi private school" dislikes APs because of the effect of the timing of the tests--a full 6 weeks before the end of the school year. Her understanding is that the move to earlier and earlier start dates--starting the school year in mid-August or sooner--is in part a response to AP timing.

Taking more than one AP in a year--most high schools require that students take a full curriculum(6 or 7 classes, all day schooling) while a full load at collegiate level might be just 3 or 4 classes -- allowing students more time to study.

And here's the outline of a presentation at the National Associaiton of Independent Schools,

"Excellence without AP"
--2002 NAIS Annual Conference - San Francisco, CA
Presenters: Peter Gow, Dean, Beaver Country Day School

Dick Heath, Head, Sandia Preparatory School

Co Presenter: Assistant to the Dean of Admission, Stanford University

The Right Questions to Ask About Your Advanced Placement Program:

* What resources - people, time, space, materials - do AP courses require?
* What are the opportunity costs of directing these resources at an AP program?
* Does the AP curriculum challenge your students in the most appropriate and possible ways?
* Is your AP program built on barriers? Do your policies exclude students from certain high-level courses that are proclaimed to be the "best" or most desirable in the school?
* Given a roomful of motivated and curious students and a passionate, expert instructor, does an AP curriculum offer the best possible learning experience that could be devised?
* Does the AP program offer courses whose content and methodologies embody your school's particular values and mission?
* Do the content and methodologies of AP courses reflect your school's commitment to diversity?
* Is the "vertical team" approach to AP instruction in certain disciplines consonant with the philosophical and developmental nature of your departmental curricula?
* Do you use a winnowing or sieving process to make AP classes the apex of a pyramid of achievement or of aptitude?
* Who is "winnowed" out of taking AP courses? Do you track this, both individually and by group membership?
* Do you have the confidence to promote students for college matriculation based on the internal standards established by the faculty at your school?
* What is your school's philosophical and practical commitment to curricular depth over breadth?
* To what degree does the existence of an AP program at your school reflect the anxieties of constituents other than your faculty and students?
* Is the AP program at your school designed to provide a challenging and advanced curriculum or to help your more ambitious students get into college?
* Have you developed your policies around students enrolled in courses labeled "AP" taking the Advanced Placement examination based on the individual needs of students, or on anxieties around perceived institutional integrity?
* Does your faculty have the expertise to design highly challenging and engaging advanced courses on their own, or does the use of an externally driven curriculum serve in lieu of helping them gain that expertise?
* When was the last time you heard that a graduate of your school had used an accumulation of Advanced Placement credits to "place out" of a year of college?
* Do you track how often graduates of your school use Advanced Placement credit to place up into, rather than place out of, courses in college?
* How are students assessed and evaluated for their work in existing AP courses?
* Are your AP teachers teaching a subject, or are they teaching to a test?
* Does your school weight the grades given students in AP courses in computing GPA or class rank? Have you collected and analyzed data to assure yourself that this weighting is equitable?
* Is teaching AP in your school considered a prestigious assignment? Do your teachers truly believe it is the best curriculum?
* Do you believe that having an AP program adds luster to your entire curriculum? If so, do you then offer AP course enrollment to every student?
* Who pays for students to take Advanced Placement examinations at your school?
* Where would you begin in the development of an internally designed program that would replace Advanced Placement courses?
* If you do not already have Advanced Placement courses, are you afraid that not having them will jeopardize your students' chances at college admission?
* If you do already offer Advanced Placement courses, are you afraid that discontinuing them will jeopardize your students' chances at college admission?
* If you do already offer AP courses, what do you anticipate the public costs would be of supplanting them with internally designed courses?
* What data or evidence would be helpful to your school in your circumstances in deciding to discontinue or not implement an AP program?
* How would you collect the data?
* To which constituencies would you be most answerable if you were to consider either discontinuing or not implementing an AP program? How would you address their concerns?
* Do the concerns of Advanced Placement teachers in your school inhibit movement toward schedule reform that would otherwise benefit all students?
* Do public schools in your area offer a more established and broader array of AP courses than your school is able to? If so, are your efforts to maintain your own program underplaying your school's unique strengths and values in an arena where it may be difficult or impossible to establish a competitive advantage, anyway?
* Does the perceived pressure of "having" to have AP courses on the transcript drain good, excited students away from arts, electives, and other challenging courses that don’t carry the AP label?
* What would your school do when faced with the dilemma of having a sign-up for an AP course that was very small (and thus "expensive" to staff) or very large (and thus necessitating either paring down or adding a section)?
* Does the calendar of Advanced Placement examinations in May impede the development of meaningful end-of-year programs for seniors at your school? Or does it otherwise interfere with other worthy or potentially valuable programs at your school?

