Tammy Dunn, a recent Alabama teacher of the year, has an Advanced Placement biology class at Spain Park High School in Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham. Her daughter recently completed the introductory biology course at one of her state's largest and best undergraduate institutions. Dunn scoffs at the notion in my Dec. 14 column that AP courses in high school such as the one she teaches aren't as good as college introductory courses such as the one her daughter took.
Three hundred students showed up the first day of her daughter's college bio course and were told by the professor "they could choose whether to come to class or not -- her notes were on her Web site and class would be basically her reading over the PowerPoint presentation. She would not have any office hours," Dunn said in an e-mail. Students who needed help, the professor said, could go find one of the lab assistants.
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Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
"Meanwhile," Dunn said, "I am teaching, 100 minutes per day, college biology to my 19 high school students. We cover the entire textbook. Daily, I evaluate my students' understanding and give them regular feedback. They have VERY difficult examinations with multiple choice and free response answers. (My daughter only had multiple choice.) Ten of the 19 made a 5 [equivalent of a college A] on the AP exam, four made a 4, three made a 3, two made a 2."
"The thing I KNOW FOR SURE," she said, "all 19 of my students, even the two that made a 2, had such a richer opportunity for learning biology than did my daughter."
AP teachers like Dunn flooded my electronic basket with e-mails after that column, in which I presented the views of former college philosophy professor William Casement in his provocative article "Declining Credibility for the AP program" in the Fall 2003 issue of the journal Academic Questions. I also received messages from many other thoughtful people -- students, parents and college instructors -- involved in the growing debate over AP and International Baccalaureate, the major programs that can earn college credit for high school students.
I think this is a very useful discussion, and Casement's article -- although I disagree with it -- a very worthy topic, since AP and IB have had more to do with changes in American high schools in the past 20 years than any other part of the curriculum and are likely to supplant the SAT and ACT college admission tests as the most important examinations in America.
I want to summarize the responses I received -- not all of them in my favor -- and the interesting light they shone not only on flaws in the way our colleges teach undergraduates, but also on weaknesses in the AP program that even an AP cheerleader like me has to acknowledge. Casement has promised to send me his own rebuttal, which I will run it in this space next week.
The angriest of my e-mail correspondents were, of course, the AP high school teachers whom Casement characterized as inferior to college instructors in teaching the 34 different introductory college courses available through AP. Scores of at least 3 on AP tests can earn college credit. But, as Casement pointed out, some very selective colleges have decided that only 4s, and sometimes only 5s, will get credit from them. Casement found it suspicious that a program growing as fast as AP -- from 359,000 to a million test takers in just 13 years -- had only a slight drop in the average scores on the exams. (The College Board said it gives AP tests regularly to college students to check its standards.) Casement also said AP teachers cannot be as good as college instructors because only half of them have master's degrees.
My problem with Casement's argument was that he was asserting the superiority of college introductory courses, which good AP grades allow students to skip, without any systematic evidence, since colleges don't give their undergraduates standardized tests to see if they learned anything.
Casement has warned me several times against using anecdotal evidence, but until the colleges provide a comprehensive assessment of the courses he is so high on, that is all anybody has. And boy, do I have anecdotal evidence. Let me quote some e-mails:
Francis Olkowski taught a college statistics course for almost 30 years before taking a job at Hillsborough (N.J.) High School. "I cover more of the course in my high school AP course than I could ever cover in the college course," he said. "I go into more detail and explanation than I could ever do in college in three hours a week for 15 weeks. Now I am with my students four hours a week for 40 weeks. You do the math."
Peter C. Daniel, associate professor of biology at Hofstra University, graded AP biology tests for five years and grew to respect both the test and the high school teachers he met at the AP grading sessions. The three-hour AP test, he said, "is far more challenging than anything we would offer our students as a final exam. The essay questions and multiple choice questions are developed through a very thoughtful process by high school and college educators. The multiple choice questions are tested on college students. The essays are challenging because they require higher level thinking from students. If I gave the essay portion to my students virtually no one would pass except AP students who scored 4 or 5" because that kind of analysis is not usually required in introductory college biology courses.
Tom Berry, an AP calculus and AP statistics teacher at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, said he was one of the graduate assistants who did much of the teaching of introductory calculus at the University of Virginia and later probability at Johns Hopkins University. "Invariably, the AP courses I have either taught or witnessed have not only been more personal, but also more rigorous than the equivalent college courses I took as a student or taught as a teaching assistant," he said. "Not only am I far more invested in my students' learning and success than I was as a TA, but knowing that I have a national standard to meet helps to ensure that my course is as rigorous as possible."
Ann Marie White at Lake Braddock High School in Fairfax County, said, "I only had a few college honors classes that were as small as the AP chemistry classes I have taught, but never did I have a professor for 1.5 hours a day, every day, who was also willing to stay after hours and help me with any difficulties I might be having, as I do with my AP chemistry students."
Patrick W. Levens, executive director of high school education support for the Capistrano school district in southern California, contrasted the intro chemistry course at the University of California at Berkeley -- a lecture hall that seats 1,300 and a bevy of teaching assistants with no teaching credentials -- with the AP chemistry courses at his five high schools: "The class size is large, 34.5 to 1, but . . . gee, every one of the five teachers has an M.A. in physical science. More important, every student has full, complete access to these teachers before school, at lunch and after school in addition to the block schedule that runs two, 110-minute periods per week plus a regular 52 minute period on Mondays."
Most of the students and former students who wrote me about their AP and college experiences had a similar view. Todd Rhoads, a lawyer in San Diego, said the six AP teachers he had at Bowie High School in Prince George's County, were "far, far more engaging, caring, effective and simply BETTER teachers than almost any of the professors of introductory courses I took at the University of Maryland," where he graduated in 1997.
