Wednesday, May 01, 2013

AP classes: helpful or not?

The Washington Post picks up on a new report challenging various assumptions about Advanced Placement courses -- college-level courses taught in high schools. The College Board holds national AP exams that young people can take to show they've mastered this material (and potentially place into more advanced courses in college).

The report claims that while students who take AP classes are more likely to go to and do well in college, this may be a correlation vs. causation issue. Obviously, the kinds of kids who are interested in earning college credit, and taking challenging classes, likely have their sights set on higher education anyway. That's worth keeping in mind, since expanding AP offerings is often suggested as a way to increase the proportion of college-ready students graduating from high school. The report also frets that since AP classes are smaller, and tend to be taught by top teachers, they siphon resources away from the rest of the school.

I certainly don't think AP classes are perfect. I took a great number of them in high school. My take away, as with so much of education, is that the teacher matters. I am the same person, with the same study habits, and while I got 5s (the top score) in BC calculus, chemistry, and biology, I got a 2 in physics. I am not holding myself blameless, of course. A more motivated student might have studied hard enough to do well regardless of how the class was taught. But I do feel the others did a better job of presenting the material and checking for understanding.

My problem with this analysis, though, questioning the efficacy of AP classes, is that this is one of the few nationally benchmarked ways we have of aiming for high standards and challenging classes in high school. If a certain teacher produces mostly 2s on an AP exam, and another produces lots of 4s and 5s, you have a pretty good indication of which is covering the subject better (you can argue that the AP exams don't really show knowledge, but given how many colleges do accept the scores, I think there's something to what they show). There is little accountability in much of education, and the AP exam at least creates that. Passing such a class -- perhaps early in high school -- might also give a gifted young person a credential for taking college classes. Early college is another good way that kids can be challenged.

As for siphoning off resources, well, this is the same argument that gets hashed out about gifted education in general. Some educators really do not think that high achieving kids should be a priority. As it is, in the NCLB era, gifted kids have become much less a priority than those who, with a push, might achieve grade level standards. AP classes are at least something of a bone tossed to high achievers in high school. It would be a shame to take them away too.

In other news: President Obama recently hosted the third annual White House science fair. You can read about some of the projects here.

And in personal news, my 5-year-old just won first prize in a local poetry contest for younger students. I am so proud! He's telling me he wants to be an author and an illustrator.


Anonymous said...

My AP classes in the 1980s were taught by absolutely horrid teachers. They managed to turn me off history, calculus, and chemistry. I enrolled my son directly in the local community college; the classes were small, the teachers were dedicated, and he got college credit for completing the class, without a high-stress, high-stakes test at the end of them.

Sam said...

The AP program began in the early 1950s as one of several initiatives pushed by Robert Maynard Hutchins and the Fund for the Advancement of Education to address the high school - college transition. Another one of those programs was early entrance to college. AP has fared much better over the years, not because it was actually more successful but because it didn't threaten established power centers (high school principals in particular perceived early entrance as a threat and fought vociferously against it). But IMO those who can are still much better served by accelerating directly to college -- this shouldn't be thought of as just the "profoundly gifted," but for any student in the top 20-25% who is emotionally ready for the jump.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Thanks for the link to the report—I've not read it yet. I have recently had some thoughts about the value of AP exams, particularly for home schoolers:

Dana said...

Thank you for your helpful comment, Sam.

Nother Barb said...

I don't see how teachers who teach APs are "siphoned off" from other classes. Most moderately sized high schools would have only one section for an AP class; that teacher doesn't teach ONLY that class, does he? And I expect that he doesn't teach ONLY AP classes. The argument that it affects class size is hazy; it probably benefits honors or college-prep class students, if the highest achievers go into AP, leaving honors classes with a few less students. And it won't affect the other levels, such as standard, basic/remedial, etc., because the AP kids aren't coming out of those classes. AP classes smaller than others? That will depend on the school. In a community of high achievers, the AP classes can get pretty full.

Congratulations on your son's poetry! You've mentioned that likes writing and illustrating his books; did he illustrate his poem,, as well?