Do Advanced Placement Courses Serve Students Well?

A couple of weeks ago there was an article in the New York Time’s Room for Debate, “The Advanced Placement Juggernaut ” questioning the value of AP courses.  It is an interesting read as it presents views from various “professionals” and had a huge number or reader comments.

The heart of the matter is that AP courses have traditionally been one of the universal measures of a student’s ability to succeed in college.  Students who take these “college level courses” in high school are tested nationally, giving students a good gauge of how they stack up against their peers nationally.  When  I was in school these were the only exams that did this other than the SAT and ACT.  The main difference with the AP exams is that they are subject and course specific while the SAT and ACT were not (now there are the SAT subject exams).

To a student, the greatest benefit of scoring well on an AP exam is that they can receive college credit for their high school class, saving them a large amount of tuition, especially students who score well on many exams. 

In the past, the Advanced Placement Program has been accused of being elitist and inaccessible to many students.  Times have changed as many schools have pushed hard to open their AP classes up to students who did not traditionally take them.  This has caused rapid growth in the number of Advanced Placement exams given every year.  Many have questioned whether opening up these courses to more students has “watered down” the courses, decreasing the significance of these classes.  Much of this will depend on the school and the teacher, as it always has.  If the teacher holds the bar high then there is no reason for these classes to be watered down.  In order to do this, teachers and schools will need to have thick skins as parents and students complain that the course is too difficult.  Schools will need to work hard at improving the rigor of courses leading up to AP classes.  This way all students will be better prepared for the challenges of AP courses.

The Advanced Placement Program has also received some competition in recent years.  Many schools now offer the International Baccalaureate Programme or Dual Enrollment courses.  IB is an international college program that is offered by schools worldwide and is gaining momentum here in the US.  Students in IB courses also take year end exams just as they do in the Advanced Placement classes.  Dual Enrollment courses are classes for which a student can receive both high school and college credit.  This is usually accomplished by the high school partnering with a local college/university.  Often students’ exams in these classes are graded with their college counterparts in the “same class”.  These classes have the advantage that there is typically not a year end exam (except for the final) and credit is achieved by doing well in the class.  The disadvantage is that this credit is not always as recognized as AP and IB credit, especially if the student does not attend college nearby.

It is clear that the College Board has its work cut out for it to stay at the forefront.  They have recently implemented some programs to keep in the good graces of colleges and universities.  They recently initiated a course audit process by which all AP teachers must submit a course syllabus to be reviewed and approved.  This is one way of keeping schools from tacking  the AP moniker on any class. The Advanced Placement Program has also placed a greater emphasis on their Pre-AP Program that strives to prepare students for the challenge of these college level classes. Evidently, the College Board is aware that it must do all that it can to be regarded as a top notch program.   If colleges and universities stop accepting AP credit the program will suffer greatly.

U.S. News’ 2009 America’s Best High Schools

U.S. News and World Report  recently published their “America’s Best High Schools” and as predicted, it is ruffling  a few feathers as demonstrated by the comments on their website.  Both this ranking and the Newsweek ranking use a similar formula.

Newsweek’s rankings are determined by taking the number of AP and/or IB exams administered divided by the number of seniors while U.S. News and World Report’s methodology  sounds more complex, but basically boils down to the same thing.  U.S. News there are a couple of preliminary criteria schools must meet in order to have their “college readiness” index calculated.  They also have a factor that looks at the scores students receive on the exams, not just the  number of exams that are administered.

So the big question, is the number of AP/IB exams divided by the number of seniors an accurate measure of the best high schools in America? 

One of the positives to this ranking system is that the AP and IB exams are graded nationally and therefore a good way to compare students nationally.  Individual states have different exams to evaluate students and/or schools.  Due to differences in these assessments it is hard to compare schools nationally.

I guess one of the  problems I have with these ranking systems is that they favor schools with small senior classes.  Locally we have a charter school that gives a large number of AP exams.  The trick is that they also have a smaller senior class as many students choose to switch to larger high schools to get “the full high school experience”.  Since the senior class is smaller their “college readiness” score is higher (lots of juniors taking APs). 

