College & Workforce Readiness

AP Program Assumes Larger Role

By Debra Viadero — April 25, 2001 13 min read
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Expressing the belief that “America’s young people are a lot smarter than we give them credit for,” then-U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley issued a challenge to the nation’s high schools in February of last year.

Offer at least one Advanced Placement course by the fall of 2001, he said at a Washington gathering, and add one more each year for the next 10 years.

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Mr. Riley may have set his sights too high. This school year, only 60 percent of public high schools are offering the college-level courses. But he was right on one point: The Advanced Placement program, which allows students to earn college credit for mastering rigorous coursework in high school, is on a roll.

Since 1990, the number of AP exams taken by students across the country has grown more than two-fold, rising to 1.27 million last year, according to the College Board, the New York City-based nonprofit group that administers the program.

The program is looking especially good to policymakers as calls rise at the national level for a historic shift in the mission of the American high school.

Rather than sort college-bound students from the non-college- bound, as they traditionally have tended to do, high schools ought to prepare each and every student for postsecondary study, some education leaders are suggesting. For growing numbers of high school communities, the Advanced Placement program is being seen as a quick, reliable means to that end.

“The AP program gives a pretty set curriculum, deeper thinking about subject matter, and end-of-course exams,” said Gene Bottoms, a senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based group that is leading its own initiative to improve high schools. “It gives school folks a packet of services that they greatly need.”

But some educators are also concerned that expanding the AP program too rapidly could bring its own set of troubles. They worry that unprepared students are being pushed into academic waters that are too deep for them, and that the ablest students are feeling pressured to take too many AP classes. Others fear that the courses will get watered down to accommodate the increasingly wide range of abilities that students bring to them.

“The Advanced Placement program uses a one-size-fits-all approach to high school education,” said William L. Lichten, a retired Yale University physics professor who has studied the program. “What is needed is a more diverse approach to the problems of high school students.”

Surging Ahead

When a handful of colleges and foundations developed the program in 1955, Advanced Placement was intended to offer a way to challenge a select few college freshmen—those who were bored in typical introductory college courses. By mastering such courses in high school, the thinking went, those students could bypass the required introductory classes and delve deeper into their academic studies from their first days on campus.

Teacher Ian Howell discusses international relations during an Advanced Placement class in McLean, Va.

From the beginning, students who have earned a 3 or better on the 5-point scale used to grade the program’s end-of-course tests have been judged by the College Board to be qualified to skip the equivalent courses in college. If the students’ chosen colleges go along with that recommendation—and not all do—the students’ savings can translate to an average of $3,000 a course. A smaller number of four-year institutions even allow students who have passed a sufficient number of AP tests to enter as sophomores.

About 1,200 students took the first AP exams in 1956. But the program really began to see steady growth in the mid-1980’s, and the pace has accelerated to some degree since then, according to Lee Jones, the executive director of the Advanced Placement program for the College Board. Last year, more than three-quarters of a million students around the world took AP exams. Likewise, the number of courses offered through the program has more than tripled, from 11 in 1955 to 35 last year.

The smaller International Baccalaureate Organization, which provides a set program of similarly rigorous courses at 1,182 schools worldwide, has grown at an even faster clip.

Much of the expansion of the AP program has paralleled the rise in the percentages of students nationwide going on to postsecondary schools. The program also got a public relations boost from a 1999 federal study suggesting that the single biggest indicator of students’ success in college was whether or not they had taken challenging courses in high school.

As a result, college-admissions officers have begun to view AP courses on student transcripts as something more than a free pass out of an introductory course: They are seen as a measure of college readiness. And college-savvy parents have been quick to catch on, often insisting that their children enroll in such classes.

Access to AP coursework, meanwhile, became an equity issue in the 1990’s, as it became clear that poorer and minority students lacked the same access to the college-level courses enjoyed by their white and better-off peers. Relatively few urban and rural schools with predominantly minority enrollments, for example, had the resources to offer AP classes at all.

