To AP or Not To AP?

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The Advanced Placement program should be seen as academic acceleration only. It should not be used as a college-admission tool.

Each year, as I teach and work with a new senior class, I find myself reflecting on the College Board's Advanced Placement program. My job gives me an unusual perspective from which to experience the many sides to the program—and to the debates schoolpeople are having about whether, or how, to use it for the growth of various groups of students.

I wear two hats at my secondary school: I'm both the person with primary responsibility for college guidance and an Advanced Placement English literature and composition teacher. Each June, I grade AP exams; at other times throughout the year, I grade practice exams online. So when I read the many viewpoints being expressed on the program, both supportive and otherwise, a number of conflicting reactions war within my heart and mind.

I was first drawn to teaching an AP course when I realized it would allow me to challenge my students intellectually, at a level not always adaptable to the regular English classroom. I found myself able to convey more richly my love for analysis. Yet, I have always seen the value in allowing those students who may not be performing at the top of their class to enter an AP curriculum. As long as students have the baseline skills to meet the challenge of AP-level reading and writing, combined with the discipline and desire to improve, I generally applaud their choice to enter the program. A classroom made up of varying abilities and experiences, both personal and academic, can be an environment that lends itself to stimulating discussion and debate.

With that said, what about the exam results? When the teacher is willing to embrace a classroom of varying abilities, the time also comes to face a resulting test roster of varying performance on the exam. A healthy result? One would think so. After all, the world is made up of people of varying abilities and performance. This is an attitude not always embraced, however, by school districts, administrators, high school profiles, and so forth.

What we have now are varying approaches to tracking students into the AP program. At some high schools, students are funneled into honors sections, deemed "pre-AP," as early as the 8th and 9th grades. In other schools, there is open enrollment for AP courses, allowing even the weakest student to take on the challenge. There are yet other schools which have students "apply" for the AP course, through essays, SAT scores, contracts of commitment, and so on. With this variability in approach, how can there be any common denominator? Well, there is the outcome of the exam, scored on a 1-to-5 basis, with 5 being the highest score.

Students see the AP program as a route to college acceptance, rather than as an intellectually stimulating growth experience.

Ah, but there's the rub! If a student takes a series of AP courses in the senior year, the colleges to which he or she has applied will not see the results of those exams until well after the student has enrolled. Thus, if the student has done well throughout the year, as determined by the academic grade on the transcript, the assumption made by the college admissions officer is that this student's program is of a higher academic quality.

I would like to believe this to be true. It would make people's lives much simpler. As an AP exam reader, though, the huge variance I see in the quality of student writing is typical of the range one would see from the lowest-tracked high school English class to the highest section. Am I to believe that the extremely poor writing I encounter from a student taking the exam is always supported by an academic grade on the transcript that would suggest this lack of expository skill? I suspect not. We all know that the reasoning behind the need for the SAT is that an A in one school is not necessarily equal to an A in another.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with savvy parents and students who see the AP program as a route to college acceptance, rather than as an intellectually stimulating growth experience. This causes students who don't even like literature to put themselves through the AP English paces in order to impress that admissions officer who will ask how competitive their course loads are. It also leads national newsmagazines to rate the quality of a high school based on the number of AP courses the school offers. Enrollment numbers are equally impressive to such raters.

But in real life, this is not how it works. Sadly, I have read essays by students whose parents made them take the AP exam that describe at elaborate length why they are deliberately sabotaging their performance on the exam. I also have read essays by students who are barely writing at a 5th grade level. On the flip side are essays that I could not have written myself in the 45-minute time period, ones that demonstrate such a sophisticated control of language and analysis that it boggles my mind. Sometimes, the best of my students simply run out of steam intellectually and then approach the exam as if it were a chore. Superior students sometimes panic when they don't immediately understand a test "prompt," which causes them to fall into such a funk that they botch the exam.

The AP program will probably become even more politically manipulated and problematic in the future.

With these vastly different issues attending the AP program's administration, it is no wonder that heated debate often occurs. At a time when teacher performance is more often than not being gauged by student performance, and rising college costs can often be diminished by a student's qualifying for college credit before enrolling, the AP program will probably become even more politically manipulated and problematic in the future.

In the end, the only solution may be one that is presently far from our grasp. The Advanced Placement program should be seen as academic acceleration only. It should not be used as a college-admission tool. If this means not indicating an AP designation on a student's transcript, so be it. Let colleges use the exam score, after enrollment has occurred, as a placement tool and credit issue. Let the AP teachers get back to the business of teaching young minds to become fine minds. Let teacher and student enjoy the love of learning without concern for a performance-based outcome. Let us get back to the classroom, unburdened, and ready to inspire young minds.

Anne M. Weeks is the director of college guidance and an Advanced Placement English teacher at the Oldfields School in Glencoe, Md.

Vol. 20, Issue 21, Page 31

Published in Print: February 7, 2001, as To AP or Not To AP?
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