Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Do AP exams prepare kids for college? Should colleges "count" them?

The concept of Advanced Placement classes and tests is a good one. Some high school students are ready for college-level work. However, there's little that's standardized across high schools. Advanced level classes with standardized syllabi and exams can give high school students a way to show colleges what they know, and hopefully place out of entry-level classes as well.

However, this ideal isn't always achieved in practice. An article in the Deseret News looks at some colleges shying away from accepting high scores on AP exams as evidence that a student has done the equivalent of college level work. Some let students get elective credit, but not credit for the classes themselves (which might help you graduate early if you major in that particular subject).

There are various ways to look at this. Cynical sorts might note that colleges often get paid by the credit hour, so not giving credit for courses is one way to ensure students don't get too much of a break on tuition.

But there are other factors at play too. For starters, different universities have different expectations, even in entry-level courses. I earned a 5 on the AP Chemistry exam my senior year of high school, so Princeton allowed me to place into organic chemistry. Let's just say it was not my most shining academic moment of college. There are various reasons for that (I took it as a "freshman seminar" which meant instead of 3 1-hour lectures, I got 1 3-hour lecture -- which I just couldn't focus for) but it's also quite possible that Princeton's general chemistry class was more advanced than the AP version. Likewise, my 5 on the BC Calculus exam allowed me to place into a math class that was over my head. I passed it and orgo, but I'm pretty sure I was not as well prepared as I could be.

Second, it's really hard to standardize. The exam helps on this quite a bit. A school can call a class "AP Physics" but if most students score 1s or 2s on the exam, then it's pretty clear it's not covering what it's supposed to cover, and colleges will not view those students as prepared. There is some accountability, though I'm not sure how many schools do anything about it. Nonetheless, it's possible that a student in a generally poor quality class could score a 3 or possibly even a 4 on a fluke (or if he/she crammed before with some independent study). Over time, if colleges see enough of this, it starts to water down the AP concept.

The Deseret News story covers some of this. As more and more students have AP classes on their transcripts, it becomes less of a marker for selective colleges. Though I do think that the advice one person gives in the article -- that getting a low grade can be a black mark, and may not be worth it -- must be taken with a grain of salt. If you're applying to selective colleges, you need to be taking the most rigorous classes your high school offers -- and getting good grades in them. This is not a question of choosing one or the other.

Have your children gotten credit for AP exams?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Clusters vs. Pull-out

The best approaches to gifted education are self-contained classes and acceleration. But given that neither approach seems to win popularity contests with education authorities, what other approaches might work?

In the Humboldt Unified School District (in Arizona) elementary schools had been using a pull-out approach. This usually means that kids identified as gifted are pulled out of their classrooms once or twice a week for a short period of time for accelerated or enriched material. According to a recent article in the Prescott Valley Tribune, Lake Valley Elementary School will be moving to a cluster model. The students identified as gifted in a particular grade will be placed together -- or "clustered" -- in a classroom (with other kids).

Is this a better approach? It's not perfect. You could "cluster" 2-3 grades worth of gifted kids in their own self-contained classroom and do better by these children. Even in a class with a cluster, such kids won't be the norm, and classes are almost always taught to the middle. So the kids will be bored.

But clustering has its benefits. For starters, kids like to learn in an environment with their intellectual peers. Having at least a few other kids in your classroom with similar readiness levels can make more engaging interactions possible.

Second, a cluster allows for more ability grouping as these kids can be easily grouped together for math or reading instruction, or for projects. If kids have to switch classrooms, that's one more barrier to ability grouping happening.

Many teachers find it tough to find time to differentiate for advanced students. Having 6-8 such children in your classroom might make you more likely to find time, vs. viewing it as something that's nice to do, but not a top priority.

In addition, since only one teacher will have the cluster at a grade level, schools can concentrate training on that one teacher. Since funds are always low for such things, it's better not to need to spread it around.

Does your school district use clusters? Does it work, or at least does it work better than other approaches?