And even at schools that are solidly in the AP fold, minority students have sometimes found themselves on academic tracks that veer away from Advanced Placement.

The College Board, for its part, has taken up the cause by preaching the importance of educational equity and rewarding schools that increase the numbers of minority students taking part in the program.

“If indeed being able to participate in challenging courses in high school is key to success in college, then every high school kid ought to have that opportunity at their school,” Mr. Jones said. “It’s a fundamental educational equity issue.”

Federal and state governments have also followed suit. Federal aid to encourage states to participate in the program nearly quintupled from $2.7 million in 1998-99 to $15 million this fiscal year. Twenty-six states also provide their own money to help schools cover exam-fee payments, grants for teachers’ professional development related to AP courses, instructional materials, equipment, and other incentives to stimulate program participation—particularly among underserved groups.

Beyond matters of access, some leaders in current efforts to improve high schools see the program as a model of how education systems ought to operate.

In the AP program, teams of university and high school faculty members work together to set common standards, to write test questions, and even to grade the tests. This summer’s “readings"—or grading sessions—will involve 5,000 high school and university instructors working at 10 sites around the country.

“There is a disjuncture between secondary and postsecondary education in the United States,” said Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University education professor who is studying K-16 school improvement efforts. “The AP program is an inspiration for how it ought to be done.”

Performance Varies

Despite the program’s growing popularity, the passing rates on AP exams have held fairly steady over the years, according to the College Board. About two-thirds of the students who take the tests get a score of 3 or better.

“If we saw huge increases in the numbers of students scoring at lower levels, it would cause us great concern,” Mr. Jones said. “The proportion of students [earning scores of 2 or lower] has grown slightly in the time the program has experienced this great growth.”

Still, despite widespread state and local efforts to help pay students’ exam fees, only about a third of students enrolled in AP classes actually take the tests for college credit. And even among that more select group of students, exam readers say they typically see a wide range of performance.

“You get some responses from kids that are very strong. I sometimes say to myself, ‘I couldn’t have written that in 45 minutes, and I have a master’s degree in English,’” said Anne M. Weeks, a private school teacher in Glencoe, Md., who has graded English composition and literature exams for the program for five years. “Then you see responses from kids who are writing at a 7th grade level.”

Since the exams are not given until May, Ms. Weeks worries that admissions officers will get the wrong idea about students’ readiness for college just by looking at the presence of AP courses on their transcripts.

The last period of the day at Virginia's McLean High School finds some students dozing in an Advanced Placement history class.

“We should be using AP courses as they were meant to be used—as acceleration—and not as a tool for college admissions or for ranking high schools,” she said.

The wide range in the quality of students’ exam work has led some college educators to worry that AP standards are slipping. Although more than 3,000 colleges and universities participate in the program to some degree, the number of institutions or academic departments that accept the recommended score of 3 as the passing threshold—rather than 4 or 5—has been shrinking, Mr. Jones of the College Board acknowledged.

“Colleges are inconsistent,” said Donna Main, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. government at Wicomico High School in Wicomico, Md. “Sometimes they don’t accept AP at all. Sometimes they ask for 3 or better, or a 4 or better. Sometimes they say, ‘It’s great that you’re taking AP, but we want you to take our writing course.’”

Among the schools that don’t accept program coursework at all is Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

“AP is a second-rate alternative to advanced teaching,” contended Leon Botstein, Bard’s president and an outspoken critic of traditional high schools. “It’s a test-driven curriculum, and that’s completely anathema to anything a university does.”

The College Board, however, insists that it is able to maintain high standards by periodically trying out the exams on groups of college freshmen taking comparable courses. Under a contract with the board, the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., handles various technical and operations aspects of the exam program, such as the distribution of tests to the schools, the grading of multiple- choice sections, and the development of scoring procedures.

“We have elaborate procedures in place to ensure a 4 means a 4 means a 4,” Mr. Jones said.

But critics such as Mr. Lichten of Yale say such studies are flawed because they put the small number of students who take AP exams up against the much larger pool of college students in the freshman-level courses. The comparison, Mr. Lichten said, is not quite like comparing “apples and apples.”

