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Reflections on “Rethinking Advanced Placement”

January 10, 2011

Hard at work learning a mountain of content

In today’s New York Times, Christopher Drew wrote a very good article entitled, Rethinking Advanced Placement.  Having written a number of blog entries on this topic (see CFT blogs: Extending the AP Conversation, What’s in My Reading Corner: Is there value in the  AP program?, and Teaching to the Test), having taught AP Chemistry and AP Biology for many years, and having discussed at some length the pros and cons of the AP program with other educators (see excellent blog entries from Quantum Progress), I find this topic to be extremely interesting and controversial.

Some interesting facts that Drew points out:

30 subjects with 1.8 million sutdents taking 3.2 million tests

AP Biology has 172,00 test-takers

Powerpoint lectures are the rule

Canned laboratory exercises (in science APs)

387,00 test-takers in AP US History

These facts illustrate to me how big a “monster” the College Board’s AP program really is.  While I anxiously await the results of their redesign efforts, their task feels a little bit like changing the course on a supertanker, possible but not an easy task.

Drew points out that that College Board will

slash the amount of material students need to know for tests and provide a curriculum framework for what courses should look like.

He also points out that the College Board intends to

…focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytical thinking.  In biology, a host of more creative, hands-on experiments are intended to help students think more like scientists.

If all this comes to past, I wonder if the standards approach that the College Board is taking, “providing detailed standards for each subject and create new exams to match the detailed standards (Drew, NYT),” will end up looking like most high-stakes tests written by states across the country.  The states standards are almost always packed with too much content and too many skills, such that most teachers are unable to teach them in a 36 week school year.  The end-of-year tests are generally crammed with lots of detail, asking students to have mastered standards that are a “mile wide and an inch deep.”  Rarely, are the tests written to see whether students have a deeper understanding of the content and the ability to apply the content and skills they are supposed to have learned to real world situations.  Deep understanding, analytical thinking, creative problem-solving, and application are generally missing from the expectations that most states have for student learning. 

In his book, What Works in Schools: Translating research into action, Robert Marzano writes about the fact that most state-adopted curriculum contains too many standards, making it nearly impossible for teacher to adequately teach students successfully.  He points out that most curricula in the United States, as compared to other countries, emphasize quantity of material covered over a greater depth of study. 

So will the College Board take some risks and provide a curriculum framework that can be reasonably taught in 36 weeks, actually it is more like 32 weeks given the exams are in early May?   Drew’s article contains a quote from Trevor Packer, the College Board’s VP for the AP.

We really believe that the New AP needs to be anchored in a curriculum that focuses on what students need to be able to do with their knowledge.

We know that colleges and businesses are calling for secondary schools to take an approach to learning that build deeper understanding of content and most systematic instruction in 21st Century skills.

Drew points out that when Packer was asked the question about taking the current AP Biology course or waiting until the new one is in place, he replied, “I would absolutely wait.”  Of course, he is being quite naive.  He doesn’t have to try to get into colleges that place a high value on AP courses.  Colleges need to be honest with themselve and be bold and assertive.  If they want students to be strong critical thinkers, good problems-solvers, think creatively, communicate effectively, and possess all the skills required for the 21st Century, then they have to be willing to publicly speak about what they value and how a school can go about achieving the outcomes they desire.   Many school are trying to achieve these outcomes without the AP program in their curriculum (see the efforts of the Independent Curriculum Group).   There are still leaders in college admissions and independent schools who believe efforts such as these are mis-guided or being attempted by “second-tier” schools.  Really?

Today, most AP Biology, AP Chemistry, AP US History, AP Art History, AP European History and other AP educators teach to the test.  They almost have to because of how the system is organized.   Drew points out that with the AP Biology test:

…the median score has dropped from 2.63 to 3.18

…slightly fewer than half of the test-takers scored a 3 (which would be a C in college)

…whille about 19% earn 5’s, almost twice that many got 1’s (which would be a failing grade)

Drew also notes that the NRC (National Research Council) criticized the College Board stating that AP science classes were cramming too material and not allowing students a creative outlet in designing and implement science experiments.   Finally, top universities around the country are becoming more selective in what they will accept as a passing AP exam grade.  Some won’t even accept a grade as a way to bypass their introductory program (Drew references MIT and AP Biology).

So where is all this headed.  First, the College Board must change the AP program or it will become irrelevant as schools see the need to shift towards more 21st Century teaching and learning.  As a non-for-profit company with huge revenues they need to survive.  It appears from Drew’s article that they are taking this seriously.  Time will tell if they will adhere to the tag line found on their homepage, College Board Inspiring Minds.

Second, schools across the country need to ask the important question, What is Understanding, and will we create new curricula that are focused on teaching students to think deeply about less content, apply what they learn in real world situations, and develop the skills needed for the 21st Century.  If these are our goals, all of them can be accomplished without the AP program as ICG schools are currently doing.  No doubt, these excellent schools are getting their students into the “finest” colleges with an AP program. 

Third, colleges and universities need to take bold steps in marketing the kind of student they value at their schools.  It strikes me all that I read implies that they want students who can think independently, creatively, and analytically, and can apply and communicate what they have learned.  All of this can happen without an AP program.  In fact, it may happen more effectively in the absence of the pressure of an AP program.

Let’s hope we make progress on all three questions (there may be other questions as well) and hope the College Board sees that the path towards 21st Century teaching and learning is paved with less content, more skill development, and more application of what students learn.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2011 5:05 pm

    This is a fantastic post. I’m in agreement with you about the College Board (though aren’t they a non-profit, at least in name?), they will follow where the market forces them to go. I also see hopeful signs that both schools and colleges are making changes. The book, College Admissions for the 21st Century, by Robert Sternberg speaks to this, and then many experiments he’s engineered at Tufts to reform their admissions process.

    My question is how to we get all of the various parties interested in change working together?

    • January 10, 2011 7:13 pm

      Thanks for the feedback. I made the change in College Board’s status. You are right, they are non-for-profit. I get confused with their nearly $600 million dollars in revenues. Let’s just say they are a large organization.

      Anyway, thank you for the good feedback. I do think your question, how to get folks working collaboratively towards the same goal is a good one. Do we share the same goal–what is best for the education of our young people? If we shared the same goal, maybe we could make the progress we dream about.

      Bob

  2. Alexis Brett permalink
    January 10, 2011 6:32 pm

    I’m putting together a list of the top 100 administrator blogs and your site was recommended by another blogger on the list. I just tried sending you an e-mail but it got returned, so I was wondering if you could e-mail me (alexisbrett@gmail.com) so I could ask you a few questions about you and your blog to include more information in my article. Please include the title of your blog in the e-mail, thanks!

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