Who should be taking AP courses?

I just read a blog post by Joanne Jacobs “Hard to great”.  In this post, Joanne shares some comments by a 2nd year Teach for America teacher, lamenting about the quality of her AP student’s papers.  You can read the teacher’s comments here.  Here’s an excerpt from her post:

I gave the students their Multiple Choice scores back on Friday. I wasn’t too displeased with their scores for a first test–on the AP exam a student needs to get about 60% of the multiple choice correct and write three decent essays to score a passing grade and the class multiple choice average was a 58%–but I knew that the kids would be very upset. Most of them are used to never getting anything but high A’s, especially on *gasp* multiple choice tests. In many cases this was their first real experience with a test they needed to study for. I decided to ease them into seeing their grades, so I projected up the spreadsheet I use to keep track of unit exam grades, minus student names, and showed them the score range and how I calculated their total score from the multiple choice, essay, and IDs. They gasped when they saw the low range of scores, but at least they knew what they were getting into before they stared at all of those little pink dashes on their own scantron. I explained carefully about the 60% benchmark and about what a hard test it was and how they shouldn’t be discouraged if they didn’t do as well as they would have liked (that’s what the AP grade bump is for, after all!) and then I gave back their scantrons. I think the song and dance worked, because I didn’t have a full scale riot on my hands, but at least one girl did spend the rest of the period slumped back in her chair glaring death rays of hatred at me.

Many of our nation’s  best students have had an easy time in school finding it only necessary to go through the motions.  This is one of the greatest reasons why schools choose to offer Advanced Placement courses.  Give the students a challenge, have them “kick it up a notch”.  Historically schools have encouraged only the most motivated or prepared students to enroll in AP courses.  Lately, the trend has changed.  AP programs all across the country are growing as witnessed by the increase in the number of AP exams administered every year (see “2009 – Another Record Year for AP Exams “).  There are three primary ways that the AP program grows:

  1. Add AP courses in a school that does not offer them
  2. Increase the number of AP courses offered in a school
  3. Increase the enrollment in existing AP courses

All three of these are factors in the growth of the AP Program worldwide, but the largest factor appears to be #3.  Schools are encouraging more and more students to attempt AP classes.  Ideally, it is great that more students are given the option of participating in these challenging courses.  Practically, the problem occurs when students are not prepared for these classes. The lack of preparation for some students is not a new thing and has probably been around as long as people have been learning and educating, it is just magnified as schools cast larger nets when recruiting for AP courses. 

The underlying premise of opening up the classes to more students is that there are many under represented student groups who have not participated in AP courses in the past. Personally, I think it is important that schools encourage every student who is capable to take the challenge of AP courses.  The problem occurs when schools, in an attempt to meet particular diversity goals, recruit students who are not prepared.  It will be very interesting to see the long term affect of opening up AP courses.  Schools and the College Board will need to work very hard at keeping high standards and expectations for AP courses as more students take classes.  If the standards are lowered, more colleges will make it difficult for students to get credit for their AP scores (see “Tufts University AP Credit Policy Reduces Students’ Credits “).  This in turn would diminish the AP program.  The key to success will be for schools to raise their expectations in all the courses leading up to AP courses.  This way, all students will be more prepared if they choose to enroll in AP courses, with the added benefit that all students, AP or not, will receive a better education and be more prepared for college level work.  Of course, these changes are tough to make as they are systemic and take a long time to come about.  Schools that have a great long term vision are more equipped to succeed at this.

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