Josh Stager, a junior at George Washington University, said, "I learned and retained far more from my AP U.S. History class of five years ago than I did from an upper-level Greek history class with 50 students taken last year at GW."
Nick Giedris said he saw the contrast between AP calculus at his private high school in Houston and college calculus because he got only a 3 on the AP test and had to retake the course this year as a freshman at the College of William & Mary, one of the schools on Casement's list of those restricting AP credit. "First of all," he said, "the calculus course here didn't even cover all of the material that we learned in my calculus class last year -- material that was included in the AP exam. I went into this class at William and Mary expecting to broaden my knowledge on the subject and came out realizing I'd wasted my time."
Vladimir Jirinec said he had to fight to get credit for his AP and IB courses at his college, which he declined to identify, and had similar problems getting credit for introductory courses in graduate school that he had already taken. In frustration, he finally said to a dean, "Why do you have to be so stubborn and waste my time and money?"
Astonishingly, the dean replied with what Jirinec instantly recognized as an honest answer, which introduced a factor several readers chastised me for neglecting in my Dec. 14 column. "Because," the dean said, "we, as many other departments, are underfunded and we need to get as much of your money as possible. If we give you credit for courses that we teach in our department, then fewer students will take the courses. This leads to fewer teachers, which lead to less research, and finally a lower ranking and prestige."
"So basically," Jirinec concluded, "it's about money!"
The fiscal difficulties of running a modern university, and the effect on AP and IB credit, were described in several ways by readers. I have tried and failed for several years to get tight-lipped university officials to go on the record about this, so I cannot confirm the truth of what I was told. Short of a court-ordered series of lie detector tests, I don't know any way to prove that money worries lead universities to restrict AP and IB credit, but it has a certain plausibility. (Whatever the colleges fear, the College Board has a study showing students take MORE courses in departments where they have received AP credit.)
Tom Webster teaches freshman English at a large state university as an adjunct, or part-time, instructor. He said although he works hard for his students, the quality of intro course instruction is liable to suffer when the job is handed to people like him who make $2,700 a semester to teach 24 composition students for 14 weeks. "And I spent the first $100 of it on a parking permit," he said.
Howard Reisner, professor of pathology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he thinks his university picks introductory course teachers very carefully, but for reasons that may buttress the notion that such courses are cash fountains that might be dried up by too many college-level offerings in high school.
"Introductory courses that fill the lecture halls are critical to departmental funds," Reisner said. "So if you are a non-overwhelmingly popular department you try very hard to pack in the intro courses. And of course this is another reason not to love AP courses."
There was one college course, however, that several readers, both students and professors, said was often better than the AP alternative. That was writing. The two AP English courses, one in language and composition and one in literature, do not focus on writing as much as the freshman composition courses that some colleges insist on to spare graders of papers and exams from gibberish. This is the one instance where even some big universities try to keep the classes small, so the instructors have time to tear down and rebuild the typically vague, verbose and vacuous essays of 18 year olds.
Many universities allow students to skip freshman composition with a 4 or a 5 in AP English, however. Katie Lander, a graduate student in plant biology at Michigan State, said she is happy in retrospect that when she was an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, even her 5 in AP did not exempt her from the school's intro writing seminar. "The level of writing that was acceptable for the AP test was much lower than the level acceptable in college," she said. "My ability to write clear, concise, informative essays was much improved after the college level writing class."
Scott Stevens, who teaches writing at Western Washington University, said, "Many of our students enter our first-year writing class convinced they don't belong there since they only missed the AP cutoff by one point. By the end of only ten weeks, most of them not only say how different this is from high school, . . . but also how glad they are they had to take a course they thought they didn't need."
How well this works depends on the college, which is the point. I am trying to convince Casement that instead of worrying about the credibility of what is clearly the highest and most credible standard in secondary education, AP, he should turn his considerable energy and intelligence toward encouraging a similarly credible and challenging standard for college introductory courses, since they have no such thing at the moment. And to his credit, he supports such an effort.
It would also be good to explore the possibility of more flexibility when deciding when an AP course is as good as a college course, and when it isn't. Casement's article mentions about 20 selective colleges that have tightened their standards for AP credit. Given the quality of those schools, perhaps some of their introductory courses are better than AP. Let's be generous and extend that hypothetical seal of approval to 10 times as many schools -- 200 undergraduate institutions that are the most selective in the land.
Casement said many of those schools are small, and he is right. I did the arithmetic and found that those top 200 have no more than 10 percent of all the college students in the country. We can conclude from that that the vast majority of AP students are seeking credit from the vast majority of colleges and universities who are not so selective and whose intro courses are less likely to meet the AP standard, and indeed, unlike AP, are tied to no national standard at all. Taking those college courses may indeed be a waste of time for students who had a good AP or IB experience in high school.
With so much uncertainty about what the colleges are offering, when deciding who gets credit and who does not it seems to me wrong to lay down strict rules against AP or IB credit, as the colleges Casement identified have done. Instead, why not examine the high school record of each student, the content of the course he or she wants to skip, and let the student make an informed decision.
I got this idea from Chris Takacs, a senior systems architect living in Fairfax County who passed five AP tests in high school but used just one to skip a freshman course at U-Va. "Colleges would serve students better by educating them on the impact of opting out rather than restricting their ability to do it," he said. "Opting out may allow them to skip boring or wasted courses, giving them access to much more interesting ones, or it may separate them from their peers and place them in a much more challenging position while they still have to get used to the college environment."
"There is still some middle ground to be explored," he said. "Certainly students should be given the choice."
I agree, but the argument is far from over, and as AP and IB enrollments continue to rise, we ought to straighten this out.