AP isn’t for all, teachers say

Many more students are taking Advanced Placement courses and exams.  In a Fordham survey, AP teachers expressed mixed feelings about AP’s growth. Teachers say AP is a quality program, but students are signing up to burnish their college applications, rarely because they want academic challenge.  High schools are pushing AP classes “to improve their school’s ranking and reputation in the community,” most teachers say.

As a result, some students enroll in AP courses they’re not prepared to handle, a majority of teachers say.

More than half, 56 percent, said they believed that “too many students overestimate their abilities and are in over their heads.” Even more teachers, 60 percent, said that “parents push their children into A.P. classes when they really don’t belong there.”

Fifty-two percent said such courses should be open only to students who could demonstrate that they could handle the work.

Flypaper has more on the trade-offs in expanding AP to a wider group of students.

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  1. Marshall says:

    Why is this a problem?

    In an ideal world, if kids take a class that they can’t handle, well, they’ve learned something.

    Specifically that this class (which is designed to mimic a college class) is too hard for them, or that they “aren’t prepared for” – and that they can fail.

    Is this a bad thing? I think not.

  2. Homeschooling Granny says:

    My fear is that the AP classes will be watered down so that everyone can feel good about themselves. That would be a tragedy for young people who are ready for college level work.

  3. Homeschooling Granny, it isn’t that simple. The New York Times, in its report on Fordham’s report, got this quote from the College Board:

    “Trevor Packer, a vice president of the College Board, which administers the Advanced Placement program, said he welcomed the report as a means of further illuminating the push-pull between “equity and excellence.”

    “We certainly see situations in which A.P. is provided in classrooms where students haven’t received adequate preparation, and the test scores catch that: all of the students getting 1s,” Mr. Packer said, a reference to the lowest score on the exams, which are graded 1 to 5. “In other situations, though, we see schools providing double the number of seats in A.P. classrooms they did several years ago, and the mean exam scores have increased.'”

  4. I admit that my feelings on this have shifted, once I learned that our local high school is bucking the national trend, and limiting the number of students who may take AP courses. If you look at the gatekeeping systems set up, there are children who will not be permitted to take AP courses their junior year, due to their performance in 5th grade! If you don’t get into Honors Math, you won’t be allowed into the prerequisite courses, and so forth.

    I applaud the demise of the gatekeeping system–I wish that it would die in our upper-middle class suburb. If students do poorly in the classes, let them receive poor grades. Let’s do away with this thought that all students should receive As. Let’s allow them to sign up for challenging courses.

    As to motivation, so what? Wanting one’s high school transcript to be competitive in a national pool is realistic. Wanting to save money on college tuition is also realistic. More students taking advanced courses will make it much harder to cut those courses. That is a good thing.

    In the survey, only 39% of the teachers responding said that student quality had decreased from the demise of gatekeeping. 61% stated that student quality had stayed the same or increased!

  5. I do not consider AP to be “college level” work. It is, however, a national curriculum for college-bound students.

  6. “I do not consider AP to be “college level” work. It is, however, a national curriculum for college-bound students.”

    I am curious as to why you hold this view. My daughter is taking several AP courses and they appear to me to be as challenging as the courses that I took at a well-respected public university.

  7. I think it is great that more students are being challenged and learning more in these advanced classes. Often times schools do not allow students that want this increased challenge to try it (for a variety of reasons).

    As mentioned by others, the trick will be to continue to hold the students to a high standard while allowing more students to take these classes. Remember, the goal is for students to learn. A student may in fact learn much more doing poorly in a challenging class then doing very well in a class that is not challenging.

    Teachers, schools and the College Board will need to be very diligent to make sure that the expectations are not lowered, a task that can be quite difficult.

    Total Registration, LLC
    http://www.TotalRegistration.net – Helping high schools simplify the AP exam registration process by registering students for the exams online.

  8. Lightly Seasoned says:

    AP is college level work. The pace is different, but generally my former students tell me my course was actually more difficult than what they take in college.

