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AP Expectations

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The typical expectation of many people is that when more students are taking tougher courses the academic rigor of those courses is likely to decline to meet the lower standards of the masses.

But recent results from the Condition of Education, the U.S. Department of Education's latest annual compendium of education statistics, show otherwise. The number of test takers has risen dramatically over the past eight years, especially among black and Hispanic students. Yet the increase in participation has led to only slight declines in AP-test scores.

In other words, having greater numbers of students taking harder classes pays off, and not just to trumpet greater participation, but in actual achievement.

Let's motivate even more students to test themselves in the AP world.


4 Comments

At the same time that AP is expanding, top high schools across the country (Concord Academy, Fieldston School, Crossroads School, etc.) are dumping the program. Their argument: AP simply isn't rigorous enough or pedagogically appropriate anymore. It's a relic of the 1950s that, according to critics, has always been a mile wide and an inch deep.

Even top schools couldn't drop AP as long as colleges still viewed it as the pinnacle of rigor in secondary education. However, now that everyone is taking AP, college admissions offices don't see it as so special anymore. Top colleges are demanding that students score higher on the AP test if they want college credit, as well as giving less weight to AP in the admissions process.

Consequently, schools with restless faculties and administrators have been freed to drop AP. Even schools like Exeter, which have kept AP, are now pushing kids to take classes "beyond" AP that have been designed by Exeter faculty.

Having a rigorous curriculum that is universally viewed as a symbol of legitimacy enables kids in any school to walk into classrooms with pride. But how powerful will AP be as a motivator once all top schools have dropped it and it becomes a symbol of educational inequity?

I have a question instead of a comment regarding students in AP courses. Are the students in AP courses naturally gifted at learning or do some/most/all students in AP classes receive tutoring services?

Mr. Bushweller is wrong when he writes that "the increase in participation has led to only slight declines in AP-Test scores." This is the fiction that the College Board propounds. The 6% drop in passing scores since 2000 is significant.
What's more, the percentage of blacks passing the AP exams has dropped by 7% to about 28%. Hispanic passing rates have dropped by over 14% to about 47%. The most frequent score on the majority of subjects for both groups is a 1- the lowest score possible.
Concurrent with the drop in scores has been the decision by colleges to raise the cut scores for AP credit. The cut score has risen about a half a point since 1998.
Expanding AP beyond its original purposes may be a good thing, but we should not pretend that it comes free of consequences.

I think that, like most subjects in teaching, the quality of the teacher (and the clarity of the curricula) determine how successful a class is. What I have observed over the course of my kids' secondary educations is a huge change in how AP classes are taught. (Since we now live in a neighboring school district it is also possible that the differences I have seen may owe more to that than to teachers or curricula.) This time period roughly corresponds to the one mentioned above that has seen such an increase in the numbers of kids taking AP classes.
Our oldest, hs class of 1997, took several AP classes, in biology, European history, US history, and I believe in Literature, Econ, and Gov't as well. In each of these classes basic information was studied AND there were relatively high-level discussions of issues the basic information raised, along with an attempt to relate the course information to the present and future. With the exception of biology, where there was a large quantity of information to be covered and a concern that everything be studied (the mile wide and inch deep phenomenon mentioned above), there was no indication of "teaching to the test." Even in this subject though, there was discussion above and beyond the textbook, about the implications of issues raised by the topics being studied. This was my introduction to AP classes as my own high school did not offer anything remotely like this in the 1960a and 1970s. I liked the idea that AP classes were classes taught with enough academic rigor and at a level of sophistication that a student could take the class, take a test, and possibly earn college credit for the work. (Many of our daughters' friends, like our daughter, chose not to take college credit for their 4s and 5s because they were worried about maxing out their credit hours before they finished all of the requirements for their double and triple majors.) Now move forward 11 years. Our youngest is hs class of 2008. In a foreign language AP there was virtually no instruction that was NOT geared to prepping for the AP exam. Most quizzes and exams were practice AP exams. No literature was read or discussed (or written about) in the foreign language - at most a few paragraphs of excerpts. Well, okay, maybe that was how the foreign language APs were suggested to be taught. In US history, which our child dropped in disgust after a month, they were assigned 20 pages to read and outline each night (good idea). The next day the "lecture" consisted of the teacher's power point presentation of her own outlines of the chapters - no sharing of anecdotes to help kids remember various events, no discussion of any kind, let alone any discussions that draw connections between past and present events. The rationale given was that this was the only way all the material could be covered in time for the exam and she felt the kids were lazy and maybe had not all done their homework (surely this did not apply to all of the students - I saw several kids' excellent outlines - why not teach the class as though everyone was doing their work?). Biology had the same (or more) time pressures as 11 years ago. Kids with friends in "regular" biology lamented that their (non-AP) friends were learning a lot more biology than they were as there was time to delve into a topic of interest or to spend extra time if necessary to get a concept across. Lang and Comp was somewhere in between. In talking to other students with other APs, it seems that the "seminar" aspects of AP classes have gone by the wayside over the years. This is unfortunate as I saw these classes ignite passions in our oldest and her friends that they are still benefiting from today. The AP, at least at our child's current school, seems to have become code for "lots of work - to prepare for a test" rather than what I perceived it to be before - a course taught with insight and rigor, at such a high level that one can then pass a difficult test on the subject by virtue of how much one learned in the class.
Maybe this is a result of different philosophies between the two school districts involved. Maybe it is a change in the suggested curricula for APs now. Maybe it is a result of having to find more teachers to teach the increasing number of AP sections, so now the schools have teachers willing to teach an AP instead of having teachers who are so passionate about a subject (and so well-informed) that they are eager to share this with their students. Maybe it's a combination of all these factors. I just feel sad for the kids now who are missing out on the wonderful AP experiences the kids 11 years ago had.

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