The elephant in the classroom: AP

The elephant in the room, image from: http://thewalkingelephant.blogspot.com/If you know me or my writing, you know I have strong opinions about standardized anything and standardized curriulum. So with spring around the corner, no BLOG of mine would be complete without a post regarding the AP. This BLOG is targeted towards United States readers, but I’ve tried to include enough details for international peers to understand the topic because I am assuming other countries have some similar efforts in their country. I will try to keep this as unbiased as I can, but will likely fail.

In the United States, we have a “system” in our high schools called AP (Advanced Placement). They are courses, in over 20 subject areas, which are taught by high school teachers, but the content is college-level and at the end of the academic year students who are taking classes take a standard test in each discipline. The tests cost about $75 per test. Each year in May, all across the country, all the AP tests are administered in each discipline. That test is not published in advance, so student and teachers will not know what will be on the test until test day. The possible scores are 0 – 5, where 5 is the highest score possible. Most of the students who are college-bound will find themselves taking numerous AP classes in order to have a really competitive resume as they compete for admission spots at the colleges across the country. Ideally, students who do great on the exam will “exempt” that same class when they go to college. Their high school resume, as well as performance on a national standardized test called SAT (coincidentally also offered by the same company), will have a tremendous impact on determining where the majority of students attend college.

In any high school and around many dinner tables, there is a fundamental debate that is publically and privately played out year after year in the spring. As schools decide which classes to offer, and students and parents evaluate which classes to take, there is an elephant in the room: AP

Just so you understand my context, I am a teacher in a college-prep private school. Most of our students take numerous AP classes in high school…in fact students will go to college with anywhere from 3 to 30+ college credit hours. We offer many AP classes, and usually see good results on the tests.

But what was the original idea behind the AP program?

Originally: For those unique students around the country who have mastered what the typical high school is able to offer, and wanted to explore a higher level of content, then there is a recognized system to allow students to take the next level of a discipline, giving them a taste of college while still in high school.
Currently: Some schools sell themselves as “AP schools”. For example in the city I live it, we have a school “ranked” as one of the best high schools in the country based on how many AP courses it offers. Is that really what determines excellence? Some schools selectively pick who can take the test, then use their successful results on the tests to attract new students each year. AP has become a perceived “required” criterion for admissions into college.

AP classes from the perspective of the teacher do not offer flexibility in deciding what content to teach. It is a class which no one, not the students, teachers, or schools are able to know in advanced what exactly will be evaluated or the questions/problems that will be used on the test. (Of course the general topics are made available, but the specifics are highly confidential.) We say it is bad teaching to teach to a test, but it is simply not possible to offer an AP class and not teach to the test. You’ve got to expose your students to the terminology, design, layout, and approach that College Board uses in the administration of their tests.

The dreadest multiple choice test. Does it really evaluate in the way we want it to?

Due to the volume of students taking the tests, tests must be offered only on paper, even for lab-based classes such as Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and Computer Science. So, while the labs are an integral aspect of class throughout the year, it ends up not being as much of a part of the final evaluation. (evaluating what we think is important: there is another BLOG post coming up)

I’d like to throw this out there as food for thought: What is the real purpose for schools to offer AP? What is the real purpose for students to take AP? We know the motivation from College Board. While it is a non-for-profit institution, it is a money making machine. My hats off to their marketing team; they somehow became the standardized test king; and have schools all across the country selling their products (yes, the have more than just AP). They additionally sell books, offer classes, charge you to take their test, and yes students can even pay an extra fee to find out their results a day early. It’s the Sally Foster of education. If they went public and sold stock, it would be a cash cow.

Surprisingly, AP test scores are not uniformly accepted across the country at the college level. Every university and college has its own policy, specific to each discipline whether it accepts it for credit or not. Some accept and give credit for any score 3 or higher, some only accept 5, some only accept 5 on the harder of two offered tests, some do not accept any tests, some accept only as electives, some say they do not consider AP in the admissions process but actually do, etc. Some kids use the taking of the AP class as a resume building tool and do not care how they do on the actual test or even in the class. Some want to enter into college with many credits already completed. Others take the AP class because they love the subject area and/or teacher and just want to learn more, regardless of the AP signature. But what’s our goal here? College is one of the most enjoyable, full of academic and life learning, experience of our lives. Why would we want to shorten that experience?

