Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Advanced Placement (AP) vs. Actual College

I was just in Louisville the past few days, meeting with various school and community leaders to write a piece on the recent desegregation case that's come before the Supreme Court. It's a long, complicated story with a long, complicated history, but race is, of course, not the only issue a large and varied school population faces. So I thought I'd share one issue here. The Jefferson County Public Schools include a number of magnet programs. More or less, the gifted and talented program for high school students is located at DuPont Manual High School, which is just across the street from the University of Louisville.

It's a great set-up; if students run out of, say, math classes, they can cross enroll at the university. Principal Beverly Keepers told me that in years past, as many as 100-plus students would cross-enroll. That number, however, has fallen in recent years. She identified two reasons. First, cross-enrollment is no longer "free" (i.e. underwritten by people's education taxes). State universities across the country have had to raise tuition in recent years and the University of Louisville wasn't thrilled to be filling its introductory classes with non-tuition paying students (though the professors, Keepers said, loved working with such eager pupils). Second, the Advanced Placement program at "Manual" (as residents and students call it) has greatly expanded. Students can take everything from AP Statistics to AP Studio Art. Some 80% of students receive scores of 3 or higher on their AP exams (out of 5); 23% of Manual AP scores are 5s.

AP classes are held at the high school. They're also portable in a way that specific classes at a specific university sometimes aren't. While some universities would gladly recognize freshman biology at the University of Louisville as being functionally equivalent to their own introductory biology classes, others don't. Keepers noted that her own daughter was not able to claim credit for one such science class when she went to college; the school wound up giving her "elective" credit for such a course. Many Manual students intend to go to college outside Kentucky. So they opt for AP courses that they can take with their friends, with portable scores, rather than head over to the University of Louisville.

I have a feeling this is happening at other rigorous high schools across the country, and I have mixed feelings about this. The quality of university classes is uneven, but so are AP classes. A poorly taught AP class with a lot of smart kids can easily produce a lot of "3" scores, but the kids will really flounder if they try to take upper level classes at a university next. Some schools also don't do the AP labs "full out." They tell the kids what should happen and why, but lack the equipment to do the necessary experiments. And the AP labs do involve quite a bit of hand-holding. I took AP Chemistry at the Indiana Academy, which was a very rigorous course. I scored a 5 on the exam, which implies that I knew what I was doing. But I was quite confused about lab procedures and such when I took Organic Chemistry at Princeton. Students who enroll in university courses will get the full university deal, sink or swim.

In addition, AP was originally supposed to be an option for kids who were ready for college level work, but who didn't have ready access to a college. Manual's block scheduling allows for college-length classes, and they have a college nearby. But AP still wins out. I am guessing there's a bit of the college application mania going on here. AP scores are readily comparable and, like perfect SAT scores, make you stand out on a scale that everyone else applying to selective colleges will also be judged on. Local university classes may not indicate the same thing.

So now Manual students tend to enroll at the University of Louisville only if they've blown through AP Calculus BC before their senior years. Then they enroll in the university's multivariable calculus class.

Across the country, AP classes are becoming a national curriculum for the most ambitious college-bound students. A rigorous national curriculum may be a worthy goal to pursue in its own right, but I'm not sure that, on the whole, students who are prepared for college work aren't better off just enrolling in college when they're ready.


Anonymous said...

Some colleges won't accept college credits earned before hs graduation but will give something in exchange for AP. But on the whole, enrolling in college is probably better for the reasons you outlined -- and some colleges will accept the credits but not the AP. One good thing about AP is that it is given on the hs campus. Getting to a college campus at a time a course is being offered is not always so simple.

Royce Wells said...

A student perspective:

I think that it is a shame that colleges do not give more weight to college courses than to AP courses. I believe that any college course is going to be more difficult and more in-depth than any AP level course. When a college says that a student can only receive elective credits for a college level course, they are denying the work and effort that the student put in by completing the course.

I see the same thing happening in the middle school and high school level as well. When I took a distance course for 8H Algebra, the only grade that I would have been able to receive was a Pass/Fail, this is the equivalent to a C on a transcript; however, the distance course had the same material and met the state standards for 8H math.

@ anonymous:

I agree with the statement that it is better to enroll in college. However, I think that the special opportunity that was afforded the students at this hs was exceptional. By being on a block schedule they have the opportunity to take a college course without disrupting their school day.

For more on AP and IB courses read my post about them

Anonymous said...

I went to a rather rigorous high school and have ample experience of both. My school was surrounded on all sides by 5 colleges and universities where we could take dual enrollment classes and we were offered roughly 28 AP classes. I took 15 AP classes (valedictorians took 17), 4 dual enrollment classes, and 3 classes taught be college professors who taught one class just like their college classes to us on campus for honors credit. I can't speak for all AP programs but my AP classes were far more difficult than any of the actual college classes I took.These classes were smaller, more engaging, and everyone wanted to be there and to discuss issues in depth, which is more than I can say for my college classes. We were usually far more worried about final exams than ap exams since they were tougher and we had a 98% passage rate or higher on most AP exams.In many cases we did well on exams without taking the class(because it wasn't offered). Explaining the basic material was not what we were there for. All AP science classes were taught using the university labs,which was great even if it meant we had to get there at 8, long before the school day started.I went to an Ivy League university and expected more of the same passion and intellectual stimulation, but that was not the case.The teachers in high school were there to teach us, rather than trying to get out of class as quickly as possible to do their research.Don't get me wrong, I had a few fantastic professors,but overall I learned a lot more in high school. An AP program has the potential to be superior to taking college courses, if it aspires to more than memorizing facts. AP classes get more instruction time, smaller classes, and sometimes more enthusiastic students.

Anonymous said...

Our child found her AP courses to be heavy on the homework and projects and for the most part the Teachers at her HS were not enthused about the restrictions placed on AP. Many of her teachers had also taught at the Community College and found AP to be too restrictive.

Her experiences at the CC have been much better. She has found the mixture of students to provide far more information. She has found her Professors to be far more passionate about the subject manner. She also recognized a huge difference in culture; In High School AP course she found most of the students were competitive and purely focused on getting the highest score- at the College she found the students to be passionate about learning-

For our child the culture of learning at the Community College met her need for educational passion where as AP coursework did not.