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Most AP Classes Survive Audit

By Scott J. Cech — November 05, 2007 4 min read
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Despite dramatic growth in the number of high school students taking Advanced Placement courses, most of those classes teach material worthy of the name, according to the first-ever audit of AP-course quality.

The New York City-based College Board, the nonprofit organization that owns the Advanced Placement brand, said more than two-thirds of the 134,000 ostensible AP-course syllabuses submitted for review by teachers from 14,383 secondary schools around the world were immediately approved. College Board officials also said that approximately 17,000 teachers did not meet the initial criteria to submit a syllabus for the audit, which Trevor Packer, the vice president of the Advanced Placement program, described as “the largest curricular review that’s ever been undertaken in American history.”

However, College Board officials did not immediately provide a total number of courses that have been approved for posting on a new, searchable registry of AP classes, known as the “AP Course Ledger,” which was announced to the public today. Officials also said that, at this point, they could not provide a percentage of courses that had been rejected.

“As a result of this work, college-admissions officials, students, parents, and educators can have continued confidence that the AP designation on students’ transcripts is only allowed for syllabi that have been approved by college faculty,” Mr. Packer said.

The review, paid for by the College Board, analyzed AP-course documents that teachers submitted between January and June 1 of this year. The deadline for submitting syllabuses has been extended until this coming Jan. 31 for teachers of two new AP classes—Chinese and Japanese—and for some block-schedule teachers.

The course syllabuses were reviewed by 839 college and university professors in the 37 subject areas taught in AP classes, which are designed to teach college-level material and prepare students to pass end-of-course AP exams that can qualify them for college credit. Teachers could consult a syllabus checklist the College Board posted on its Web site showing what ingredients their course outlines should have.

Guidance Offered

The College Board also posted evaluation guidelines for teachers, as well as several sample syllabuses for the 52-year-old AP program. About 67 percent of AP teachers’ course outlines were approved immediately. Teachers whose outlines were rejected on the first try were given two more chances to rejigger the documents, with feedback from the professors about how to improve their chances.

In at least one state, College Board officials went so far as to conduct in-person workshops to help teachers.

“It was about, ‘Here are the things we’re going to be looking for,’ ” said W. Tad Johnston, a mathematics specialist and regional representative for the Maine Department of Education, which invited the officials.

But the process was far from a cakewalk for some teachers, Mr. Johnston said—even those who have been teaching AP for years.

“We have an [AP] U.S. History teacher with a strong track record—a lot of her students score four or five [out of five possible points on their AP exams], and it’s rare she has a student score less than three, but her syllabus took several resubmissions,” he noted.

While some teachers only had to put in as few as three hours into preparing their syllabuses, Mr. Johnston added, some took up to 40 hours on the task.

“I’m not really surprised that AP courses are AP-level,” said Dan Fuller, the director of public policy for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, an Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit organization of about 180,000 administrators and teachers. “It’s sort of circular logic, but schools and educators know what they’re doing—they know what things are up to snuff and what aren’t.”

No ‘AP Study Hall’

The College Board has said it plans to follow up its reviews during the 2008-09 school year with a few in-person visits by professors to schools with especially low AP-exam scores. Mr. Packer said in an interview, however, that those observations of how syllabuses are being followed will only be conducted with advance notice.

While Mr. Packer conceded that prearranged visits would allow schools with subpar teaching to put a good face on potentially lackluster pedagogy, he said the audits were “not a policing mechanism. … [W]e are not a police force.”

Thomas Matts, the College Board’s director of the AP-course audit, said college-admissions offices have historically looked favorably on AP courses on students’ transcripts. Yet with the number of students taking AP classes jumping 150 percent in the past 10 years, “the admissions offices came to us asking us to provide them with some evidence that teachers … hadn’t watered down their standards to accommodate this fantastic growth.”

Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director of the Washington-based American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said colleges’ view of AP coursework’s rigor has dimmed over the years.

Over time, he said, “it became a tool solely for admission purposes, not as a [mark of an AP course’s] college equivalence, but even that began to suffer a little bit when course designation got a little loosey-goosey.”

Mr. Packer said the audit, which higher education officials asked in 2004 that the College Board conduct, was launched because, among other reasons, “[college-] admissions officers wanted assurance that ‘AP’ wasn’t being attached to courses that weren’t AP, and that any course labeled ‘AP’ had been examined by college faculty.” He said he had heard from admissions officials who were examining college applicants’ high school transcripts and wanted to know, for example, if there was really such a class as “AP Study Hall.”

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