College & Workforce Readiness

Number of Schools Offering AP Falls After First Audit of Courses

By Scott J. Cech — November 09, 2007 8 min read
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In the wake of the first-ever audit of Advanced Placement courses, educators are giving mixed reviews to what the head of the AP program is calling “the largest curricular review that’s ever been undertaken in American history.”

One of the more striking effects of the audit, the results of which were released last week by the College Board, was a steep drop in the number of schools offering Advanced Placement courses. After more than 30 years of steady growth, the number of schools worldwide offering at least one AP course dropped by nearly 13 percent from the 2006-07 school year to the current one, according to the College Board, the New York City-based nonprofit organization that owns the Advanced Placement brand.

AP teachers at high schools around the world took part in the audit, which the College Board announced in 2005 amid concerns about whether the program’s rapid growth had diluted its quality. The process, which is ongoing, involved a review by college professors of individual teachers’ syllabuses in the 37 subject areas covered 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.

As of last week, the College Board said that it had authorized AP classes at 14,383 secondary schools, 2,081 fewer than the 16,464 schools that offered at least one AP course during the 2006-07 school year.

Board officials said they did not know how many of those 2,081 schools had stopped offering AP courses because all of their syllabuses had been rejected, and how many had done so without even submitting any syllabuses for review.

AP Program Growth

A half-century of nearly uninterrupted expansion in the number of schools worldwide offering Advanced Placement courses has been reversed this school year, after the first-ever audit of the courses’ content.

SOURCE: The College Board

SOURCE: The College Board

They declined to specify how many individual classes had been authorized to use the AP name this school year, saying they would release totals on syllabuses approved and rejected sometime after Jan. 31.

Officials said more than 140,000 syllabuses had been reviewed as of last week. A searchable database of all the courses authorized for the current school year was posted on the College Board’s Web site Nov. 1.

Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president who oversees the AP program, said the audit was designed to assure college-admissions officers and others “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.”

As of this school year, Mr. Packer said, “schools will not be putting the AP label on courses that they don’t have permission to do so.”

Access to What?

The decrease in the number of schools offering AP classes comes amid efforts by the College Board, President Bush, and others in the policymaking and education arenas to dramatically expand access to AP courses among groups of students who are underrepresented in them, including those from low-income families and some racial- and ethnic-minority groups.

Mr. Bush called for 70,000 new math and science Advanced Placement teachers in his 2006 State of the Union Address, and the College Board has committed itself to the goal of making at least 10 AP classes available in every high school nationwide by 2010.

“Educators have consistently stated that students in all schools deserve access to college-level courses,” College Board spokeswoman Sheila Jamison noted last week in an e-mail. But she added: “The audit was partially intended to ensure that traditionally underserved students were not given subpar AP courses.”

Daria Hall, the assistant director for K-12 policy at the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that seeks to improve the education of low-income and minority students, said she was less concerned about a drop in the number of schools ostensibly offering AP than “whether more kids are getting access to rigorous coursework.”

“Just calling a course ‘advanced’ doesn’t translate into actual advanced content,” she said.

Criteria Clarified

College Board officials don’t disagree. Indeed, a central goal of the audit, they said, was to ensure that classes were up to date and up to snuff.

Thomas Matts, the director of the College Board’s AP audit, said the audit was never intended to weed out courses that came close to meeting the criteria, “but rather to support teachers’ and administrators’ understandings of the course requirements while requiring that teachers provide concrete evidence of those understandings through their syllabi.”

But some educators argued that AP teachers were given too much help, so that it was impossible to say whether their classes were truly college-level.

More than two-thirds of the syllabuses teachers submitted for review were approved immediately. Teachers had two more chances to submit their syllabuses, and thousands more of the remaining 33 percent later won approval.

College Board officials estimated that 17,000 teachers did not meet the initial criteria to submit a syllabus.

In addition to detailed, course-specific College Board syllabus checklists that teachers could consult online, their reviewers gave them pointers and feedback about how to improve their chances.

“We told them exactly what the curricular requirements were,” Mr. Matts said. “If they didn’t pass muster the second time, we actually called them on the phone and had a conversation so that the teacher [was] clear what they’d need to do. We didn’t say, ‘If you write this, you’ll get authorized,’ but we made sure the teacher understood the requirements.”

Not Punitive

Mr. Matts said the multimillion-dollar audit was never meant to punish teachers. Rather than being an accountability measure under which transgressors were penalized, he said, the audit “did wind up being a professional-development session for a number of teachers.”

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.

Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director of the Washington-based American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said the audit’s methodology “leaves a lot of fudge factor, [and seems] highly susceptible to gaming.”

“How serious an audit could it be?” said Mr. Nassirian, whose organization represents more than 10,000 higher education admissions and registration professionals in more than 30 countries. “Does the IRS actually hand out ahead of time [instructions about] what it takes to get through an audit?”

‘Doesn’t Take Much’

William Lichten, a professor emeritus of physics at Yale University who has researched and written about the Advanced Placement program, said an audit focused on syllabuses could only scratch the surface.

“It doesn’t take very much time to write a syllabus,” he said. “The actual preparation and how well you implement it is another matter.”

Philip M. Sadler, a Harvard University researcher, questioned whether the audit might have screened out excellent teachers whose syllabuses might not read the way the College Board would prefer.

“We have these amazing teachers all over the country who teach in lots of different ways whose students pass the AP exam—I think that should be the primary audit,” he said. He compared the College Board’s method of auditing courses to an audit of doctors that only took into account what equipment they had.

“What you really want to know is, did their patients get cured or did they die?” Mr. Sadler said. “You’d probably want to know if they lived or died, even if [the doctor] didn’t have the latest electronic scale.”

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 up 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.”

‘It’s a Beginning’

Mr. Johnston of Maine’s education department said he sees nothing wrong with “a before-and-after effect where those [AP teachers] that had difficulties with their syllabi got them fixed.”

“If there have been changes because of that, that’s a great effect of the audit,” he said.

Moreover, Mr. Johnston said, the process was far from a cakewalk for some teachers—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 said.

While some teachers had to put as little as three hours into preparing their syllabuses, he added, some took up to 40 hours on the task.

Brian Rodriguez, the AP coordinator at Encinal High School in Alameda, Calif., who also teaches AP U.S. and European history there, said the process “actually was easier than I thought it was going to be,” thanks to the detailed syllabus guidelines the College Board posted on its Web site.

“I think the College Board made it easy to get approval,” said Mr. Rodriguez. Although he took eight uncompensated hours to prepare his syllabuses for submission, and ended up having to resubmit one of them with more reading materials, he said the audit’s bark was worse than its advertised bite.

“The word that was put forward at the [College Board] conferences,” he said, “was … if you don’t get [syllabuses] approved right away, it was off to the Russian front with you, and your kids will be serving fries at McDonald’s.”

Others said it was too soon to render a verdict on a process that is essentially still in progress. Although the deadline for most teachers passed in June, College Board officials extended the syllabus-submission deadline to Jan. 31 for teachers with extenuating circumstances. They said last week that they were continuing to receive about 300 syllabuses a day.

“We really don’t have any information to evaluate whether it [the audit] worked,” Yale’s Mr. Lichten said, pointing to the lack of information on how many syllabuses for the current school year were rejected as insufficiently rigorous.

Still, he added, “I’ve looked at [the audit] as a positive—it’s a beginning, at least, to begin to restore quality to the program. Maybe a very small positive, but a positive nonetheless.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Number of Schools Offering AP Falls After First Audit of Courses


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