As far as students go, there are 2 motivations. One: Some students love learning, love challenge, love pushing themselves, and will take the hardest path possible. They do that not to satisfy anyone but themselves. While it certainly helps them get into the best colleges, that is not the sole purpose of taking the AP classes. Two: Students and parents have heard “through the grapevine” that you’ve got to have many AP to even have a chance to get into the schools of their choices. The perception is that it does not even matter what grade you get in the class, or even on the test, but that you are in the AP course to begin with. It does not matter if the class is something they are passionate about or not, they just take it because it fills periods of the day and stacks the resume.

As far as teachers go, there is a huge grey area. We tell teachers not to teach to the test, but if your kids don’t do well on the test, that is a reflection on the teacher. (teacher evaluations: that’s another BLOG post coming up) Some students just don’t do well on tests like these, but do fine in hands-on classes. Those students tend not to do well on standardized tests, so the grade they get may not reflect their actual understanding and ability to apply their knowledge. Have you ever had a bad day, a busy week, a few hours in the day where you were just not there? Don’t let that happen in May or you will pay for that and perhaps undermine 12 years of hard work. An AP teacher is said to be an excellent teacher if their students do excellent on the test. So, the end would certainly justify any means for a teacher. Do we get excellence in teaching with our AP classes, or do we get excellence in test preparation?

Here is an interesting way of looking at the AP program from the student point of view: (Woah! Stop right there! I can tell he is going to suggest something that is different than what we normally do. You stop right there young man. Don’t you dare suggest something outside the box) for a student going into a specific discipline ( for example Biology , History, or Computer Science), and they have decided on pursuing that discipline as a possible major and/or career, and they have spent a couple years researching higher education institutions to find the best choice for them, then I argue that they should experience the entire program that the college has to offer. Don’t skip over the first year or two because you did well on one single test when you were 16 years old. If you are going to major in Biology from U.N.C. then you want to immerse yourself in the entire program they have to offer. Additionally, despite how wonderful we high school teachers think we are, the experience of taking an AP class in a high school is dramatically different than the experience of taking the same class in college. Every teacher teaches a class, even one with a predetermined curriculum and syllabus, with their own spin to it. Each teacher brings their own focus, passions, and interpretations(which is a good thing). Now, to a certain extent, we can assume that the teacher is working under the umbrella of their department and their school, so we know it is in sync with the objectives of their schools and departments, so there is some commonality and expectation of excellence. But, we can all agree(?) that the objectives of a high school are dramatically different than the objectives of a college. High Schools have to prepare students as best they can for the world, but their immediate focus is to get the kids ready for the next step, which is college. Colleges have to prepare students to enter into the marketplace and beyond, standing on the shoulders of what the students have learned and accomplished in their secondary and even primary education. So, even the best of AP high school classes cannot accomplish the same objectives and goals of the comparable college level class…nor should it. At the high school level, we have assemblies, pep rallies, dress down days, halloween costume days, senior cut days, ½ days, field trips, detentions, shirts to tuck in, early dismissals for sport….and parents are still heavily involved(far too much…that is another BLOG post) in the academic life of their kids and also their kids teachers. None of that exists in a manner even close to that at the college level.

Keep in mind, university students in those 100 level classes (first year college) do NOT take the AP test that all the high school students take for the same class. At the college level, in Computer Science 101 and English 101 in hundreds of colleges across the country, each teacher teaches the class and evaluates the class differently. In that same spirit, I’ll throw this out there as well: college professors would go ballistic if they were forced to require students take another exam in place of their own to determine passing or not, and with what grade. Yet, the high school teachers who (supposedly) teach the same class for the same credit, must. So we know right there that the experience is a dramatically different one.