    My class is open enrollment. It is certainly not for every student, but any student may choose to come in. A key factor for me being able to keep this policy is that there are other high quality courses available that serve students who aren’t quite AP material very well in preparing them for college. The problem is that in some schools there’s no other option that is appropriately challenging for the college bound student who isn’t AP ready for whatever reason.

    Another reason I can afford open enrollment is because there isn’t a huge cloud hanging over my head about scores. While my scores are generally very respectable, and everyone likes them that way, I don’t feel much pressure (other than the self-inflicted kind). If I take a not-so-well-prepared kid, and he does only end up getting that 2, nobody is going to be unhappy with “my scores.”

    If you water down AP, it shows up immediately on the exams. If your students are at the level, however, you have to water down to meet their needs. There is no point teaching at a level too high for the kids to make progress with — I’m not talking about grades, but ability to learn the material.

    “Grapevine” is that many schools in California, New Mexico, and other states hit hard by the economic crash will be cutting AP for “small” enrollment (under 35), so they won’t be available to anyone.

  9. It is one thing to allow marginal students to attempt AP courses, on the understanding that: the class will NOT be watered down or the pace slowed, they may FAIL the class or they may be asked to move to another class. However, along with the pressure to admit anyone into AP classes is the pressure to have them “succeed”, meaning good grades. The situation is complicated by the fact that certain sensitive student subgroups are likely to be the least prepared to do true AP level work and the most likely to be unsuccessful without watering down the class.

    I’d rather see strong preparation for eventual AP work start in elementary and middle school, with more kids being taught the foundational skills and knowledge for high school success. The comment above about kids being denied AP access based on 5th grade work may be a bit much, but a kid who doesn’t understand basic arithmetic, fractions and decimals in 8th grade (even if the class is called algebra) isn’t likely to be ready for real AP calculus as a senior. Nor is the 8th grader who reads at a 4th grade level and can’t write correct English ready for AP English. It’s not fair to the prepared kids. Let’s try to get more kids ready, but let’s not pretend that everyone can or should take AP classes.

  10. Back in the day, we were told that AP classes would cover a college-level freshman semester course, over a school year. As the tests fall in May, it’s a month short of a year. When one is in college, all the courses are “college level,” and they’re taught at, in effect, twice the pace.

    AP classes prepare students to take the AP exam. Most AP classes don’t have the leisure to assign term papers of significant length, because the exam is comprised of multiple choice and short essays.

    My freshman level classes at my private university were more challenging than AP classes. Courses in one’s major, particularly science courses, were even more challenging. Elite universities no longer accept AP exams for college credit for good reason.

  11. ” It’s not fair to the prepared kids. Let’s try to get more kids ready, but let’s not pretend that everyone can or should take AP classes.”

    If you can double the number of students in AP classes, and scores do not go down, or even improve, why would you not double the number of students?

    I am not arguing that all student should be forced into AP. I am arguing that the gatekeeping mechanisms are not reliable. Placement into the courses which are prerequisites for APs is based in part on “attitude.” I can think of many bright students who don’t have a good attitude if they’re bored out of their skulls.

    In sixth grade math, the grades in my child’s class were determined by numerous criteria. Content knowledge was only 20% of the total. Some students left the school for much more demanding private schools, because by the time the academic content would have matched their abilities, they’d be tracked out of the AP track due to “poor attitude.” In our state, most tracking is legally forbidden, so classes contain the full range of student ability, from gifted to special needs.

    Yes, students taking AP classes should be prepared for them. Make placement contingent upon a qualifying exam. Allow students who could score 3s on the AP exams to take the classes.

  12. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Preparing kids before they get to AP is the ideal. It is called vertical teaming, usually starts in 7th grade, and the College Board supports it with materials. We don’t do this, but my kids are well prepared from regular classes.

    Parent2: The AP test happens four days before my seniors are released. It is pretty much the end of the school year. As for not assigning longer papers, my kids would love if that were the case. Most of us aren’t doing all-prep all the time. That would be boring and pointless. Most “elite” universities still take AP exam credit in some fashion. At least this is my experience with my students. Perhaps you know better than me. Most of my kids, while they have been accepted at their “dream schools,” still end up at the state university for financial reasons, where they often end up starting college as sophomores because of AP credit.



