Thursday, December 10, 2015
More kids take calculus in high school. Is this a good thing?
I took AP Calculus (AB) my sophomore year in high school, and then a semester of the BC version my junior year. While this was certainly considered "advanced," it's not particularly rare to take at least the AB version in high school anymore. According to this article in The Conversation, the proportion of students sitting for an AP Calculus exam has risen from about 5 percent in the 1980s to 15 percent now. Author Kevin Knudson posits that it's unlikely that the talent bench has gotten three times deeper in the intervening years. Instead, he claims that in the rush to stand out for college admissions, more students are pushing to take calculus. However, when they take college calculus classes, they find that they would have been better served by having a deeper understanding of algebra, geometry, and pre-calculus concepts. I have mixed feelings on this. It is possible that having more students take AP Calculus classes could dilute the class. Experienced teachers have a good sense of what students are grasping and not grasping, and they naturally tend toward the mean. They move on when the majority of the class "gets it." This means the class would move slower if it contained a broad group of students vs. the most mathematically advanced students. Knudson also points out that the rise of AP classes may be a result of schools failing to offer gifted education to high school students. Advanced classes seem like something, and since they're broadly perceived as a metric of a high school's quality, administrators are happy to offer them. On the other hand, AP classes are that -- something -- and they're benchmarked for quality and understanding in a way that many other courses are not. If all a teacher's students score 4s and 5s on the AP exam, she is at least covering the required topics. If they score 1s and 2s, something isn't working. That's apparent, even if the students all get A's. Likewise, one of the things that has always made gifted education easy to cut is that it's seemed aimed at just a few kids. AP classes that enroll 10-15 percent of students are harder to cut. That's a much bigger constituency. What do you think? Is the expansion of AP classes a good thing, or is the situation more complicated?