Rethinking AP

Advanced Placement is being redesigned to focus less on factual knowledge and more on teaching students how to apply knowledge and analyze ideas, reports the New York Times. For the first time, College Board is developing curriculum frameworks, not just writing the exams.

AP science and history courses have been “criticized for overwhelming students with facts to memorize and then rushing through important topics,” reports the Times.

A.P. teachers have long complained that lingering for an extra 10 or 15 minutes on a topic can be a zero-sum game, squeezing out something else that needs to be covered for the exam. PowerPoint lectures are the rule. The homework wears down many students. And studies show that most schools do the same canned laboratory exercises, providing little sense of the thrill of scientific discovery.

Next month, the College Board will release AP biology and U.S. history curriculum frameworks that will try to focus students on concepts and analysis.  “In biology, a host of more creative, hands-on experiments are intended to help students think more like scientists.”

The “new AP” started with German and French language courses this year;  revised physics, chemistry, European history, world history and art history frameworks will be ready for exams in 2014 or 2015. English and math courses, which have drawn fewer complaints, will not be revised until later.

“We really believe that the New A.P. needs to be anchored in a curriculum that focuses on what students need to be able to do with their knowledge,” says Trevor Packer, College Board’s vice president for AP.

For biology, the change means paring down the entire field to four big ideas. The first is a simple statement that evolution “drives the diversity and unity of life.” The others emphasize the systematic nature of all living things: that they use energy and molecular building blocks to grow; respond to information essential to life processes; and interact in complex ways. Under each of these thoughts, a 61-page course framework lays out the most crucial knowledge students need to absorb.

And to the delight of teachers who have gotten an early peek at the plans, the board also makes clear what will not be on the exam. Part or all of at least 20 of the 56 chapters in the A.P. biology book that Mrs. Carlson’s class uses will no longer need to be covered. (One PowerPoint slide explaining the changes notes sardonically that teachers can retire their swift marches through the “Organ of the Day.”)

My daughter’s AP U.S. history teacher knew to the minute how much pre-exam time she had to cover each item in the curriculum, students believed.  It was a forced march, but everyone who kept up was well prepared to pass the exam.  The next year, the teacher missed six weeks due to a  health problem. To her horror, the sub fell behind the pace. My daughter volunteered as a teacher’s aide to help Mrs. W double-march her students to the exam.

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  1. “Think like a scientist” again? They need the vast swathes of background knowledge in order to provide the framework to think like a scientist! (see Dan Willingham’s writing on this…)

    It looks like AP is getting ‘dumbed down.’ The POINT of AP was that it required a lot of focus, preparation, and hard work. That’s what made it worthy of college credit.

  2. Like the removal of the analogies from the SAT and the “recentering” of the SAT, it’s dumbing down the course. Of course, this couldn’t be related to the “AP for all” push, Challenge Index score, lack of “diversity” in these AP classes and poor AP test performance of URMs, could it?

  3. Of course, AP courses are being dumbed down. That’s the point of AP courses in public schools. These courses have been dumbed down for years in order to accommodate those who do not belong there and also to accommodate constructivists who denigrate background knowledge and expertise.

  4. I teach intro bio for nursing students at a cc – this is not the much more detailed class that pre-med and research-oriented students took at my undergrad, but is more technical than the ‘non-majors’ elective class. I’m prepping for my first day of class – we cover all of those big ideas on the first day of class. They learn a lot more detail over the course of the semster, of course.

    When I was in college (15 years ago), I had a question the first week about something in my biology class. I asked a roommate who had AP’d out of it. She had no idea what I was talking about. Perhaps there has been a misalignment for a long time, but unless they’re careful about what material is cut, students are going to be woefully unprepared for the higher level classes. When talking to college-prep relatives, I usually advise them to only AP out of classes that have no follow-up classes or aren’t in their major (electives). Otherwise they don’t have the expected knowledge in higher-level classes.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    “(E)volution “drives the diversity and unity of life.”

    That’s a meaningless religious slogan, not science. Evolution is a purely descriptive theory for understanding the interplay of certain changes and traits. It answers the question “How did x keep this trait?” not “How did x get it in the first place” and certainly not “Why does x have this?” If there’s diversity, it’s because the characteristics of x, y, and z don’t interfere substantially with each others’ survival. If they did, there would be a LOT less diversity.

    Evolution is not any sort of cause or force on its own, and it can’t “drive” anything at all.

    Oh yeah… these tests are getting better all the time.

  6. I agree that they are dumbing it down. The question is, will colleges accept the new test for credit?

  7. Michael-
    Agreed. Various forms of selection, and chance, drive the diversity and unity of life.

  8. Of course, this couldn’t be related to the “AP for all” push, Challenge Index score, lack of “diversity” in these AP classes and poor AP test performance of URMs, could it?