The debates on AP courses. Yes, No, Maybe, and How Many?

Every year the Higher Ed newsfeed fills with debates about AP courses, and this year is no different.

AP US History, decade notes.

AP US History, decade notes.

It’s up to each family to understand the issues involved and figure out the appropriate number for each student to take (if any). For background:

  • Last year the College Board administered more than 3.2 million AP exams. See College Board’s Who We Serve. This year the AP exam costs $89 per. (College Board is a non-profit organization, but more than half of their revenue comes from AP exam fees.) Factor that exam cost against the cost of taking a three or four credit hour course at a college.
  • Thanks to APs, many students now begin their first year of college with a semester or two of credits already earned. Yet, some colleges require a major to be declared when a certain number of credits have been achieved, sometimes leading to a first year student needing to declare prior to his or her second year.

Much of the recent debate includes discussion of a recent report from the Stanford University Education Grad School program, Challenge Success. Start with that fifteen page report, The Advanced Placement Program: Living Up To Its Promise? The authors set up a few claims and tackle a lot of issues as they pull them apart. Don’t miss the recommendations for students on page ten.

Here’s the thing: every student will have reasons to take — or not take — APs. Do not take them because everyone else is.

  • Do take them if your are interested in the subject and willing and able to put in the extra time and effort.
  • Do not compete to take the most APs of everyone you know.
  • Do focus on learning how to take an AP. Many high schools use the AP Euro class, typically taken by sophomores, as an intro to taking APs, spending time on the prccess as well as the content.
  • Consider starting slow and building through high school. Starting with one sophomore year, two junior, and three senior year shows increased effort and rigor and makes a lot more sense for most students than jumping in with two or three sophomore year.
ChallengeSuccess.org

ChallengeSuccess.org

More to read on APs:

Two perspectives from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

NO:  Stop Letting High-School Courses Count for College Credit, by Michael Mendillo.

The end result is that in many introductory college courses, the top students are simply not in the classrooms. For them, faculty-student interactions are not possible and the overall value of a university education is diminished. All of these aspects of educational disservice are due to the existence of the AP system.

The solution is simple: All the things a student accomplishes in high school—grades, extracurricular activities, sports, volunteering—are application credentials for college. There should be no carry-over of high-school accomplishments into the collegiate transcript.

YES:  Give AP credit where credit is due, by Mark Bauerlein.

We may ask, though, about the impact of refusing to give AP credit upon enrollments and test scores in high-school AP courses­—or other advanced offerings­. What’s the incentive for 16-year-olds to take a course with a stiffer workload, competitive fellow students, and the chance of a lower grade?

College credit means savings in time and money once they matriculate. Take it away, and students may wonder about the advantages. Yes, AP courses accustom them to college-level labor, and admissions offices favor AP as a sign that an applicant seeks a school’s best resources (this is Dartmouth’s policy). But those are somewhat fuzzy promises to a high-school junior.

NO:  AP classes are a scam, by John Tierney, writing in The Atlantic.

Many critics lay the blame on the College Board itself, a huge “non-profit” organization that operates like a big business. The College Board earns over half of all its revenues from its Advanced Placement program — more than all its other revenue streams (SATs, SAT subject tests, PSATs) combined. The College Board’s profits for 2009, the most recent year for which records were available, were 8.6 percent of revenue, which would be respectable even for a for-profit corporation. “When a non-profit company is earning those profits, something is wrong,” says Americans for Educational Testing Reform. (The AETR’s “report card” on the College Board awards a grade of D and cites numerous “areas of misconduct” by the College Board.)

Finally, here’s one high school teacher’s response to the Stanford report.

YES:  The Oft Understated Truth of AP Coursework, by John Blase, on his blog, Striving for Better.

Having taught an AP course for several years in the classroom (AP English Language & Composition, to be exact) I find that most of the arguments in this article and others purporting to say that AP coursework isn’t worth its weight miss one key important piece: Many students who are enrolled in AP courses are bored out of their skulls in regular classes.

. . .

As department lead, I made many observations of the teachers and students in their English coursework.  Every spring, I would ask the seniors in AP English Literature and Composition (the senior level AP English course at our school) one question:

“Now that you have taken the test, what could we, as an English department, have done better from day one of your freshman year to better prepare you for this course?”

The answers always came back the same: more of the stuff that made AP English what it is.  These students weren’t concerned with the college credit or the scores on the AP test.  They were concerned with not being bored out of their minds in their other classes.

Finding the delicate balance between enough challenge and too much, providing an overload of stress, is where an excellent guidance counselor or independent college counselor can truly help families. And the mix of courses, including how many APs, to reach that balance will be different for every student.

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4 Comments

Filed under Getting In, High School

4 responses to “The debates on AP courses. Yes, No, Maybe, and How Many?

  1. Caroline Bertrand

    1) Why is it acceptable for a “non profit” company to define the curriculum for the best students in the country?
    2) What about other ways of learning that provide depth instead of breadth? Independent study, internship…
    3) What about other ways of learning that are project based, offer students choices and teach real life skills?

    • Excellent questions, Caroline. One of the points the Stanford study makes is that by choosing to develop and offer AP courses high schools close themselves off from developing their own high-level coursework. This is an area I’ve tended to be pragmatic about — our children’s high school offers APs, those are the high-level courses available, those are the ones they will take. As you know, another HS in our division offers wonderful access to dual-enrollment courses, including a walking path to the community college; that option and the ones you suggest, especially project-based learning, appeal to me.

    • jwblase

      It’s not that a non profit is defining what’s acceptable so much as its that CollegeBoard talks with college professors about what their courses contain, and adjusts its objectives every 10 years or so to match the collegiate expectations. Very few high school teachers are willing to talk to others in their own departments, much less to college professors.

      One of the things that’s often overlooked in the AP studies is that AP does not, in any way, define how to teach the objectives at all. Many AP teachers do use a PBL approach to teach their courses. (Is one of the reasons I was drawn to a PBL school). I would say that a PBL approach is actually a better way to tackle AP material, but unfortunately not enough teachers are familiar with PBL structure and methods.

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