The criticisms coming from colleges and universities have led the program’s supporters to question the motives of the small but growing numbers of college officials who discount the program.

With rising numbers of students showing up on campuses who are eligible for AP credit, and thus need less college coursework, “you have to wonder if there’s a financial reason behind [such skepticism],” Ms. Main said.

Not For Everybody

Another worry for some teachers is that the increasing emphasis on the program is pushing students to take courses that are too difficult for them, or course loads that are too heavy.

“It’s not for everybody, honestly,” said Kaye Dutrow, who teaches AP English at Kent Island High School in Stevensville, Md. “Students of average ability could take an AP class and benefit. Students of limited ability would be frustrated.’'

“I really believe AP classes should be for students who excel in that particular area,” she added. “Those students can just fly in those classes.”

The College Board agrees—up to a point.

“We don’t want to see kids left out because they haven’t been placed on a strong academic track early on,” Mr. Jones said. “On the other hand, we want everybody to recognize if a student is jumping into something that is not going to be profitable for them. Preparation for that starts way back in middle school and before.”

In a move to encourage schools to lay down academic grounding earlier for a wider range of students, the College Board this school year began offering “pre-AP’’ workshops for teachers of students as young as 5th grade. Districts can also get help through the board’s new “vertical teaming’’ institutes, which are designed to help align the content of courses that students encounter as they move up through the grades. The institutes come on top of the board’s existing training sessions for both new and experienced AP teachers.

Among those who question the value of AP courses is Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

The catch, critics point out, is that teachers are not required to participate in any of the professional-development workshops to take part in the AP program. That means the readiness of AP teachers, not just their students, may also be a cause for concern.

“We’ve counted on schools to make good decisions on who should be teaching AP, and they typically do,” said Mary Alice McCullough, the director of teaching and learning for the College Board’s Middle States regional office in Philadelphia. “One of the problems we’re facing that all of education is starting to face is that with the retirement of teachers, there are instances where brand-new teachers are put into classes to teach AP, and some are right out of college.”

To shore up the incoming AP teaching force, the College Board is piloting a three-credit methods course that aspiring teachers can take as part of their preservice training.

Meanwhile, the same pressure that is funneling some unprepared students into AP classes is also causing their more academically able counterparts to shoulder unrealistic AP course loads.

“I’ve seen more cases of exhaustion this year, of kids being truly depressed because of the load,” said Ian Howell, who teaches AP European history and U.S. government at McLean High School, a public school in McLean, Va., that typically sends most of its graduating class on to four-year colleges. “I don’t know who’s pounding it into their heads that they have to have six, seven, and eight AP courses to get into a good college.”

Mr. Howell argues that the burden is unreasonably heavy for high school students, because they spend much more of their time sitting in classrooms than college students do.

“It’s like trying to fit a college course load into a high school day,” he said.

But the growing pains the program is experiencing may be instructive for any high school looking to ratchet up the academic content in its course offerings.

Like the College Board, the Southern Regional Education Board found it necessary to start working with middle schools as part of its long- term campaign to create high school programs that prepare every student for college-level study. The 11-year-old program, known as High Schools That Work, now involves more 1,100 schools in 22 states.

“We have schools that are successfully teaching to most or all students what a decade ago was only taught to the very best students,” said Mr. Bottoms of the SREB, who heads that initiative. “But, yes, you do have to start with middle school.”

“Part of the reason our schools are successful is that they make these changes incrementally,” he added. “They typically phase out 20 to 25 percent of low- level courses each year. If you don’t, it’ll blow up on you.”

And in the larger scheme of things, said Michael Cohen, who served as the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for K-12 programs during President Clinton’s second term, having the AP program become too popular may be a good problem to face.

“Of all the things to worry about in public education today in the high school area,” Mr. Cohen said, “working kids too hard is not one of them.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2001 edition of Education Week as AP Program Assumes Larger Role


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