At 4/12/06, 3:34 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

At my school district AP is not the reason for the earlier start dates, but instead NCLB-mandated testing. We don't have THAT many kids taking AP.

Of course.

Now I come from a place which always started around August 20, so the current start date near there feels right to me, and I don't get what all the fuss is about "early" starting dates-- but change is controversial. 'Round here, the tourism industry is quite unhappy with the pre-Labor Day start.

At 4/12/06, 9:16 PM, Blogger kontan said...

Good points. I really like the AP ops that our students have. It allows for them to move a faster pace that is more challenging and appropriate for them. Sometimes they are bored in a regular class b/c the less motivated students will not/can not keep up.

We start school first week in August (4th this year) and go til May 26th or so. State testing is in April. Coming up!!!!! It is not AP but NCLB that dictates our dates as well.

At 4/13/06, 7:42 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

You know, if kids hate history because of AP, then they had an ineffective teacher, or they had a bad attitude to begin with.

I agree with k. I had no chances at AP classes, and I was bored stiff in high school.

kontan, good luck on the tests!

At 4/13/06, 8:22 PM, Blogger Laura(southernxyl) said...

It's a lot different at the school my daughter graduated from last year. The kids had to apply to get into AP classes. If their previous grades were iffy they had to take placement tests. My daughter had to go through a Cliffs Notes AP English book during the summer before and take a bunch of tests, and submit that to the teacher. This was for English lit. We had to sign contracts acknowledging that we understood how much work would be involved, that our kid would work no more than X number of hours at an outside job, and that she would take the AP exam. So she had AP English lit and Latin (Vergil) and she absolutely ate them up. This was an elite program inside another elite program anyway, and it's for kids who thrive on this level of rigorousness. Her scores were 5 and 4 respectively. But they're dismantling the testing-in system because the school board feels that minorities are disproportionately affected, so the principal has resigned. Well, we'll see what happens.

I understand your dislike of elitism, and I guess I can see it either way. When the smart kids are grouped together, they encourage and challenge each other - I remember this myself from college. Like you, I went to a high school without honors and AP and was bored to tears. There are black kids in the honors and AP classes, but apparently the school board thinks they are more likely to not get in than the white kids. It distresses me to think that black kids have it hammered into them that for them to achieve, standards must be lowered. What could that do for their self-esteem? Or their sense of accomplishment, from now on, when they do get into those classes? I can't think that such an attitude from the school board is likely to induce those kids to strive for excellence.

At 4/14/06, 3:52 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

No, see, I want the standards to stay high, and I want to encourage the students in my class to rise to meet them!

I want to encourage kids who are willing to do the work to take on this challenge. But if you're there merely to escape something, adios!

I've got a kid right now who has a high D in my class. Her parents keep calling and wanting me to DO something. Here are my talking points:
1. She does not complete the background work.
2. She does not prepare herself adequately for quizzes.
3. She does not come after school for tutoring help.
4. When I tell them this, they reply that she has track team practice.

Okay, she has chosen track team practice over a more acceptable grade in AP. That is a perfectly acceptable choice-- but don't turn around and expect me to go even further out of my way when she won't or can't make some simple choices herself to change that grade. I spend my entire summer and weekends preparing for class.

They want me to come in at 6 am to tutor her. I am getting my own children ready for school at that time. To do this would be the equivalent of ME doing more to raise her grade than SHE is willing to do. I stay after school 3 days a week.

If that's being elitist, so be it.

At 4/15/06, 10:43 PM, Blogger Laura(southernxyl) said...

If you're getting support from your principal and school board, you're probably pretty lucky. It's a life lesson for that D student, to set her priorities and count the cost, if her parents will shut up and let her learn it.

As to escaping something: my former boss has a son the age of my daughter. He didn't sign up for honors English in 10th grade because he knew a lot of reading would be involved and he doesn't enjoy reading. But he was appalled by the fact that his classmates in the standard class apparently were barely literate (couldn't read, is what he said) and he felt that the year was frustrating and pretty much a waste of his time. He signed up for honors after that. Is that what you're talking about?

I mean, what we really want is to not have illiterate 10th graders and to have all the teachers uphold some kind of reasonable standard. But if that's not the case, doesn't the kid have the right to take that into consideration?


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