Down on AP

To keep students from burning out, some elite high schools are trying to eliminate Advanced Placement classes.

Scarsdale High School is a place where 70 percent of the 1,500 students take an A.P. course, and many take five and six to impress college admissions officers with their willingness to challenge themselves. But like a few private schools, Scarsdale is concluding that the A.P. pile-on is helping turn the teenage years into a rat race where learning becomes a calculated means to an end rather than a chance for in-depth investigation, imagination, even some fun to go along with all that amassing of knowledge.

Top schools that are well-known to admissions offiicers for academic rigor can get away with offering their own honors classes rather than AP, which is validated by a national test. For students at mediocre schools, passing an AP exam is a chance to prove they can meet academic challenges.

AP critics claim that students are stuffed with facts and have no time for real learning.

Even in Scarsdale, administrators say that math teachers like A.P. calculus and feel it offers in-depth flexibility. But too often in English, science and history, teachers and students have found that improvisation, whimsy, the leisure to wrestle with knotty problems get squeezed out in the rush to swallow information.

But AP history is based on teaching students to analyze historical documents; it’s all about the thinking. AP English is about analyzing literature. And I see no harm in high school students taking a survey class. They can go on to more specific classes in college.

If students are burning out, then limit them to two or three AP classes a year.

Via The Ed Wonks.

Update: It may be a rat race, but at least AP-laden high school students are working and learning, writes Naomi Schaefer Riley in Opinion Journal. When they get to college, they’ll have a chance to goof off.

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  1. Burning out? Have times changed?

    Back in the 80s, when I was in high school, I LOVED my AP classes – they were a challenge and they were well-taught. I knew I was learning stuff that would come in handy in the future. (I took AP Bio, AP French, AP English, AP Calc, and I took the American History AP even though we didn’t technically have an AP class. The Bio and History were in my junior year; French, English, and Calc were my senior year. I got 5’s on all of them except for Calc, which I got a 3 on).

    I was able to enter college essentially as a sophomore (and jump over some of the mass-lecture classes) thanks to my AP credits.

    I went to a ‘competitive’ prep school which was really almost like a good junior college. Five years later, my brother went to a good public high school and he, likewise, loved his Honors and AP classes – he said that they weren’t “zoos” like the general classes that all the students took were.

    I really didn’t notice a “rush to swallow information” in any of the courses – but then again, we were better prepared from our basic level courses at my prep school. If anything, the AP English and French were more fun – we had a freer choice of texts and we did “harder” things – again, more like a good college course. I found the classes tremendously rewarding.

  2. Perhaps the problem is the way the AP courses are taught. My daughter, 15, who is home-schooled (last Thanksgiving she dropped out of her freshman year of high school), took the AP English exam last spring with very little preparation and got a 5. (She practiced writing essays in the boring style suggested by a review book, but that was about it.) She’s planning to take the Physics C, Micro/Macro Econ, and Biology exams this spring, and she doesn’t find herself choking on information in those subjects, either, but then she is working on her own using some standard college textbooks, and driven by her own interest in the subjects.

    Perhaps AP classes taught in high schools teach exclusively to the tests, which I could imagine would suck the fun out of a subject. But if you are getting “graded by the parents” on whether or not their marginally-qualified-to-take-AP kids pass the exams, then you might drill-drill-drill instead of spending extra time on some interesting but untested topic like the sonnets of Shakespeare or using variational principles in optics.

  3. The AP classes have became an arm race for college admissions. The coverage is often a mile wide and an inch deep. It is naive to believe that the AP class (especially in lab science) in high school is as good as a freshman course in a good college. It is interesting to compare the AP credit policy for the top UC universities vs the bottom UC universities. The proper way to challenge students is to offer honor classes that goes into more depth rather than cover more material.

  4. Cardinal Fang says:

    “AP history is based on teaching students to analyze historical documents; it’s all about the thinking.” Hmmm. Every kid I know who has taken AP US History says it involves a staggering amount of memorization. I’ve looked at the old tests and the review books, and I agree that it involves a staggering amount of memorization.

    Some students memorize easily, and some students who are particularly interested in history will have already memorized a good deal of the information. But a student who has neither of those advantages will have to spend a lot of time memorizing in order to pass the test.

  5. I have two friends who are professors of history at Stanford and both loathe the AP product. It’s a bind — most AP US history courses are not taught they way it would be at college, and yet since many kids take AP US History, it has downgraded the course in the department.

    Some science profs I know hate the APs in their discipline, as it is usually taught it is light on labs compared to lecture, lecture, lecture.

    Another feature of APs in high school as compared to college: if a kid is taking 3 APs a year(in high school), say history, math & English, he or she is usually required to take an additional 3-4 regular classes — most high school prep loads would require a math class, a foreign language class, and an art class (gotta love those UC A-G requirements). And let’s not forget the extra curriculars of team sports, drama production, the school newspaper, community service, etc etc etc.

