The Harvard Education Newsletter (26.3, May/June 2010) contains an article that is meant to serve as a further exploration of the book, AP: A Critical Examination of the Advanced Placement Program (2010). The book in question is a compilation of research on AP programs across the nation, including some opposing viewpoints on interpretation of data and/or trends.
The Newsletter article, an interview with one of the editors of the book, is useful to independent school educators and school leaders (as well as boards) because it offers a perspective on the AP that is not necessarily the perspective that we have in independent schools. Following are some of the findings, which many of us in independent schools knew (or perceived) already. For some, I have added a remark or a question that follows.
- the number of AP courses offered is being used as a way for college admission offices to differentiate one high school from another (i.e., determine which one is more "rigorous"). This approach creates a race to see who can offer more courses, but are they appropriately staffed and do the kids find success on the exams?
- students can take an AP course as the first course in a given subject area, rather than as the culmination of their efforts in that subject area (increasing flexibility in timing of when AP courses can be taken). This approach expands the number of opportunities for kids to take an AP exam, but has a negative result on the scores.
- one of the thoughts behind AP is that, if a student were to take an AP in subject area X, then s/he might be more likely to major in that subject in college. What about the kid who has five to eight APs (or more) on his/her high school transcript? What does that mean? Does it merely mean that that particular student was out to "game" the admission office?
- the editor interviewed says he believes that, if any credit at all is to be given, it should be only for scores of 4 or 5; that accepting 3s for credit means a disproportianately higher percentage of students will reach 3 or higher, thereby receiving credit. I would argue that accepting only 4s or 5s now enters into the domain of "AP inflation." If so many more kids can earn 3s, does that say anything about the lack of quality/rigor of the exams? Or, conversely, might it suggest that students today are smarter than they were one generation ago?
- regarding graduating college earlier on account of having so many AP credits, it is a rare occurrence. So, where's the power of that argument?
- the trend of high schools seeking to offer more AP courses remains intact; it will continue to happen. The "outcome" of this research suggests that the schools should try to ensure that the AP courses are high-quality in nature and that the teacher has adequate professional development so as to ensure a solid student experience.
- AP courses can have wide variations between AP scores and course grades. Therefore, argues the interviewee, the AP scores should reflect the strength of the actual course. In other words, if the scores are low, so is the quality of the course, and therefore the instructor. The course should not exist if it cannot be staffed appropriately. At least, that is the logic that ensues from what the editor states.
The reasons, therefore, that public high schools and independent schools offer APs, I think, are rather different. We share the college admission "race" with each other, but it seems to me that the independent schools that choose to offer AP courses do so for the traditional reason of academic rigor. But has the "academic rigor" argument changed in fundamental ways, so that independent school AP offerings no longer carry the weight they once did?
Here we find a discussion that has picked up steam in recent years.
The "Beyond AP" schools ave been posing many good questions about this inverse relationship regarding the AP. If public schools (and I'm not criticizing them; I'm merely showing how our philosophies and perspectives are different) are encouraged to offer more AP courses because it bespeaks their "rigor" as an institution, would doing the same thing benefit independent schools?
Of course not. We have self-selected, by ontological means, to be rigorous schools. If, then, we are rigorous from an ontological perspective, what do our AP courses mean when weighed against those of a public high school with which we may compete for students?
So, to read this book and the concomitant interview in the newsletter, one sees a side of the AP world that is perhaps a bit foreign to how we think of APs in our schools. I'm not convinced that college admission offices can continue to weigh programs equally when comparing them (i.e. public schools and independent schools) in terms of their effectiveness with APs, given that more and more public high schools are offering APs as a means of showing their "rigor."
What is your school's contribution to that question?