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College Board Improves AP Exams & Supports For Deeper Learning & College Readiness

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By Tom Vander Ark and Sarah Cargill

College Board , the longtime leader in college credit opportunities in high school, is changing its Advanced Placement (AP) approach to emphasize depth over breadth, improving formative assessment, and adding an integrative experience.

The improvement was based on years of teacher feedback and an interest in making AP reflective of the knowledge and skills 21st century learning scientists are finding most essential to college majors and subsequent careers. The changes also reflect recent advances in cloud-based technology and updated standards for college and career readiness.

Asking better questions. College Board is changing the test questions to promote deeper learning and to prioritize application over rapid content coverage. Where many of the old test questions would require a simple recall, new test questions ask students to draw upon skills to demonstrate application of new knowledge.

"The redesigned AP exams are increasing their focus on essays and open-ended problems, and reducing the number of multiple-choice questions; the remaining multiple-choice questions are shifting to measure not just content knowledge, but content knowledge and the skill to use that knowledge in meaningful ways essential to college and career success in that discipline," said Trevor Packer, Head of AP at College Board. "There's not a single exam question now that measures memorization only. They each evaluate skills and the application of knowledge."

For example an old AP exam might ask a simplistic memorization question like, "Which of the following colonies required each community of 50 or more families to provide a teacher of reading and writing?"

In contrast, AP exams now focus on asking students to read a primary or secondary source with much accuracy and precision, answer a question that requires them to draw upon content knowledge as well as their reading of the source, and then explain their answer and support their argument with evidence from the close study they have done of a specific illustrative historical example their teacher chose to focus on.

The redesign is paying off; before redesign 80 percent of AP Biology teachers believed AP sacrificed depth to breadth, but after redesign, that shrank to only 8 percent. "I think skills are vastly more crucial to success than content knowledge," said a faculty member from a AP U.S. History study.

Diagnostic assessment. AP courses are known for their end-of-class exam. But starting with AP Biology, the College Board has been working to deliver more insightful assessments of student knowledge throughout the academic year in smaller chunks. This pilot, known as AP Insight, provides participating AP Biology teachers and administrators with a series of short online, formative assessments that can be assigned for 15 minutes as homework or within a class period to provide immediate feedback on student understandings and skills.

AP Insight, funded by a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, was designed to "empower teachers with research-based, classroom-tested tools and resources to plan, teach, assess, and adapt rigorous AP course work." Through philanthropic support, the AP Insight pilot has been available to the pilot districts for free.

AP Insights offers teachers and students detailed feedback about student performance to help better identify where information was misunderstood or lost to course correct learning. "I love the technology-based planning, teaching and assessment of the program," said a teacher piloting the AP Biology course. "It will give the students real-time instant feedback on the areas they need to improve on, which will help them with their long term goals of mastering the AP Biology material."

The AP Insight pilot is one way the College Board is investing heavily in taking its exams online to improve more flexibility for schools seeking to provide AP access for their students. But it's a frustrating reflection on the lack of technology access that 70 percent of AP Biology teachers participating in the AP Insight pilot are printing the online formative assessments and conducting them offline.

For AP English, the College Board is piloting portfolio assessment, and is also exploring a portfolio assessment for a potential new AP Computer Science: Principles course.


An integrated experience. College Board, perhaps borrowing from International Baccalaureate, is piloting a Cambridge Capstone Program , which couples traditional AP-style courses sandwiched between an eleventh-grade seminar course and a twelfth-grade research project.

Students spend the first year digging into a global topic with team projects and presentations. In a seminar project, student would take on a current topic like genetically modified food, and consider culture, economics, environment, ethics, politics, and technology.

In their second year, they tackle a research project and report. "Schools and teachers love it because it allows content flexibility while giving external validation of mastery," said Packer.

College Board intends to roll out changes from its pilots and findings through 2015. For more, visit AP Central.

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