College & Workforce Readiness

Scholars Critique Advanced Classes In Math, Science

By David J. Hoff — February 20, 2002 6 min read
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The nation’s most popular honors programs for high school students fail to offer an enriched learning experience to high achievers in math and science, says a study from a panel of leading mathematicians and scientists.

The Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs rush students through overloaded curricula, giving them little opportunity to master substantive knowledge in those two subjects, according to the report the National Research Council issued last week.

What’s more, passing the AP’s end-of-course exams becomes the goal of students and teachers in that program, making the coursework resemble a test-preparation seminar rather than an in- depth academic experience, assert the authors of the study, which was more than two years in the making.

“They’re focusing too much on accelerated learning,” said Jerry P. Gollub, a professor of physics at Haverford College outside Philadelphia and a co-chairman of the panel that wrote the report. “That tends to produce shallow learning, because there’s just too much material, particularly for the high school audience that is learning it.”

The study, “Learning and Understanding: Improving Advanced Study of Mathematics and Science in U.S. High Schools,” is available from the National Academy Press.

The authors recommend that the programs scale back their curricula and find ways for students to demonstrate what they’ve learned other than in high- pressure final exams.

Sponsors of the AP and IB programs had not read the report as of last week, but said they would review it with an eye toward improving their programs.

“This is not something that we haven’t heard from other folks, including our own commission,” said Lee Jones, the vice president for K-12 development and operations at the New York City-based College Board, which runs the AP program. “We recognize that a better balance between full coverage of subject matter and giving students the chance to cover material in more depth needs to be achieved.” The College Board’s commission, which looked at the future of the program, released its own report last year.

An official of the International Baccalaureate program says not all the criticisms are warranted. The IB already includes many of the elements that the NRC panel is seeking, according to Paul Campbell, the deputy regional director of North America for the International Baccalaureate program, which is also based in New York City.

About 25 percent of the final grades in IB courses are based on laboratory notebooks and other student work, he said, with the rest coming from a 41/2-hour exam taken over three days.

The two-year schedule for most IB courses gives students the chance to explore the subject matter thoroughly, said Mr. Campbell.

“What we have at the end is a portfolio-style example of student work,” Mr. Campbell said.

Looking for Answers

The National Research Council, a division of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences, concentrated on the math and science programs in the AP and IB because those subjects are the biggest educational concerns of the national academy. Twenty leading scholars were chosen to analyze the programs’ curricula and review the research on them.

The academy decided to study the AP and IB programs after initial reports of the 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Study showed high-achieving U.S. students performed less well than those of other nations. After subsequent analysis, the data found America’s top achievers ranked better than was first thought, though still not high enough to satisfy the business and scientific communities seeking to enhance student mastery of science and math.

Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate are the largest programs for high-achieving high school students in the United States.

AP offers courses in calculus, biology, chemistry, physics, and environmental science, as well as English literature, U.S. history, the arts, humanities, and foreign languages. About 760,000 students took 1.3 million AP exams in spring 2000. By passing the exams, high school students are able to earn college credit or be placed in upper-level courses once they enter college.

The IB was conceived as a program for diplomats’ children who could prove they had received a world-class education and compete for slots in top-notch colleges regardless of the countries in which they attended school. It offers two years of coursework in a student’s native language, a second language, mathematics, laboratory sciences, social studies, and the arts. Students take the courses over their junior and senior years. If they pass, they receive an IB diploma certifying that they met the program’s standards. More than 22,000 U.S. students took 75,000 IB exams last year—about half the worldwide total for the international program.

What the National Research Council panel found after examining the AP and the IB was that the programs suffer from what TIMSS and other research have concluded about the rest of the curricula in the United States: They’re comprehensive but shallow.

In reviewing the AP biology course, for example, the NRC panel found the course materials urged teachers to “stress understanding of concepts,” but gave teachers “little specific and detailed advice” on putting together a “coherent curriculum” that achieved that goal.

Instead, many AP teachers treat their courses as extended test-prep sessions, offering questions from previous AP exams as homework assignments, according to critics of the program.

“From what I could see, the majority of people are just teaching to the [AP] test,” said William L. Lichten, a professor emeritus of physics at Yale University, whose research was cited in the report. “That’s not the right way to teach a subject. That’s a pretty low level of learning.”

Moreover, the report says, the College Board exercises no control over who teaches the program and offers little help to those who do teach it.

How People Learn

The IB program, by contrast, offers a detailed curriculum to all teachers in the program, outlining the essential topics they must cover and the optional ones that will enrich their courses, the report notes.

While the IB curriculum isn’t as extensive as the AP’s, its science materials are still “quite broad,” according to the NRC report, “Learning and Understanding: Improving Advanced Study of Mathematics in U.S. High Schools.”

In the courses that IB tries to condense into a single year, the problem of too much breadth is especially acute, the report says.

The overreaching curricula in both programs run contrary to recent research on how people learn, it adds. “Only if a curriculum is not overly broad in terms of the number of topics to be studied,” the report says, “is it possible to study those topics in sufficient depth to develop deep conceptual understanding.”

To solve the problem, the authors conclude, AP officials should stop basing their courses on the contents of introductory courses for college freshmen. Instead, the College Board needs to set standards that high-achieving students are able to attain, while also ensuring teachers have enough time to give students learning experiences that lead to their mastery of the subjects.

Both the IB and AP need to train teachers in how to change their practices so that students have the chance to understand the course content, the NRC panel recommends.

They also need to review their testing programs “to ensure that they measure the conceptual understanding and complex reasoning,” it further urges.

Prospects for Change

While the NRC report is critical of the programs’ curricula, especially the AP’s, the panel’s reviewers found that the AP’s new calculus course has much of what it hopes the entire program will become, said Mr. Gollub, the panel’s co-chairman.

“It does focus more on important concepts than their older one did,” he said. “The experience in mathematics shows that it’s possible to make substantial improvement in the science courses, too.”

Mr. Jones said that College Board officials changed the calculus course in the 1990s to reflect the way the subject was being taught in colleges. They are planning to conduct similar reviews of other subject matter, he said, and will use the NRC recommendations as a road map for improvement.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Scholars Critique Advanced Classes In Math, Science


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