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Is Advanced Placement All It's Cracked Up to Be?

Advanced Placement has been in the news recently for reasons that raise a few eyebrows ("Rethinking Advanced Placement," New York Times, Jan 7). Although record numbers of high school students are taking and passing the AP exams, an increasing percentage are scoring at the lowest level possible. Whether this data should be cause for concern or celebration depends on how AP is viewed.

Here's where a bit of history is necessary. AP exams were created in 1956 by the College Board because elite prep schools wanted to convince colleges that their best students were capable of moving directly into advanced courses. The board obliged by designing the exams so that they measured what most colleges taught in freshmen survey courses. To earn college credit, students had to score a 3 out of a possible 5.

Over the years, the number of students taking AP exams has dramatically increased, until more than 850,000 graduates of the Class of 2010 took at least one AP exam. This was almost double the number a decade ago. Yet during the same period, there was a sharp rise in the number of students scoring a 1 on 26 of the 31 exams offered.

Purists maintain that the low scores are the predictable result of counseling more students to take AP courses, despite their lack of wherewithal. Worse, they are concerned that the AP curriculum has been diluted in order to make the courses more palatable to students. In other words, quality is suffering because of the quantity of students. (There are more than 30 AP subjects with 1.8 million students taking 3.2 million tests.)

But there's another side of the story that is often overlooked. Even if students don't score high enough to qualify for college credit, they benefit by their exposure to college-level work. As a result, when they begin college, they are far better prepared than their peers who never took an AP course. Shouldn't this be seen as a positive outcome?

On the other hand, AP courses frequently involve the worst pedagogy in the form of daily lectures that are designed to prepare students to score high on the AP exam. There's nothing wrong with using lectures on occasion, but when they become the exclusive method they leave little room for deep thinking. Shouldn't this be seen as a negative outcome?

Recognizing the shortcomings, several elite private schools have dropped AP courses entirely. Their decision was probably also prompted by the announcement by some marquee-name colleges and universities to cease giving credit. MIT, for example, stopped doing so for biology in 2007 because it found that even students scoring a 5 lacked the problem-solving skills needed for higher-level courses.

So maybe questioning AP should not be considered heresy. It is still a good choice for some students. But other students are probably better off taking traditional classes taught by inspiring teachers. The trick is to know which students fall into which camp.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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