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The AP arms race (San Francisco Chronicle) March 24, 2006

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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While we worry about nuclear proliferation in Iran and the extensive deployment of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in Iraq, there is another arms race in America’s high schools. Educators have dubbed it “the AP arms race.”

AP, or Advanced Placement, testing has exploded in recent years. It began 50 years ago as a small program to challenge a limited number of top high-school students to test out of introductory college courses into a more challenging curriculum. Today, it has mushroomed into a comprehensive scheme that drives decisions about both high-school curriculum and college admissions, while delivering a daily stress test to hundreds of thousands of high school students and their families.

President Bush recently elevated AP testing to the national policy stage, not only giving it a plug in his annual State of the Union address, but also proposing to spend more federal funds so that more teachers will teach, and more students will take, AP courses. Indeed, one of the linchpins of the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative is a fourfold increase in AP course enrollment in math and science over the next five years. Now the AP arms race is a federal priority.

At a time when America’s students seem to be underperforming their international peers, what could possibly be wrong with an educational program that is “advanced?” Well, a handful of educators finally are starting to ask that very question about Advanced Placement. Is a testing scheme designed to place top students in more challenging college courses really an appropriate tool to ratchet up the education of large numbers of high school kids? Is preparing students for largely multiple-choice tests the best way to design an advanced curriculum? Is taking a course earlier, in high school rather than in the freshman year of college, necessarily better? The AP arms race assumes that more is better.

More high-school students taking more AP tests makes principals happy, because their schools look better and it satisfies Baby Boomer parents whose kids seek admission to selective colleges. As a result, one-third of high-school graduates now take at least one AP course, twice as many as 10 years ago. The number of tests taken has tripled in the last decade, with a 59 percent increase in the number of students taking the tests in the last five years, according to the College Board.

In the headlong race for more, as a recent study for the National Center for Educational Accountability noted, AP courses are enrolling too many students who simply aren’t prepared. Even as public high schools seek to add more AP classes, a growing number of top private schools are dropping theirs. Why?

Because the standardized tests force teachers and students into a track race to memorize huge chunks of facts to pass the tests, rather than explore important topics in greater depth. As Rachel Stettler, formerly the principal of one school that dropped AP classes, put it, “They emphasize breadth over depth, and they’re content driven rather than focusing on developing skills like critical inquiry, discourse, or ways of approaching a text.”

Finally, colleges are also asking whether acceleration — taking a class earlier, in high school — is really better than enrichment. Another recent study, by two college professors, reports that science students who took AP courses were not significantly better prepared to handle introductory college classes than their non-AP peers. Colleges that used to hand out as much as a full year of college credit for these high-school courses and tests are wisely rethinking their policies.

The College Board, which produces the AP testing and curriculum, has its hands full right now with SAT tests that were scored incorrectly right on the eve of college-admission decisions. Once that crisis is past, I would urge these testing experts to do a little testing of their own AP program. I have a sense that, on its 50th birthday, AP has a midlife crisis that demands further study.

This article appeared on Page B-11.

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