College Board Readies Plans for AP Audits

By Alyson Klein — November 28, 2006 5 min read
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A plan by the College Board to scrutinize high school Advanced Placement courses to ensure that they adhere to college-level standards is getting mixed reviews from educators. Some say the process will add rigor and relevance to their AP programs, while others worry it will just add up to busywork for teachers.

Beginning in January, teachers of AP courses must submit materials to the College Board proving that their course syllabuses meet the program’s curricular requirements. It is the most extensive scrutiny the program’s New York City-based sponsor has ever undertaken of how AP courses are carried out.

The audit process was developed in response to concerns from high school educators and college admissions officers that the program may be in danger of becoming a victim of its own success. While the program has expanded rapidly in recent years—the number of students participating has grown by about 9 percent annually for the past decade—admissions officers have no way of determining whether an AP class on a student’s transcript truly met the program’s requirements for college-level instruction.

“There’s a lot of fake AP out there,” Trevor Packer, the executive director of the AP program, said at a workshop explaining the audit process to teachers and others at the College Board’s annual conference in San Diego this month.

Under the audit system, all AP teachers will have to submit their course syllabuses and an “audit form” verifying that their classes meet the College Board’s course standards, which were developed in consultation with colleges. Biology classes must include a lab component, for example, to qualify as Advanced Placement.

If a teacher has chosen to use an alternative approach, he or she must explain it on the audit form. The syllabus will then be sent for review to one or more college professors lined up by the College Board. Some AP classes may even get follow-up visits from College Board auditors.

The College Board stresses that it does not specify which textbooks or other curriculum materials students in AP courses must use, or how teachers should present the material.

“Every school is responsible for creating its own curriculum,” Mr. Packer said. We don’t feel the College Board has the authority or ability to say, ‘This is what you should teach.’ ”

Site Visits Planned

Some educators at the board’s conference were critical of the audit process, which they have seen outlined in College Board materials or on its Web site. They said the forms would be time-consuming and questioned whether college professors could be trusted to objectively judge high school courses.

Surviving AP Audits

The College Board says teachers can show evidence in a variety of ways that their Advanced Placement courses, such as U.S. history, are on target. More examples are available at

Curricular Requirements
The course includes the study of economic trends in U.S. history

Clear, Explicit Evidence of Each Curricular Requirement

Sample 1
In Unit 1:
Major Assignments and Assessments:
Develop a chart explaining the financing, motivation for founding, and political, social, and economic organization of each area:
(a) the plantation colonies
(b) New England
(c) the middle colonies

Sample 2
Unit 10: The Gilded Age (1865-1900)
Required Reading:
• Chapters 17, 18, 19, and 20 in [America Past and Present]
• “Robber Barons and Rebels” in Chapter 11 of A People’s History

Key Discussion Topics:
Settling the West: a question of exploitation; laissez faire and Social Darwinism; the rise of the industrialists; labor’s response; urbanization and industrialization; immigration as a labor force; the “Social Gospel”

Sample 3
Week of February 23-26
American Pageant
Chapter 31
-American Life in the Roaring Twenties
Chapter 32
-The Politics of Boom and Bust
Free markets and the 1920s, isolationism, foreign debt and diplomacy, causes of the Great Crash, from Crash to Great Depression, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, early government interventions

SOURCE: The College Board

“The process has been confusing to our AP teachers; they find it intimidating,” said Charlene Romano, the assistant principal for academic affairs at Rosary High School, a Roman Catholic school in Fullerton, Calif.

Mr. Packer explained during the workshop that while the AP exams serve as their own “quality check,” the College Board does not believe it can use the tests as the sole means of evaluating an individual course, since not every participating student takes the end-of-course exam. He said that the College Board wanted students who could not cover the cost of the test to be able to get the college-admissions benefit of having AP courses on their transcripts.

The 51-year-old AP program was developed to give high school students a chance to take college-level courses for college credit. Last year, more than 1.3 million students nationally took 2.3 million tests in one of 22 different subject areas.

Mr. Packer said that educators should aim to submit audit materials for courses they plan to teach during the 2007-08 school year between sometime in January and June 1, 2007.

The College Board will then send the materials to one of 1,500 college professors for review. If the first professor to examine a teacher’s syllabus finds that it does not meet AP standards, the syllabus will be sent to a second professor. If that reviewer also finds it lacking, the College Board will call the teacher and principal for clarification.

If necessary, the teacher will then revise and resubmit the syllabus. Once a course is approved, the College Board will add it to a list of authorized classes, to be published online next November. Courses that are not approved by then could be added to updated versions of the list.

The College Board plans to let teachers know whether their lesson plans pass muster within two months of submission.

Mr. Packer acknowledged that there was no way for the College Board to make sure teachers are following their submitted syllabuses. But, as one quality check, the organization is planning to have college professors drop in on some AP classes.

For such visits, the College Board will likely select classes that have been approved under the audit process, but in which students consistently perform poorly on AP exams or elect not to take them, Mr. Packer said.

The visits will be arranged with the teachers in advance and will likely begin during the 2008-09 school year.

Protecting the Label

During the workshop at the College Board’s Nov. 9-12 conference, Mr. Packer said that the audit process could help AP teachers get the support they need from their administrators. He said the board had heard reports that principals have asked teachers to lead AP classes in subjects they were not qualified to teach, have cut required labs, or haven’t provided the necessary textbooks. He said the audit could give teachers ammunition for requesting such resources because principals as well as teachers have to sign off on the College Board audit forms.

If schools that did not undergo the audit or that failed to win approval continued to use the AP trademark on student transcripts and other materials, the College Board would ask them to stop, he said. If they didn’t comply, the board could take legal action.

Some admissions officers applauded the College Board’s plans.

“I think a program that carries so much weight, that becomes a standard, ought to be audited,” said John F. Swiney, the admissions director at California State University-Chico, said in an interview. “There were some cases where some schools have tried to introduce AP, but the teachers may not have been fully trained, and the students may not have been ready to do college-level work.”

Some K-12 educators agreed.

“I definitely think it does make sense to have a consistent set of high expectations for all students,” said Gregory Pilewski, the director of curriculum for the 74,000-student Anne Arundel County, Md., school district, said in an interview after the workshop.

But others weren’t so sure. “It’s a legitimate request; it’s a well-intentioned request,” Pat Vreeland, an English teacher at La Jolla High School in the 133,000-student San Diego Unified School District, said of the audit after the workshop. “But it’s yet another initiative that ignores the constraints on teachers’ time.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as College Board Readies Plans for AP Audits


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