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?


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

For AP calculus, it is mostly a good thing, since AP calculus is really the equivalent of most university calculus classes.

For AP Physics, less so, as the old Physics B and new Physics 1 and 2 are really not college-level physics (algebra-based physics is high-school level). The same with the CS Principles course that is about to be released—not really college-level. AP statistics is also high-school level.

The proliferation of AP courses that are only high-school level is cheapening the brand—much more than the increase in AP Calculus is.

nicoleandmaggie said...

AB calculus is not rocket science. Anybody with a reasonable intelligence and background should be able to take it in high school (just like 8th grade algebra should be the norm, not the exception). So many kids don't take any calculus in college which means if they don't get it in high school they will never get it, and the ones who really need it for their major will take their university's version (or will have taken BC calc and done well on the AP exam so they can waive).

There's no reason that advanced students can't take algebra earlier in middle school, then finish out the calc sequence long before their senior year. (Then get college credit for more advanced math classes either independently if the district is small or in conjunction with the local community college or university if the district is larger.)

lgm said...

We need to go to placing by instructional need, not age cohort, and stop socially promoting. Offer a diluted course to those who need it, but expect it to take twice as long, but quit ignoring the top 25%.

My district has eliminated the harder APs, so Calc is DE here, from the CC, at student expense. If enough sign up, its at the high school with a discounted rate, if not its full pay and provide your own transport to the CC.

Mya Greene said...

The tests need to be updated, as they hardly resemble what is going on in a college classroom. That is why many schools, especially prestigious STEM schools, such as CalTech do not offer credit for them. Even Calculus BC is simply too easy. The test requires very little problem-solving skills, mostly asking students to spit out memorized formulas in a cookie-cutter fashion, and leaves out some of the most important parts of the subject, such as delta-epsilon proofs. And yes, these classes need to be offered pre-college to avoid stifling the best students. Any other attempt at a gifted program would probably just look like a bunch of "enrichment" and busy work.