    That’s a heavier load than most college students.

    I’d agree with Cardinal Fang — the US History AP does have some document study, but it is mostly memorize memorize memorize and then cram some more.

    I don’t know about the AP English Literature. Comments, anyone?

    I’d rather have my child read, and write and write and write, than memorize.

  6. so what are your children supposed to write about if they didn’t memorize facts? their feelings about history they don’t know?

    yes, there’s a lot of memorization. Ever listen to Michael Barone? He has knowledge at his fingertips. With those facts that he memorized, he can provide evidence to back up an argument. this is what the ap history test use to be about: how to put together a correct argument by citing actual facts as evidence for your point.

    the problem with Ap classes is not in taking too many of them. it’s using them as a substitute for college courses. they shouldn’t be. they should given you enough facts to be a basis from which you could learn some more sophisticated ideas–because you could learn more details, facts, inferences, and outcomes if you already knew something.

    at MIT, your ap classes never got you out of the calculus, chem, or physics requirements, and for good reason. the more opportunity to olearn that material, the better. would that we had more opportunities to relearn the foundations.

  7. Cardinal Fang says:

    Greifer, AP classes are advertised precisely as the equivalent of college courses. They are supposed to be substitutes for college courses. Yet AP History is not much like a college course; there is, necessarily, more memorization and less in-depth study, because the test rewards memorization.

    Is it better for students to memorize a laundry list of facts (that many of them will forget two weeks after the test) or is it better for them to work on, for example, learning to write good research papers? Certainly it is important for students to learn facts, but should that be the only focus?

  8. I refreshed my knowledge of the AP US History exam through a visit to the College Board’s site: Nothing I saw there made me believe that the course must be taught as strict memorization; I believe such an approach would lead to lower scores, not higher scores, as the essays are the most important part of the exam. When I took the exam, years and years ago, it was a challenging, but not impossible, exam, and the extensive writing we had done for the class was invaluable.

    My classmates and I came to AP US History with a good preparation in general history from earlier grades. Our teacher did not have to “play catch up” with us. We went into great depth on topics, and had lively debate. Any course can be poorly taught, but that reflects on the teacher.

    The AP exams function as a national curriculum for advanced students. When I read of elite schools dropping the AP, I believe a number of factors are at play. One of the biggest is that it gives parents of prospective students a way to compare the local high school with the expensive private school. When the scores are similar, why should they pay the equivalent of college tuition for an education which is not markedly different in outcome? Direct comparisons can be odious.

    The number of APs a student can take has gotten out of hand, but that is a decision better made on a school level. Any school could limit their students to 4 per year, for example, with 5 possible upon appeal. Such appeal should take into consideration a student’s extracurricular activities, though. The bigger question is the lengths to which students will go to make themselves stand out in the college admissions game.

  9. Cardinal Fang says:

    It’s true that 2/3s of the AP History exam is the essay portion, but the multiple choice part counts too. To get a 3 (a passing grade; in other words, a C) on the exam the student needs to get about 60% of the multiple choice questions right, and clearly to get a 5 (the highest grade; in other words, an A) the student has to do considerably better than that.

    So the teacher has to teach, and the A-seeking student has to memorize, practically every fact that might be on the exam. And there are a lot of those facts.

  10. The multiple choice section is more complex than a regurgitation of memorized facts. From the article:

    “College Board officials say their tests do not force teachers to ram down information. Trevor Packer, executive director of the College Board’s A.P. program, said students need only answer only a quarter of questions right in the multiple-choice section to earn a 5 score, leaving lots of room for inventiveness elsewhere. Much of the test has questions based on documents and demands analysis rather than memorization.

    “If you would survey all 12,000 A.P. U.S. History teachers, you would find maybe 100 of them who understand the scoring of exams,” he said, acknowledging that the College Board needs to do a better job explaining.”

    So, if a student only needs to get 25% of the multiple choice questions right to get a 5, he doesn’t need to know every possible U.S. history fact. To get a 5, though, he would need to write tremendous essays, which would call for good writing skills, and a good knowledge of U.S. history. A kid who can write good essays on U.S. history in a testing situation probably knows a great deal about the topic, and is unlikely to get only a quarter of the multiple choice questions correct. If you know something about US history, you can deduce the probable answers to many sample questions posted on the College Board’s site. Good essays come hand in hand with a sufficient knowledge of historical facts, but that doesn’t mean that a students need to cram in trivia.

    Any course can be poorly taught, with too much emphasis on trivia, and not enough emphasis on overarching themes. The APs are misused by students to impress colleges. I find it irresponsible of high schools to permit kids to take too many APs. Periodicals ranking high schools by the number of APs their students take, without taking into account the scores received, feed the AP frenzy.