Many, many years ago, I took several AP (Advanced Placement) classes and AP exams in high school. I had quite a range of experiences with them, too. I got 5s (the top score) on the Calculus BC, Chemistry, and Biology tests. I believe I scored a 2 on the AP Physics exam, which is a pretty poor showing. The tests felt very different, too. I was completely lost in the physics one, whereas I knew, in the middle of the biology and chemistry ones, that I was pretty much going to ace them. There was nothing I didn't know cold. I was clearly the same person, with the same work ethic (positive or negative) for all these classes, and given my calculus scores, presumably had enough math knowledge to deal with physics, so why the incredible difference in outcomes?
I was thinking of this as I read a recent article in USA Today called "Advanced Placement: Good for top students, oversold for others?" Harvard Education Press has recently released a book showcasing research into the College Board's AP program. The results, according to the article, are pretty mixed, but I believe this is a question of what you think the AP should do.
As USA Today quotes Philip Sadler, a Harvard prof and one of the co-editors of the book, here is the value proposition of AP for students: "Advanced Placement courses offer you an opportunity to study a subject in a very rigorous and demanding fashion. You will probably be in a class that has fewer students, those students will likely have stronger backgrounds, and there will be fewer student discipline issues than you have experienced in other courses. Your teacher will have a strong subject matter background and excellent teaching skills."
In my calculus, biology and chemistry classes, this was definitely the case, and I am far from the only one of my classmates who did well on the exams. But the fact that a course is AP can't necessarily make up for deficits or unevenness in teaching and preparation.
This is an issue because in recent years, many school districts have decided to roll out AP courses very broadly. Many cited a study finding that kids who attempted hard classes in high school were more likely to go to college. So why not offer AP, have kids challenge themselves, and watch the college enrollment rates go up?
That's a reasonable idea, but the reality is that many kids aren't prepared for the rigor of AP classes, and their teachers are equally unprepared to teach them well. They can lack subject matter expertise or teaching ability. So if you want to go this route, you're going to have to be prepared to watch a lot of students fail at least in the near term. And as the USA Today article indicates, there are schools where basically no one gets above a 2. There are also schools where the majority of kids score 3-5. The AP program is standardized, but it can't be completely standardized. It is hard to get around the reality that some kids don't come into AP programs ready to deal with them and that teachers matter. Period.
But I don't think this is a problem with the program. I think that it is what it is -- a great way for top high school students to try rigorous classes and stretch their brains. I still have a soft spot in my heart for chemistry and biology, and when I was writing a column for Scientific American for a while, I found that my basic knowledge from the AP on these topics was enough to converse with leading scientists. Knowing that my knowledge would be tested at the end of the class and that the results would mean something compared with all other high school students was very important to me. Coming from Indiana, I had no idea whether what I was learning would match up against the brightest kids from around the country. The AP exams let me see that. There was no wiggle room. Your score is your score, and a sympathetic teacher can't give you a top score just because you were the sharpest kid in her class. It is benchmarked for everyone, and at a level of very high standards. I wish more of American education was like that.