    University of Chicago

    Washington University at St. Louis

    In general, I like the AP program — I have received some high quality PD through it and like the courses. It is not a panacea, however. If you can double the number of kids and still have good scores, then you are probably on the right track in adding. If you are increasing kids and your scores are going down, then something needs to be changed in the program, whether it is screening (which I’m not in favor of), vertical teaming, teacher training, class sizes, or even score expectations.

  13. Cardinal Fang says:

    Should students in AP classes be required to take the AP test?

  14. Cardinal Fang says:

    The Fordham report is kind of interesting, but also in some ways ridiculous. It asks for opinions on issues of fact.

    For example, it asks teachers whether the increase in AP courses and AP test-takers is due to increased participation by lower income and minority students. But why would we care what teachers’ opinions are on this matter? We want to know, not what teachers think is happening, but what is in fact happening, and for that, we should look to data from the College Board on test takers.

    Similarly, the survey tries to find out from teachers whether low income students fare worse on the AP tests than high income students. Why ask the teachers, when the data itself is available?

  15. CF: I think they should take the test, but it cannot be required — especially since it costs $86/test (and paying for them to take it introduces issues like blank books, etc.).

    And, in fact, you’re absolutely correct: The CB publishes all these data every year. I’m not sure why they’re asking our opinions, either. How would I know what their parents earn?

  16. I don’t know about “elite” schools or current practice, but back in the day, Michigan took AP for all kinds of low-level undergrad coursework.  I got physics, calculus and biology credit myself.

    My experience with difficulty (a long time ago) was that the AP courses were on par with or a bit tougher than the typical offering in a discussion setting, but not always; the mass lecture for DiffEQ was paced so fast and with so little explanation that it went by me, despite having had some prep in the AP class.

  17. Parent2 says:

    Williams doesn’t accept AP for acceleration. They do use AP scores for placement, depending upon the department. MIT and Yale do accept some AP results for credits, but it is determined by department, and many departments don’t award credit for results.

    I suppose Fordham is looking for teachers’ impressions of the effect of dropping gatekeeping. Many of their stats are self-reported, and may not reflect the experience of schools or individual classes.

  18. thaprof says:

    That is the problem, Cardinal. Quite a few schools cynically offer “AP” classes to impress parents, but don’t encourage students to take the exam, because they know perfectly well what the results will be. Kids who pull a 4 or 5 are usually prepared to take the next level of classes in college, but I have a number of advisees who had nothing but “AP” classes as seniors, but scored 1 and 2 across the board. Others did not take the test, and in my experience that invariably translates to “would have received a 1 or 2.” The problem with this sort of “AP” student is that they have inflated ideas about their own competence and are demoralized when they discover how little they learned.

  19. Cardinal Fang says:

    Thaprof, do you have problems with students who score a 3, 4 or 5, but are not prepared for the next level? I’ve heard that a number of schools find that even students who get a 4 or 5 in one of the AP Calculus classes still struggle in the next level.

    I think all students taking an AP class should be required to take the AP test, or fail the course. Schools, in that case, would be required to either pay for the test, or collect the money before school starts, so no student who signed up for an AP class would be allowed later to plead poverty. The College Board makes fee waivers available, so low-income students wouldn’t be penalized by not being able to afford the test.

  20. Parent2 says:

    I noticed that several colleges I Googled had restrictions in place on AP credits. In several instances, if the student took a lower-ranking course than he had placed into on the strength of his AP scores, he lost the AP credit. Many schools offered credit only for a score of 5.

    I think Newsweek’s challenge index should take the students’ scores into account. If everyone takes the course, but the class average is a 1.5, there’s room to doubt that the students were well-served by taking the AP course. It would also give administrators reason to pay more attention to students’ preparation for the AP course.

  21. Cardinal Fang says:

    I agree with Parent2, and suggest further that school administrators (and Newsweek) should be suspicious of schools that appear to grant passing grades in AP courses to students who score 1s and 2s. The AP curriculum is clearly laid out for teachers and students and the AP tests do a good job of testing that curriculum. If a student can’t master the curriculum, he should not be getting that B.