Here are some ways of breaking this down as we go forward

Option 1: With most high schools in the country offering AP, then I argue that what has happened, which is not necessarily unusual nor is it even bad, is that what we were teaching in the first year of college has simply moved up in the curriculum. This happens all the time. Especially in my area, Computer Science, we move content up to earlier grades somewhat frequently to keep our curriculum fresh and relevant. So, I suggest we stop calling those classes AP, and just let them be what we study in high school. Let colleges and universities push their curriculum up as well to meet the needs of their incoming students.
Option 2: Change the way we offer AP (WHAT? Is this guy suggesting that we alter the way it’s worked for decades? OH MY GOD! Surely the status quo cannot be wrong). Here are some possible ways of looking at this:
• AP classes are extremely challenging: For those students who have always taken the hardest classes, challenged themselves, followed their natural curiosity, and performed well , then they can apply to be considered; and it would be a real honor to be accepted into the class. And isn’t that a system that makes sense. This is geared more in line with the early years of the AP. It allowed for students to distinguish themselves by simply doing what they do naturally.

Can we ever evaluate this kind of learning?

OR

• Any student who wishes to enter an AP class can try his/her luck and are encouraged to do so. In this environment, the teacher has to make a choice. Either you go through the material at a relatively standard rate, knowing the lower end kids will either not be able to keep up, or will require additional assistance. Or, you realize that you will lower the pace of the class to make sure that what they do get through, they are comfortable with, and the advanced kids will need to learn some on their own in order to be ready for the test in May. Also you would have to decide whether to make all kids who are in the class take the test. This allows a student to try something new (and maybe not do well in that attempt…they might fail sometimes along the way….they might even fail on the exam…is that ok?)

OR

• Offer both styles and let the students decide which to take. (and do not distinguish the two on the transcript):

  • Test-Focused-AP, where the goal is simple: prepare for success on the test. Lots of practice tests, every assignment in line for the test, only addressing that which is on the test. All students are expected to not only take, but do well on the test. These require admissions application and only proven students with recommendation can be accepted.
  • Content-Focused-AP, where the teacher teaches the content of the AP, but students do not actually take the AP test itself. This allows the focus of the class to shift from preparing for a test to simply immersing in the content area. Still requires applications to get in, but appeals to a different type of student.
  • Exploratory AP: For students who may not meet any criteria, but are wanting to challenge themselves with a college level content class. Any student can take the test

OR

• Don’t offer AP classes at all. Let your faculty design curriculum around the mission statement of your school. Understand your student and teacher populations, as well as the culture of the school, and let your curriculum reflect that. Provide curriculum which is rigorous, challenging, engaging, hands-on, and prepares students for the world.

OR

• Offer the IB program, which is a standardized methodology, like the AP, but has more depth and individual responsibility for the student. Tends to be more portfolio-based, where students earn credit by presenting and applying what they’ve learned.

Ok, so are there any other viewpoints to consider? I mean what’s the issue and why even have the conversation at all? After all the system seems to be working, right? Kids are getting into college and the sky is not falling. (I might argue that it is academically)

If you do not separate students like this, then the advanced students are stuck in classes with students who are not able to do well or are not as interested/motivated thus slowing down the classes and not challenging our best students. Welcome to school since the first grade. That’s not an ideal scenario, but one that is ever present.

If you do not allow students to try something a little beyond their comfort and aptitude level, knowing they may fail along the way, how can they learn? That flies in the face of our grading system which frowns on anything less than a B.

Anyway, there are some serious philosophical discussions, as you can see, that are fun to have with your colleagues in your schools. I encourage you to have them. Regardless of which argument(or none or all of them ) that you support, it is crucial that we as a country look at everything we do, including traditional programs like the AP program, and evaluate it and make sure it allows us to succeed in the ways we want to succeed. And , in the end, whatever our view, we must make sure that whatever we do is for the long term good of students to allow them to enter the world after school and be active contributors and engaged global citizen in the world. See you online!

About Doug Bergman

Head of Computer Science at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC

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