Recent news coverage of the College Board’s advanced placement program has probably caused some head-scratching. While articles in Education Week and Teacher Magazine [“Mass Appeal,” March/April] have highlighted the program’s explosive growth, a headline in the Wall Street Journal declared, “Elite High Schools Drop AP Courses.” The story that followed described a small but growing number of independent schools, including the one where I am the director of college counseling, that choose not to participate in AP or any other standardized curriculum.
To most people, schools that opt out of the advanced placement program probably seem like educational spoilsports. Do we think we’re too good for AP? Are we afraid that our students won’t score high enough on the exams to justify our schools’ exalted reputations? The AP program has its critics, but most people agree that the courses represent a reasonable facsimile of introductory college-level work. Why should independent schools be cutting the AP curriculum just as it is becoming all but universal in the public sector?
I can’t speak for all the schools that have dropped or are thinking about dropping advanced placement, but as the convener of a group of counselors at non-AP schools (and a former AP teacher), I have heard the views of many. The case against AP consists mainly of what good teachers know in their bones: Students learn best when they can immerse themselves in hands-on work, and the best learning involves genuine discovery rather than ferreting out information hidden away in the teacher’s brain. Modern research tells us that the human mind does not absorb knowledge so much as construct it. Students who initiate and control their learning process retain far more than those who are passive receivers.
None of this is compatible with advanced placement, where the emphasis is on teacher-driven coverage of large amounts of subject matter handed down from the College Board. Every August, AP teachers lace up their track shoes and sprint away from the starting blocks. In AP chemistry, the drill includes everything from atoms and molecules to organic chemistry and thermodynamics. In AP calculus AB, the goal is to cover the many layers of differential calculus in time to get to advanced integral calculus topics such as Riemann sums and antidifferentiation. Visit the teachers’ lounge of any participating school, and you’ll get an earful about how they don’t have enough class time, how the administration had better cancel some field trips if it expects decent AP scores in July. A colleague of mine who worked at one such school during the 9/11 attacks told me about the gnashing of teeth among teachers who wanted to devote class time to what had just happened but dared not fall too far behind the syllabus. As the defining event of a generation unfolded, the history classes were focused on getting to the Civil War by December.
The case against advanced placement consists mainly of what good teachers know in their bones.
The AP curriculum does require critical thinking, most notably in free-response questions that ask students to write essays or solve problems. In the humanities and social sciences, strong writing skills are essential for earning a top score. But coverage is still king. During the seven years that I taught AP U.S. history, I had a choice: I could devote time to the incremental process of improving my students’ writing and reasoning skills, or I could cover facts they needed to know for the test. I tried to do both, but with limited time, I knew that covering the facts was the best way to help them increase their scores.
An oft-overlooked problem with the advanced placement program is its impact on morale. The best teachers lead their students on a voyage of shared discovery. They offer in-depth instruction on topics they are passionate about, and they encourage students to find and explore their own passions. In AP courses, teachers are merely the custodians of someone else’s curriculum. I often wonder how college professors would react if they were told to teach to such a standardized syllabus. Psychologists tell us that lack of control over our circumstances is frequently associated with low morale, a fact many high school teachers can confirm from experience.
What does a non-AP curriculum look like? At my school, the most demanding history course is American History Through Film, which covers the 20th century from The Birth of a Nation to Oliver Stone’s JFK. Students might view a film such as High Noon as a reflection of Cold War America or Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a critique of post-World War II suburbia. Along the way, they are required to write, each semester, seven papers of approximately five pages each, with midyear and final take-home exams of five to 10 pages. During the year, they produce approximately 100 typed, double-spaced pages of analytical prose and take zero multiple-choice tests.
Instead of AP English literature, our school offers courses such as Philosophies of the East, which examines works in the traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism; Modern Dramatic Literature, which includes writers from Henrik Ibsen to Sam Shepard in a course that emphasizes performance as well as written work; and Literature of the American West, which features works such as A River Runs Through It, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and Reservation Blues.
At first glance, our advanced courses in math, science, and foreign language look more like their AP counterparts, but there are important differences. Our students in biology 2 spend less time memorizing and more time in the lab. They breed several generations of fruit flies, analyze their own genetic inheritance, and much more. In April, about the time that students elsewhere are preparing for AP exams, ours spend four weeks studying bacteria cultures and attempting to identify an unknown strain.
Modern research has amply demonstrated the benefits of thematic, interdisciplinary, authentic, hands-on learning. The AP program rests on an approach that is decades, even centuries, old. But the reason schools continue with advanced placement has nothing to do with pedagogy.
With AP, every student can be evaluated on a national, 1-5 scale in every subject—music to the ears of everyone with a stake in sorting the best-able students from the not-so-able. The staying power of AP stems from the fact that our society’s most advantaged students come out on top, and they (along with their parents) are the ones clinging most tenaciously to the program.
As standardized testing advances from all directions, teachers and administrators face a momentous choice: Are we mainly concerned with educating our students or with ranking them? If the latter is true, it makes perfect sense to build the curriculum around assessments like the AP exams. High school can become an endurance test in which students compete in as many such courses as they can shoehorn into their schedules while juggling the required assortment of extracurricular activities. Some will falter under the weight of all the facts to memorize and concepts to cover, but what would a score of 4 or 5 mean if everybody got one? The top students will emerge, dazed but triumphant, to claim the prize of admission to the college of their choice.
I wish I had a nickel for every colleague who has told me privately that his or her school would drop AP if only the parents and the colleges would allow it. Those in the public sector must wait for another day, but more and more independent schools are discarding AP in favor of a richer, more engaging, more student-centered curriculum. How timely that educators have finally begun to reclaim secondary education. The result can be only a saner, more fulfilling high school experience for students and teachers alike.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher Magazine as Opting Out