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At 50, AP Test Is Still Changing

College Board Seeks Ways to Foster Abstract Thinking

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; Page A10

The Advanced Placement test, close to surpassing the SAT as the most important exam for college-bound U.S. students, will undergo an adjustment designed to help change the way high school and introductory college courses are taught, College Board officials said yesterday.

The officials, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the AP program at a Washington news conference, said they are enlisting professors at 130 colleges known for the best teaching of introductory science, English and history. The teachers will help change AP course materials and tests to encourage more conceptual understanding and less memorization in both high schools and universities.

"We will be providing AP at its best, to enable more colleges to raise their own standards," said Trevor Packer, executive director of the AP program, which is owned by the College Board, the nonprofit organization that also owns the SAT.

College Board President Gaston Caperton, a former governor of West Virginia, described the rapid growth of what began in 1955 as a small program designed to keep students at exclusive private schools and affluent neighborhood high schools from having to repeat in college the advanced course work they studied in high school.

High school students who take AP courses in any of 34 subjects have a chance to earn college credit, or at least to skip introductory college courses, by doing well on one of the three-hour AP exams. In 2004, Caperton said, 1.1 million students took about 2 million AP tests, more than double the number 10 years ago. The number of AP test-takers rivals the 1.4 million seniors who took the SAT last year.

"When students are challenged in high school, they gain the confidence to go to college and succeed once there," Caperton said. He said that the program has succeeded in increasing minority student participation in the AP program and their success rate on the tests. This is particularly evident in states such as Florida that have spent heavily to pay the $82 test fee for students, lure more students into the courses and improve the training of AP teachers.

The AP program has become the most influential factor, along with the similar but smaller International Baccalaureate program, in the growing rigor of courses taken by the most ambitious high school students, many experts say. Taking at least a few AP or IB courses has become a virtual requirement for admission to the most selective colleges.

But the AP's growth has also brought criticism. Packer said that the move to make AP courses and tests more sophisticated was in part a response to a report suggesting such a change by the National Research Council, a nonprofit science and technology advisory group. Packer said the initial focus will be on U.S. history, English language, English literature and the four AP science courses -- biology, chemistry, physics and environmental science.

He said critics were wrong to say that AP tests forced AP teachers to cover too much material, given that a top AP score of 5 can be achieved by a student who misses most of the multiple-choice questions but does well on free-response questions that reward thought and analysis. But improving the courses and tests even more, he said, would encourage more colleges to lessen their own tendencies to reward memorization in introductory courses.

Caperton and Packer rejected suggestions -- including those in a fall 2003 article by William Casement in the journal Academic Questions -- that cutbacks in AP credit at some selective colleges, along with sustained AP scores despite the growth in test-takers, show that the program is losing rigor and credibility. The exams, Caperton said, "are more rigorous than ever before." The College Board, Packer said, has plenty of data to prove that.

In releasing the "Advanced Placement Report to the Nation" yesterday, the College Board said AP is changing the way it judges success by schools and districts. The traditional way has been to report what is often called the passing rate -- the percentage of AP tests that receive a grade of 3, 4 or 5, the equivalent of a college C, B or A, and are likely to earn college credit. AP officials said this method encouraged schools to let only their best students into AP courses so the schools would be guaranteed a high passing rate.

A new measuring stick, the report said, will motivate schools to enroll more students in the program, because studies suggest that an intense academic experience like AP in high school increases the chance that an average student, particularly from a minority group, will graduate from college. Schools, districts and states will now be told the percentage of all public high school seniors, including non-AP students, who had at least one AP grade of 3 or higher, the report said. Those figures, in turn, could provide a comparative measure of AP success.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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