There are some additional stats that are interesting  that make it fairly apparent that a school’s socioeconomic status is a large contributing factor. 

Is it really possible to determine the “Best High Schools in America”?  More likely there are some schools that are better for some students and others that are better for other students.  Of course the problem is knowing which school might be best for your kids.  Personally, the best school for my kids is their neighborhood school, but this is just our family’s opinion.  I have heard it said that 85% of
Americans believe that their kids’ schools  are doing a good job while at the same time 85% of Americans believe that our education system is in deep trouble.  Obviously, perception changes everything.

Please share your thoughts on these ranking systems.  What would you use for criteria if you had to rank schools?

AP and IB Scheduling Conflicts

There are many schools in the US that have both large Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.  These schools have the unique problem of working through scheduling exam conflicts between the two programs.

The AP Program has an alternate testing schedule in place while the IB programme does not.  For this reason, most schools with both programs will schedule students to take an alternate AP exam if the exam conflicts with an IB exam.  This means that the alternate AP exam (late testing) must be ordered.

The problem for these schools is identifying which students have exams that conflict.  Most schools do this by taking rosters from days with conflicts and cross checking all of the students  on any rosters that have exams at the same time.  This process is very tedious and time consuming.  In addition to being mind-numbing, this method of hand checking also leaves the possibility of a conflict not being identified.

IB schools who are using Total Registration to register students for AP exams now have a much better way to do this.  Total Registration’s AP Exam Registration Service has an option that allows schools with IB exams to have students indicate which IB exams they are taking.  With this information, Total Registration is able to run a conflict report at the click of a button.  All conflicts between the IB and AP exams can be found without hand checking exam rosters.  Finding conflicts has never been easier.  As in the past, all schools are able to find conflicts within the AP exams (a student with two exams at the same time on the same day) at the click of a button as well.  Since finding conflicts is so easy to do schools are able to do this in plenty of time to make arrangements for alternate testing.

Schools interested in simplifying the AP exam registration process can learn more at

Teaching Girls to Tinker…and Boys for That Matter

 I recently came across a summary of an article by Education Week, “Teaching Girls to Tinker” that got me thinking. 

While teaching science in both middle school and high school, it was clear that there was not a gender discrepancy in the way that girls and boys were taught and encouraged in both math and science.  At least there wasn’t bias in my class, school or district.  In fact, more often than not, the highest performers in my classes were female.  Our Advanced Placement classes usually had more girls than boys. But now looking out over the 1500 students I have taught, many more males went on to pursue careers in engineering and the sciences.   What causes this?

Girls Take Apart Computer

Teaching Girls to Tinker” proposes that the fact that girls don’t tinker could be responsible for this inequity.  I believe there is truth in this thought.  In general, boys are more likely to take things apart, albeit sometimes maliciously.  Boys are more likely to build forts, play with Legos, and Erector sets.  All these activities help build spacial reasoning and give the kids knowledge about how things work.  With this in mind, girls need to be encouraged to tinker.

Now for the thought that really scares me… kids in general don’t tinker anymore. They sit in front of the computer, X-box or TV; or every minute of their after-school time is scheduled with sports, music or dance (or in our case in Boulder: yoga!).   I grew up building forts and go-carts and taking things apart.  When I was in school, they offered wood shop, metal shop, auto mechanics, etc.  The days  where comprehensive high schools offer technical classes alongside college prep classes  and parents encourage their students to play outside seem to be gone.  Our kids’ lives are completely planned, with little room for tinkering.  My fear is that this will have long term ramifications for our society as our engineers are less experienced and  the people that know how to build and fix things die off. 

It is time that we encourage our kids to get outside, break things,  then fix them.  My seven year old son has been begging us to buy a car from the junkyard so that he can use the parts to build things.  Well, perhaps it is time for a trip to the junkyard, but only if his sister helps…

Airplane Junkyard

We might not have the space for the plane though!

The Confusing World of Weighted Grades.

As soon as the “ink” dried on my last post, Weighted Grades – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,  I read an article about how the University of Michigan is going stop re-calculating GPAs.  Apparently the differences are not big enough to justify the effort.  Give a point to the “grade grubbers”.