The attached article appeared on Washington Post online today and talks about an important educational issue in high schools, namely Advanced Placement classes and exams.
A quick disclaimer is in order, I took four AP exams in my senior year in high school in Enlish, Biology, Physics and American History-a grueling three days to be sure.
I firmly believe in the value of AP classes, if properly taught, as a good preparation for college, but not necessarily as a substitute. My AP experience provided me with a foundation for success in college in terms of academics. (I went to college after an enlistment in the Navy and the Navy provided me the necessary discipline to succeed, AP provided me with the foundational knowledge). Most AP courses provide a great deal of knowledge but little in terms of the critical thinking necessary to succeed in college.
I am not sure of the motivation of my contemporaries, but when AP was marketed to me and my family, the appeal was that the class was harder, thus more likely to keep me engaged as well as providing possible college credit. Looking back, I think my parents were wise to have me involved in AP. The danger of schooling for me was boredom. Most regular and even honors classes in public high school offered little challenge to me and my contemporaries in AP courses. Because the regular and honors courses had to be tailored to appela to the middle, the less prepared students struggled to keep up and the more advanced students struggled to find relevance for their time. AP course, by their nature, were selective and tailored only for the more advanced students. There were pre-requisites or instructor approval needed to register for the course. The courses were hard in that we covered more material in a shorter time frame than other courses.
Having said that, AP today has become something different entirely. AP courses for schools and school systems are as much, if not more of, a marketing tool as they are an educational service. Looking at the websites of school districts, they proudly note the number of students taking AP or IB (International Bacculaureate) courses as well as the number of subjects being offered. While I would like to believe that American secondary education is opening doors for more students, the statistics don't prove me out. Parents are often misled and improperly look at the size of an AP program at a high school as a measure of the school's quality. The two have little in common.
Second, by opening up AP courses and exams to more students, the standards must certainly fall. In each of my four courses of AP in high school, only AP biology had more than 14 students and AP Bio had 18. I saw, generally, the same core of 10-12 students in each class, the top of our gradutating class (of about 400, so about 2-3% of the graduating class was in AP courses). In order to prepare us for college, the school purposefully challenged us and we had proven that we were capable of doing college level work. Was the system at our school a little elitist? I would have to say yes, but for the top 2-3% of us in the graduating class, we were demonstrably the elite-- we needed the challenge. Were it not for AP in my senior year, high school would have been a waste of my time except for playing soccer.
By opening the program to more and more kids, you are no longer catering to the top 2-3% or even the top 10% of seniors. But you present a larger cross section of students, which generates a bell curve of abilities and preparation, meaning that the course must then be tailored, whether consciously or not, to the lower or middle cohort of the curve, robbing the value of the AP program for the best and brightest.
Third, the issue of more broad-based AP programs results in an even greater injustice to kids who go on to college--if they pass the AP test with a 3 (in some colleges 4) or better, then they get some academic credit for the AP course. This means that one mission of a college or university (in my mind), to provide well-rounded citizens is further underminded. Most AP courses are aimed at what colleges refer to as "core curriculum," meaning the liberal arts of college education. Students are opting out of English 101, basic American history, biology, and other core classes that provide a basis of education for everyone. The result is they colleges and universities are not producing well rounded inviduals, but rather specialists incapable of working beyond their own tiny focus of study. There is no integration of thinking between subjects. The final result is that the value of a Bachelor's degree is degraded.
Fourth and finally, High School AP classes are nothing like college courses. Typically, high school classes meet every day. College course may meet only twice a week. In high school there are parents, teachers and other pushing you constantly to keep up with the work. In college there is no one but yourself. In high school, you learn the material over the course of probably 150-160 school days or 21-23 weeks, in college, you have 15 weeks at best to learn the same if not more material.
In short, there is a huge gulf between AP and college courses. Sure the subject matter is the same, but the manner in which it is taught and the skills to succeed in the course are vastly different between the two.
Yes, I took AP classes and there were very few of us in my high school that did. However, looking back now, I got more of a foundation of knowledge out of the classes than the academic credit. I still had to take English 101 (actually I wanted to since I hadn't done any writing for four years in the Navy). I still had to take lab sciences and I took a lot of History.
In short, AP classes are no substitute for proper college courses and they shouldn't be advertised as such.
Critic Responds on the AP Debate (washingtonpost.com)